December 3, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Food Is the Foundation

This week in Cancun, international negotiators have been consumed with climate change.  And on Dec. 1, all around the world, red ribbons were out in force for World AIDS Day.

Which gives us a chance to shout again: Why Not Hunger?

For these two prominent campaigns – mitigating the impact of climate change and conquering AIDS – can’t be considered successful without lessening hunger as well.  Food is the foundation of both of these efforts.

On climate change, success will depend on creating conditions so those who likely will be the most impacted by higher temperatures and more frequent and extreme weather events – the small farmers of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – can still feed their families and make a living from agriculture.

This link should be unmistakable to the negotiators at the Cancun Climate Summit.  “Ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support climate change adaptation is vital.  Similarly ambitious action, however, is needed to ensure sustainable food production systems that improve the livelihoods of poor communities – the first victims of climate change,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said.  He urged the negotiators to “consider climate and agricultural policies together to effectively address climate change and its disastrous impact on the right to food.”

A new report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, “Food Security, Farming and Climate Change to 2050, Scenarios, Results, Policy Options,” points to harbingers of a troubled future for global food security, including this year’s floods in Pakistan and excessive heat and drought in Russia.  Climate change, the report says, adds further pressure to the daunting-enough challenge of doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demands of a global population that is both growing in numbers and in prosperity.

“Because food production is critically dependent on local temperature and precipitation conditions, any changes require farmers to adapt their practices, and this adaptation requires resources that could be used for other purposes. Farmers everywhere will need to adapt to climate change. For a few, the changes might ultimately be beneficial, but for many farmers our analysis points to major challenges to productivity and more difficulties in managing risk. The agricultural system as a whole will have difficulty supplying adequate quantities of food to maintain constant real prices. And the challenges extend further: to national governments, to provide the supporting policy and infrastructure environment; and to the global trading regime, to ensure that changes in comparative advantage translate into unimpeded trade flows to balance world supply and demand.”

IFPRI’s report, with its innovative climate modeling, drives home the point that “neither food security nor climate change should be viewed in isolation.”

On AIDS, Joe Mamlin, an Indiana University doctor partnering with Moi University in western Kenya, was among the first to recognize nearly a decade ago that AIDS treatment couldn’t be viewed in isolation of food security.  In his clinics, he saw that the anti-retroviral drugs that were finally, triumphantly reaching Africa weren’t having the intended “Lazarus effect” in hungry, malnourished bodies.

Our book ENOUGH, recounts Dr. Mamlin’s work with Salina Rotich, a patient who wasn’t improving despite the drugs; in fact, her health was deteriorating.

“Stumped, Dr. Mamlin threw out an idle question: ‘Salina, what have you been eating?’

“Nothing,” the patient said weakly.  She was living alone, she explained.  Her five children had left home to be cared for by other relatives.  She was too ill to work to earn money and too weak to till her fields to grow her own food.  Her cupboards were bare.

Nothing?!  Salina’s answer was both stunning and revelatory to the doctor.  “Of course,” he told himself in his eureka moment, “the AIDS drugs won’t work for hungry, malnourished patients.”  In fact, the drugs were so potent they could actually do more harm than good in a malnourished body.

It should have been an obvious observation, not only for Dr. Mamlin but for everyone working in the AIDS field.  After all, for years back home in Indiana, Dr. Mamlin had been dispensing the standard doctor’s advice when prescribing medicine: Take with food.  Yet the obvious had been obscured in the furious scramble to attack AIDS in Africa.  In 2002, international treatment protocols made no mention of feeding AIDS patients.  The focus was on getting affordable drugs into Africa, and accelerating efforts to develop a vaccine.

….What emerged, the Academic Model for Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS, or AMPATH, was the first and most comprehensive food-and-drug treatment program in Africa.  Dr. Mamlin’s formula: Distribute food to patients on the anti-retrovirals for the first six months while the medicine gets them back on their feet.”

It took awhile for the globally accepted AIDS treatment protocol to include food and nutrition and to catch up with what Dr. Mamlin had been seeing in his clinics: you can’t truly defeat AIDS without conquering hunger.

It’s simple common sense, which we need to apply to all development efforts.  “I take it as a given that food is good,” Dr. Mamlin told me in Kenya, repeating a philosophy he often shared with his colleagues.  “At the end of the day, when in doubt, I’ll feed the hungry.”


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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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