April 2, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

The Hungry Can't Eat Words

A blunt reminder of the task at hand came from Europe this week, aimed at the powers-that-be in the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, also known as the G8:

“Declarations, commitments and speeches don’t feed hungry people.”

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agriculture Development, was speaking to more than 1,000 researchers, policymakers, farmers, donors and humanitarians from around the world gathered in Montpellier, France.  The participants in the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development assembled to tell the G8 leaders – from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Russia — that it was time to put their declarations, commitments and speeches about attacking hunger through agriculture development into action.

Nwanze’s broadside reminded me of a plea from a speaker at an earlier conference on the future of African agriculture, this one back in 2004.  The official from a West African agriculture ministry rose to say he was tired of attending such conferences in splendid convention centers.  It was time, he said, that they all gathered in the fields of Africa to see how such fine words were turning into food.  It was actions that counted, he said, not words.

The G8 is famous for its fine words.  Last July, at their summit in L’Aquila, Italy, the G8 leaders issued a lofty statement saying, “There is an urgent need for decisive action to free humankind from hunger and poverty.  Food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture must remain a priority issue on the political agenda.”  They pledged $22 billion to that effort.

As the number of chronically hungry in the world has soared past one billion this year, those gathered in Montpellier urged the G8 to get moving on that priority and deliver on those pledges.  The main focus in France: revitalize research aimed at helping the world’s small farmers, who also are, ironically, the world’s hungriest and poorest people.

Desperate numbers provided a dire backdrop to the proceedings: Agriculture development aid from the rich world to the poorest countries had plummeted from a peak of 17% of all aid in 1979, during the zenith of the Green Revolution, to a low of just 3.5% in 2004.  In absolute terms, agriculture development aid shrunk to about $3 billion in 2005 from $8 billion in 1984.

The results of this negligence have been devastating: Africa’s agricultural research institutions are in shambles, rural infrastructure is crumbling, soils are barren, seeds are weak, markets are dysfunctional.

The conference stressed the importance of reviving the continent’s research capabilities, especially in the areas of soil, seeds, water use, adapting to climate change, and crop diversity to achieve greater nutrition.  And it said these efforts should be focused on women, who, according to a conference report, account for as much as 80% of Africa’s food production but receive only 5% of agricultural extension training and 10% of rural credit.  Only a quarter of agricultural researchers in Africa are women, and very few of them are in research management.

“We need action, action, action, and abolition, not alleviation, of poverty,” said Uma Lele, a former senior adviser to the World Bank and lead author of the conference report, Transforming Agricultural Research for Development.  The report says that just to make up for the past underinvestment will require agriculture research investments more than double or triple current levels.  “We need for donors to make the contributions that I know they are capable of making.”

This was a sharp prod to the G8 leaders, who will be meeting again in late June, this time in Canada.  (Rather they should be meeting in the fields of Africa, to see the meager harvest – so far – of their fine words.)  While they have often talked at these sessions about aiding Africa, the present escalation of hunger and the challenge to world agriculture is injecting new urgency.  Estimates are coming from several quarters that the world will need to nearly double food production by 2050 to deal with increasing population (from 6 billion to 9 billion) and increasing prosperity of formerly hungry places like China and India.  We continue to ignore the potential of Africa’s farmers to make a great contribution to global food production at our collective peril.

Those gathered in Montpellier wanted to make sure that the writing on the wall is unmistakable.

“Millions of people around the world are enduring lives of hardship and misery today.  We are collectively and personally responsible for this tragedy,” said Dr. Monty Jones, an African scientist who developed a new strain of rice and was awarded the World Food prize in 2004.  Despite such advances, he said, the world should have achieved far more.  Swelling with emotion as he contemplated the one billion hungry, he added: “I am personally ashamed.”

Dr. Jones summoned the spirit of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa seed breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution who died last fall at the age of 95, still trying mightily to bring the revolution to African agriculture.  After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug warned that his and future generations would be judged harshly if they didn’t keep up the pace of agriculture development to defeat hunger.

“We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines,” Dr. Borlaug prophesied.  “Humanity cannot tolerate that guilt.”

To that burden of negligence, Dr. Jones and the others at Montpellier shouted, “Enough.”


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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.

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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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