August 3, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Let's Keep the Focus This Time

Are we paying attention now? The shriveled corn and wilting beans and severely parched soil of the U.S. farm belt are trying to tell us something: focus on the global food chain.

More than half of U.S. counties have been declared disaster areas as the drought chokes the farm belt. On the nightly news, we see the food supply shrink. In the grocery stores, we watch the food prices rise. Take heed, Mother Nature is warning us: tend to agricultural development.

Or else. Turbulence in the food chain will become the new normal; perhaps it already has. We first noticed this five years ago, when shortages of the main staples and subsequent rising prices triggered riots in dozens of countries in the developing world. The ranks of the hungry swelled. Global food stockpiles fell to their lowest levels in decades, and prices rose to their highest levels ever. In the U.S., the escalating grocery bills prompted a flash of panic because for so long we had enjoyed the comfort of a long era of reasonably low, stable prices.

A flurry of corrective activity ensued. The World Bank called for an about face of the disastrous policies that ignored agricultural development. President Obama, new to office, focused the minds of world leaders to prioritize “global food security” – riots and turbulent prices will do that — and his administration began to form Feed the Future, an initiative designed to reduce hunger and strengthen the global food chain through agricultural development, particularly among the smallholder farmers of Africa whose yields were far below potential.

And then… And then, things stabilized. Prices came off their highs and we seemed to get comfortable with at a new plateau of food costs. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

That’s what we also thought after Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his pioneering work developing new strains of wheat that led to the Green Revolution. The Nobel committee hailed Dr. Borlaug for cutting the “Gordian knot,” for relieving the doomsday scenario that the planet, with an increasing population, would run out of food. The world congratulated Dr. Borlaug and slapped itself on the back. Well done, problem solved. But Dr. Borlaug knew better. He warned us to pay attention, not to lose focus, to continue investments in agricultural development, to help farmers around the world, especially the smallholders in the poorest of countries, to be as productive as possible. If we turned our back on this, if we permit future famines and allow hunger to persist, he said, “We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation.”

And yet…

And yet, there are those, plenty in number, who still aren’t paying attention, who call for the elimination of Feed the Future and other initiatives to secure the global food chain. Such wrongheadedness is right there in a budget proposal that came out of the House of Representatives earlier this year. Agricultural development is too expensive at a moment of budget cutting, it was said. This isn’t the right time to begin such programs, it was proclaimed.

If the hunger crisis in east Africa last year or the suffering in West Africa this year hasn’t grabbed our attention in the U.S., maybe the drought in our own farm belt will. As the members of Congress head home for summer and the campaign trail, they will surely get an earful of advice from their constituents. And, hopefully, they will also behold the shriveled ears of corn and pay attention to what they are saying.


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A Wondrous Journey

Cruising down I-80 in the summer is one of the most wondrous, and paradoxical, drives in the country.

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1,000 Days and Migrant Stress

The first 1,000 days of a child's life is a critical time for development, where nutrition--and stability--lay the foundation for a lifetime. 

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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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