Two completely different conversations about food are taking place around the world. One is among the well-fed, who ask themselves, "What should I eat?" The other is among the underfed, who wonder, "How can I keep from starving?"
Christians influence these two conversations significantly, according to Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, authors of Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty(Public Affairs). They believe Christians should better understand that most cases of malnutrition and chronic hunger and nearly all starvation can be prevented if the right reforms are put into place. Rob Moll, an editor at large for Christianity Today, recently interviewed Thurow, now a senior fellow with the Chicago Council of Global Affairs.
Why use moral and theological language in a mainstream book about world hunger?
There's the political side of hunger and a policy prism. But there is this moral imperative to solving hunger. It's the right thing to do. Churches are extremely important for pushing the moral importance of the issue of hunger. It is something appreciated and understood in churches, since one of the main precepts of all religions is to feed the hungry. And for Christians, Matthew 25:35, there it is: "I was hungry and you gave me food … What you did to the least of these my brethren, you did unto me" (v. 40).
Bono referred to that passage when he was at Wheaton College on his Heart of America tour. Francis Pelekamoyo, the head of Opportunity International in Malawi, searched the Bible and wondered: What should I do after my years as central bank governor? That's the passage he kept coming back to. This is what we should do. This is what Jesus wants us to do.
We saw the importance of the churches in creating a grassroots clamor on debt relief and AIDS. Churches were important in delivering President George W. Bush's base, in support for what became PEPFAR, which is one of his great foreign policy legacies.
This is why hunger can be conquered, because the precedent is there. We can stir up this grassroots clamor on these issues. Why not on hunger?
Why are there still starving people? Isn't there enough food for everyone?
The hunger numbers are escalating rapidly. Before the food crisis of 2008, maybe 850 million people were at risk of starvation. In 2009, it's over 1 billion, about 15 percent or 16 percent of the world's population. A couple of years ago, the number was 13 percent.
One thing we saw in 2008, when the price of food skyrocketed, was greater demand from India, China, and other emerging econ-omies. As people become more prosperous, they are eating more meat. So their hogs and cattle need more feed.
We also saw the cost of negligence. The world didn't carry the Green Revolution forward into Africa. That not only deprived us of a source of food but also created the need for high levels of food aid.
What did the Green Revolution achieve?
Agriculture scientists led by Norman Borlaug developed a new kind of breeding method that resulted in a wheat strain that was more adaptable. It turned out to be just what India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—which were the world's famine zones in the 1960s—needed. That seed goes over there and boom, brings a lot of people out of hunger. It wasn't long after that a country like India has surpluses of wheat and rice. The Green Revolution then moves on to other places in Asia. This formed the basis for the great economic growth seen in India and China over the past couple of decades. People were freed from the task of growing food to be able to do other things.
But Green Revolution techniques weren't applied in Africa. Agriculture development spending in the developing world fell off a cliff. In Haiti, the peasant farmers were told they should be working in factories making underwear. If you export the underwear, then you buy food. Maybe that works in theory, but what happens when the price of rice skyrockets? Suddenly, export earnings aren't buying enough rice. We have rice shortages. There are riots in the streets.
Why does farming need assistance?
Farming is an inherently risky business. You are dependent on the climate. You are dependent on the rains. The farmers aren't in control of the prices. In the richer parts of the world, people share the risk. There are future contracts where the farmer knows what price he'll be getting. There's crop insurance. There are price supports. There are subsidies. The intention is to spread the risk so the farmers can grow as much food as possible, because we're interested in food security.
In Africa, farmers bear 100 percent of the risk. There are very little profits. In the United States, when a crop fails, somebody's writing a check, usually the government. In Africa, the crop fails and people die. If there's no safety net and no sharing of the risk, farmers are left hanging.
What is Africa's agricultural potential?
Africa is the final frontier of food. We're going to need to double food production by 2050. Where's it going to come from? What country has potential? The water sources in Africa are underutilized. There's land available for production.
Wouldn't it be a grand irony if the continent now receiving emergency food aid becomes a continent that is helping to feed the world? That's Africa's potential.
Unlike many international development issues, agriculture has attracted average Christians who are able to make a huge difference. The Foods Resource Bank, a Christian organization based in Michigan and Illinois, is linking up churches and farmers with organizations and community groups in Africa. U.S. Christians are helping African farmers build water retention ponds and irrigation systems.
If you get the farmers and people in churches more aware of what's happening in Africa, they will respond. Plus, there's a faith imperative. So Opportunity International, the Foods Resource Bank, and Bread for the World are all actively trying to help.
Bread for the World got two women in Birmingham, Alabama, involved. These women happen to be in the constituency of the congressman who was the gatekeeper for the debt relief legislation. They invite him to an event at their church, and he shows up. God works in mysterious ways. They thought, We'll invite all these members of Congress. Well, here comes this guy, and he turns out to be the gatekeeper for the legislation. They connected him to David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, and talked to him about the Bible and hunger around the world.
He starts using this language in the committee hearings, and the Clinton staffers are there. They hear this and go back and tell the White House: This conservative Republican is talking about starving kids in Africa in the finance committee meetings. As a result, the debt relief legislation passed.
What's wrong with food aid that ships American food to hungry people elsewhere?
American food aid saves a lot of lives every year. However, it does add time for delivery and a large expense for transportation.
It can also sap the incentive of farmers. What we call for in the book is that 50 percent of food aid should be in cash. Canada and Europe have gone 100 percent cash. We figure it's good that American food is positioned on the high seas. It can stabilize a situation in an emergency. That's good. But it should be half food aid, half cash.
Cash provides a market for local farmers. It gives them incentive. The two years prior to the famine in Ethiopia were preceded by bumper harvests. They had great harvests, but afterwards prices collapsed 80 percent in some parts of the country. Farmers cut back on fertilizer, hybrid seed, and irrigation. They knew there would be less production. But the traders held back some of the crop from the bumper years. So in 2003, when famine hit, they had some food in warehouses. But there was no money to buy it.
Then the U.S. brought in food aid. The trucks carrying American food aid went right past warehouses full of food. Ethiopian traders looked at that and asked, "Why can't you buy this first? If someone doesn't come and buy it, we won't have room or money to buy food during the next harvest."
The World Food Program is creating "if you grow it, we will buy it" futures contracts. That's the market engine getting farmers to grow as much as they can.
How has your book been received? Have you had responses to your criticism of the food aid industry and USAID?
Presenting those examples in our book as the unintended consequences of food aid adds to the body of evidence. Many people believe that we should keep the food in food aid. As people become more aware that African farmers are buffeted by forces beyond their control, people will see that our policies have an impact.
How are churches going forward on the hunger issue?
We're at this great moment of opportunity now where the Obama administration is talking about this. The President has talked about it on a number of occasions. The political leadership is there. Combine that with the activity of the Gates Foundation. Corporations are discovering this issue. Universities are starting to turn on to this. The relief community is putting this on the top of their agenda.
But for anything to happen, it has to come from voices that are raised on this issue. We have this moment of opportunity. It's really important that clamor comes from the churches.
What can a church do?
Church pastors or education directors can make congregations more aware of hunger and inspire members to get involved.
The work of faith-based organizations shows how individuals can make a huge difference in the fight against hunger. That's why we have provided a number of individual examples in the book, to hopefully provide inspiration. That's why there is a spiritual thread running through the narrative of the book.
It's such a fundamental of the faith. Matthew 25 is one of the more eloquent passages of the Bible. "What you did to the least of these my brethren, you did unto me." It is the moral issue of our time. Individuals can have such an impact. We can all participate in the solution to hunger.
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Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty is available at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on hunger include:
Hunger Has a Profile | Working at my local food pantry helped me personalize the statistics. (April 29, 2009)
Hunger Isn't History | The world produces more food than ever. So why do nearly a billion people still not have enough to eat? (November 7, 2008)
Famine Again? | Why some places suffer food shortages decade after decade. (May 11, 2007)
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