July 27, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

From AIDS to Agriculture

As we have heard during this week’s international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.

At that time, there were only about 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the life-saving drug therapy.  By last year, thanks to the work of a global alliance attacking AIDS, that number had soared to an estimated 6.2 million.  There is much work still to be done; barely half the people in need of treatment in Africa are receiving it, and there were still more than 300,000 pediatric HIV infections last year.  But the progress spurred by PEPFAR over the past decade is a remarkable achievement; it stands as a cornerstone of America’s global health programs and a pillar of the nation’s foreign policy.

Now there is another presidential initiative that holds the potential of achieving another set of remarkable results in Africa.  President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future initiative seeks to end hunger through increasing investment in agricultural development, particularly for the vast legion of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of the neglect of agricultural development over the past four decades, these farmers are woefully behind, producing only one-tenth to one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the rich world.  They are often unable to grow enough to feed their families throughout the year.  As a result, they and their children endure the misery of an annual hunger season.  Hungry farmers – what a horrible oxymoron.

Feed the Future aims to reverse this neglect by boosting investment in agricultural development on a wide front – African governments and donor countries, the private sector and philanthropic foundations and humanitarian agencies – and across a broad range of endeavors, from seed research to crop storage.  Promises to do so have been made from the G8 countries and from the G20 assembly and from a chorus of CEOs.  President Obama has called for an “all hands on deck” effort.

Particularly critical is fostering smallholder farmer access to the essential elements of farming that for so long have been beyond their reach: better quality seeds, soil nutrients, training, financing, improved storage facilities.  Just as access to treatment has been critical in the fight against AIDS, so is access to these basics of agriculture critical to conquering hunger.  Just as with the “Lazarus effect” of AIDS medication, these farming innovations can transform lives from barely surviving to robustly thriving.  ONE’s appropriately named Thrive campaign calls on African leaders, donor governments and the private sector to implement smart agriculture and nutrition plans that can move tens of millions of smallholder farm families out of extreme poverty and hunger.

Central to this movement is that Feed the Future and U.S. leadership to end hunger through agricultural development become a cornerstone of American policy no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress.  Here, PEPFAR’s path to a unity of purpose is instructive.

After President Bush announced his initiative in early 2003, it was embraced and authorized by Congress in an unusual display of bipartisan support.  When the president signed into law the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act of 2003, it was hailed as the largest commitment by any nation to an international health initiative.  In 2008, with another burst of political unity, PEPFAR was reauthorized by Congress.  And the Obama administration has continued to make it a centerpiece of the nation’s development work.

Feed the Future is worthy of similar bipartisan support and unity of purpose.  It can stand alongside PEPFAR as an example of what America does in the face of crisis and great need.  There would be no political bickering over agricultural development spending, no calls from budget cutters (as can be heard now) to eliminate the program.  It is that important to improving vast numbers of lives in the developing world.  And it is that important to all our lives as well, as demands increase on the world food supply, be they from a growing global population or from extreme weather conditions ruining harvests from Indiana to India.  It is very clear: If the smallholder farmers of Africa succeed, so might we all.

Then another international conference can convene in Washington to hail the progress on agricultural development: the number of rural families who moved from dire poverty, the decrease in stunting from malnutrition, the emergence of food powers in Africa.  The last hunger season would finally be at hand.


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Outrage and Inspire with Roger Thurow - Am I About to Lose My Second Child, Too?

The latest podcast in our ongoing series with Roger Thurow. Hear how even the best nutrition projects can be undermined by bad water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and lousy infrastructure.  From northern Uganda, we hear a mother’s agony when her healthy, robust child suddenly falls ill after a few sips of water…unclean water, it turned out.

Roger Thurow on SDG 2.2

Roger Thurow sat down with Farming First to talk about the individual and societal consequences of malnutrition. 




Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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