March 30, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

The Return of the Budget-Slashers

Here we go again.

No sooner, it seems, did agriculture development spending fairly well survive the budget slashing for 2011 and 2012 then it is under attack again in the 2013 deliberations.  The House yesterday, working along party lines, passed a budget plan which nakedly proposes to kill the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative.

The plan, crafted by the House budget committee chaired by Paul Ryan, includes a paragraph titled “Eliminate Feed the Future.”  It says:

“Initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, Feed the Future aims to end global food insecurity through investments in nutrition and agriculture abroad.  While addressing the issues of poverty and malnutrition around the globe is important, the U.S. Government’s fiscal condition does not permit the expansion of U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, especially ones that overlap with existing programs.  The United States currently has two other major food aid programs: Food for Peace (the primary food aid account) and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.  Both of these aid programs address global food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries, including through agricultural development efforts.  This budget reflects a need to consolidate our food air programs in order to eliminate associated costs with mission redundancy.”

This is wrong on so many levels, factually, logically, morally.

Factually.  There is really no overlap between Feed the Future and the “two other major food aid programs.”  Feed the Future is not another food aid program; in fact, it is the opposite.  It is an agricultural development program designed to create the conditions for poor smallholder farmers to grow more of their own food so food aid isn’t needed in the first place.  Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole may incorporate some agricultural development efforts, but they aren’t the primary focus of those programs and they aren’t as broad and targeted as Feed the Future.

Logically.  If the House Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget plan really want to reduce food aid costs, they would line up solidly behind Feed the Future, because it will do that budget cutting work for them.  The world’s smallholder farmers, ironically, are some of the main recipients of food aid.  Because of the neglect of agricultural development efforts over the past three decades, these farmers struggle mightily to feed their families.  The yields of Africa’s smallholder farmers are less than one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S., and much of what they do grow goes to waste because of poor storage facilities.  If Feed the Future is successful, the harvests of the smallholder farmers will grow in size and nutritional quality and they will become self-sufficient.  The need, and thus the cost, for food aid, will shrink substantially.

The budget slashers say this is the absolute wrong time to be expanding foreign aid for programs like Feed the Future.  In fact, it is absolutely the right time.  The Obama budget is requesting about $1 billion in fiscal 2013 for Feed the Future.  Cut that and you won’t see the multi-trillion dollar deficit-reduction needle move one bit.  But invest that, and the savings will accumulate year after year as the chronic need for food aid declines.

Also, this is precisely the right time to begin addressing the great global challenge facing us: the need to nearly double food production by 2050 to meet the demand of an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population.  The smallholder farmers growing as much food as they can are indispensable to any success.  If we don’t start tackling this challenge now, then when?  Feed the Future is a key part of the momentum building around the need to reverse the neglect of agricultural development; it is building in corporations, foundations, humanitarian organizations and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.  All those allies – including other governments – who have joined the administration in marching forward in the fight against hunger would now likely join us in retreat.

Morally.  Eliminating Feed the Future would indicate that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in a great humanitarian challenge, a role it once relished in the times of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution.  Feed the Future has been emerging as one of the prime examples of the deployment of American “soft power” abroad; it puts the American people shoulder-to-shoulder with the smallholder farmers in their efforts to feed and educate their children.  I spent much of last year with farmers in western Kenya seeing how agriculture development can be a transforming agent in ending hunger and reducing poverty.  Their efforts are chronicled in the book, The Last Hunger Season, due out in May.

The Ryan budget proposal is also a retreat in the domestic fight against hunger.  It would cut 17% of food stamp spending, a heavy blow to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  Overall, the majority of the budget cuts would come from low income programs.

Last year, similar attempts were largely thwarted by the actions of many in the humanitarian community who formed a “circle of protection” around these domestic low income and foreign aid programs.  They stressed that the budget is a moral document, and shouldn’t seek to reduce the deficit on the backs of the poor and hungry.

That cry is rising again, the circle of protection is reforming.  The budget slashers may believe that their attack on foreign aid and domestic assistance programs is a far-sighted move.  But here they are wrong again.  For in terms of addressing the growing hunger problem both at home and abroad and the looming challenge of feeding the future, it is horribly short-sighted.

Archive

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Lunchtime in Uganda

Senior Fellow Roger Thurow reports on nutrition in northern Uganda for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.




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The Last Hunger Season, Part 4 – One Acre Fund’s Disruptive Thinking

It is Africa’s cruelest irony that her hungriest people are her smallholder farmers. For decades, development orthodoxy had prioritized feeding hungry farmers with emergency food aid rather than improving their farming with long-term agriculture development aid so they wouldn’t be hungry in the first place.


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The Last Hunger Season, Part 2 – A Day in the Life of Africa’s Family Farmers

On her farm at the foot of the Lugulu Hills in western Kenya, Leonida Wanyama is up long before the sun. Her day begins by lighting a candle and a kerosene lamp, and then milking her one cow. She pours the milk in containers and balances them on the back of a rickety bicycle. Then her husband Peter peddles off into the pre-dawn darkness, in search of customers for the milk. Leonida picks up her hoe to prepare for a morning of tending her crops in the field.

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The Last Hunger Season, Part 1 – The Expanding Possibilities of Family Farmers

Zipporah Biketi was living in a shrinking world when I first met her back in 2011. Her imagination rarely stretched beyond the boundaries of her small family farm in western Kenya. She could barely think beyond the next hour and the next meal, if there was to be one. She and her family were in the midst of the hunger season – the food from the previous meager harvest had run out and the next harvest was still months away. How could anyone have grand thoughts of thriving when struggling so mightily to merely survive?





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How Guatemala Finally 'Woke up' to Its Malnutrition Crisis

In a hip Guatemala City restaurant, baristas created “Super Nutritious” drinks like the Sangre de Vampiro, a mixture of pineapple, celery, beets, lemon, orange juice and organic honey. Elsewhere in the restaurant, the subject of malnutrition was on the table.



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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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Books

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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EnoughEnough

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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