December 20, 2013

Meet the Experts: Roger Thurow - Making the impossible possible

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is the author of “The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change” and “ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.” Follow him on Twitter at @RogerThurow.

You were based in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the transition to a post-apartheid society began. What is Nelson Mandela’s legacy?

I think a large part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be seen in what is yet to come.  We will see in coming years how people act on the inspiration he provided.  My favorite Mandela-ism is this: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  Mandela himself was the embodiment of this quote.  It always seemed impossible that he would be released from prison during his life -- and then, after 27 years, it happened.  This should inspire all of us facing difficult challenges and prod us to make the impossible possible.  I think this is particularly applicable in the push to end hunger and extreme poverty.  The problem of hunger seems to be so huge.  It always seems impossible.  Until…  So let this be our New Year’s Resolution: Let us do all that we can to end hunger in our time.  Let’s make the impossible possible!

The end of apartheid was one of the big stories you covered during your 30 years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa.  What motivated you to switch careers and focus on global hunger issues as a senior fellow at The Chicago Council?

It was the Ethiopian famine of 2003.  It was the first famine of the 21st Century…14 million people were on the doorstep of starvation, being kept alive by international food aid.  How had we, with all our great advances in science and technology, brought hunger with us into the new millennium?  After all those years of wandering from place to place, from story to story as a foreign correspondent, this was one story I couldn’t simply walk away from.  There, in Ethiopia, I found my true passion, my calling, as a journalist.  Hunger in the 21st Century was the only story I wanted to write about.  And this is what I do now at The Chicago Council, raising the clamor about hunger in our time and what we can do about it. You can also watch my TEDx talk to learn more about the Ethiopian famine and the power of smallholder farmers in Africa.

You travel all over the world speaking with smallholder farmers.  What are some of the challenges and struggles facing these farmers?

It is the world’s cruelest irony that the hungriest people on our planet are smallholder farmers.  Try as they might – and they do try mightily – they often aren’t able to grow enough food to feed their families throughout the year.  They endure an annual hunger season.  Their greatest challenge to ending the hunger season is obtaining affordable access to the essential elements of farming: seeds, soil nutrients, micro-financing, extension advice, proper storage, markets.  They also struggle against a common perception, especially in the rich world, that smallholder farmers are too poor, too remote, too insignificant to be worthy of our attention and to be considered as worthy clients.  In fact, these farmers who have for so long been neglected are now essential to the sustainability of our global food chain.  We need them, and all farmers in the world, to be growing as much nutritious food as possible.

Why did you decide to focus on smallholder farmers in your last book, “The Last Hunger Season”?

I wanted to create as intimate-as-possible portrait of the lives of smallholder farmers and thereby help to reverse the global neglect of them.  In the narrative of the lives of four farmers in western Kenya, we see their potential – how they can succeed in ending their hunger seasons.  And we see how their success is important to all of us.  I hope readers gain a better understanding and appreciation of how these smallholder farmers make decisions on how to utilize their limited resources to provide the best education and nutrition for their children – the very same things we in the rich world hold so dear.

You are now working on a new writing project?

It is about the 1,000 days from the time a woman becomes pregnant to the second birthday of her child.  This is perhaps the most important period of human development, for this is the time when any shock of malnutrition can cause cognitive and physical stunting with detrimental life-long impacts on education and income.  You can learn more about this project at our website,

You spend a lot of time talking with high school and college students during your book tour.  What are some activities and programs that students can participate in to help farmers and the hungry in the world?

I love speaking with students because they are eager to get busy changing the world…to make the impossible possible.  I tell them that whatever they are studying, whatever their interests are, they can apply it to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  Be it business, or engineering, or computer science, or anthropology, or architecture, or theology, or geology, or law, or medicine, or philosophy, or journalism.  There’s important work for you to do.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

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International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

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One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


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