July 15, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Taking It to (and from) the Farmers

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Countervailing winds have been blowing across the global efforts to reduce hunger through agriculture development.

Here in the Ethiopian capital, scientists, humanitarians and politicians from across the continent and around the world gathered this week at a symposium titled “Taking it to the farmer.”  They were honoring Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, by putting into action what we are told were his final words before he died last year: “Take it to the farmer.”  They plotted new – and renewed – efforts to help Africa’s small farmers grow more food to feed their families and sell on the markets.  Improving soil health, boosting university research, empowering women farmers, nurturing commercial seed companies, strengthening extension services to advise farmers of the latest technology, and developing markets were highlighted as some of the keys to sparking a Green Revolution in Africa.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. capital, politicians were busy taking it away from the farmers.  In crafting the fiscal year 2011 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs cut President Obama’s request to fund elements of his Feed the Future program.  The markup includes $1 billion for agriculture and food security programs, $300 million less than the president’s request.  The cuts also included $258 million from the request to fund the brand new global agriculture fund (known as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, or GAFSP).  The request was for $408 million for the fund; the markup was for just $150 million. The whittling was continuing in the Senate.

Yes, the $1 billion total is still $112 million above the 2010 enacted level.  And yes, budgets are tight during the financial crisis.

But these cuts eat away at the burgeoning ambitions of the Obama administration to rally an international assault on hunger through agriculture development.  The GAFSP was just launched in April with $880 million in initial commitments from the U.S., Canada, South Korea, Spain and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Moving quickly, the fund announced just a few weeks ago that five developing countries – Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Togo, Bangladesh and Haiti – will receive the fund’s first grants totaling $224 million.  The donors hailed the announcement as demonstrating “the commitment of the international community to forge a strong, swift and coordinated response against global food insecurity.”

Then, in short order, came the proposed appropriations cuts.  What does this say to America’s partners in the fund about the commitment of U.S. leadership?  Will this leave the innovative project GASPFing for life, starved for financing just as it is beginning to take off?

I was in Rwanda when those first grants were announced.  The $50 million for Rwanda provided a burst of confidence and momentum in the country’s large-scale hillside terracing and water harvesting project.  It is a top priority of the Rwandan government’s strategy to reduce erosion of precious top soil, boost agriculture production and end years of dependency on food aid.

A legion of farmers were attacking the steep hillsides, forming a series of broad terraces to increase the amount of flat arable land.  You could see a glimpse of the vision of the Feed the Future program, how it was extending a helping hand to an African government taking a new project to the farmers.

At the Borlaug symposium, there was disquiet that now the other hand was taking away.  One overriding conviction of those assembled was that multiplying the productivity of Africa’s farmers will be vital if the world is to nearly double food production by 2050 to meet the demands of an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, world population.

This not the time to get cheap, nor is this the project to shortchange.


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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.

» Learn more.
» 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.

Learn more »

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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