February 17, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Mr. Xi Goes to Iowa

Those were interesting photos from the dusty archives that appeared in various newspapers and TV reports this week, pictures of a visitor from China inspecting hogs, vegetable farms and grain processing facilities in Iowa back in 1985.  It became downright fascinating when it turned out that visitor, Xi Jinping, was now returning to the U.S., and to Iowa, as the vice president of China.  Oh, and he is presumed to be China’s next president.

Xi knows farming – he had first come to Iowa as a Communist Party leader to study farming practices that could help his agriculture region back home.  And he knows the importance of increasing food production for his country and for the entire world.

This raises the tantalizing possibility of China becoming a top ally in the U.S. push to end hunger through agriculture development.  The two countries have deep differences on a number of issues, but this may be one on which they can agree: creating the conditions for the world’s smallholder farmers, particularly those in Africa, to be as productive as possible.  It would be good for those farmers – among the poorest and hungriest people on the planet – and good for all of us.  For those smallholder farmers are indispensable if we are to conquer the greatest challenge facing the world over the next couple of decades: nearly doubling food production by 2050 to meet the demand of a population that is growing in both size and prosperity.

Earlier this year, we reported on China’s first white paper on foreign aid.  It was clear in that document that agriculture development, particularly in Africa, was a top Chinese focus.  “China makes agriculture, rural development and poverty reduction in developing countries priorities of its foreign aid,” the white paper stated.  It talked about building farms and agro-technology demonstration centers, constructing irrigation and water-harvesting systems, supplying agriculture machinery and farm implements, dispatching agriculture experts to spread knowledge of new technologies, and providing agricultural training in the recipient countries.

And the paper said this: “China has been increasing its aid for agriculture and grain production in particular.  In recent years, food security has become a global issue.”


In a way, it sounded like China’s version of President Barack Obama’s Feed the Future Initiative, which seeks to end hunger by working with developing country governments to improve their agriculture systems.  Obama has championed this cause from his very first days in office, prodding his fellow G8 leaders to adopt their own Food Security Initiative three years ago.  And he’ll have another prime opportunity to advance agriculture development when he hosts the G8 meeting in Chicago in May.

But beyond that set of world leaders (which doesn’t include China), a U.S.-China partnership could strike a mighty blow against hunger.  The two countries are the leading agriculture producers in the world.  They are competitors and also trading partners.  Together they could drive agriculture development in lands far beyond their borders by sharing efforts in research, education and investments.

After Xi returned to the site of his first visit, Muscatine, Iowa, he moved on to Des Moines for the initial U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium, accompanied by Han Changfu, China’s agriculture minister.  There, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack zeroed in on the possibilities.

“First, we have responsibility and opportunity to work together to address the causes of global hunger that affect more than 925 million people,” Vilsack said.  “Current population trends mean we must increase agricultural production by 70% by 2050 to feed more than 9 billion people.  I look forward to strengthening partnerships with China to support agricultural productivity in nations where far too many millions go hungry.  The expertise, technical know-how, research and combined will of our two nations can go a long way to filling empty stomachs and improve incomes and economies around the world.”

For inspiration, they were meeting at the headquarters of the World Food Prize, which was established by Norman Borlaug, an Iowa native who became the father of the Green Revolution.  In that building are tributes to the World Food Prize laureates who have dedicated themselves to ending hunger through agricultural development.

Borlaug was adamant about the necessity of government leadership and cooperation in spurring the production of more — and more nutritious — food.  Perhaps surrounded by his aura in the building that stands as a monument to agricultural development, the seeds of a new alliance to end hunger were sown.


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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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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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