Commentary: The road to ending hunger

A young child recently asked my friend a simple question that left us feeling pain and impotence: "Why are people hungry?"

It's a question many of us ask ourselves every time we see television images from Niger or Pakistan.

We know how to replenish soils, enhance crops and apply fertilizer, pesticide and water for maximum yield. We know how to properly harvest, protect, dry, and fumigate crops. We know how to package, store, ship and market food for maximum income to farmers and maximum benefit to consumers.

But across much of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, people still struggle to pull one ton of grain per hectare while American and Japanese and European farmers get up to six tons. Food experts from the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR) told me we have failed to bring the science and the wisdom of the 21st century to millions of farmers still trapped in ancient techniques.

As a result, for the first time in human history one billion people last year were "undernourished" according to the UN World Food Program. This year the number of hungry fell slightly to 925 million. However, over the next four decades the world population will climb from six billion to nine billion — nearly all of the growth in the poorest countries.

Yet the keys to ending hunger are known: build more roads, fight the culture and end subsidies or tariffs.

Norman Borlaug — closest thing I've ever seen to an American saint — told me about how roads can fight hunger. And the plant scientist should know, having created the Green Revolution in the 1960s — feeding hundreds of millions of people with his high yielding miracle wheat.

Borlaug — who worked until his death Sept. 12 last year at the age of 95 — told me that until roads are built into African interiors, it will be impossible to bring down the price of fertilizers for farmers, cut shipping costs and reduce the time to get their harvests to the cities and export markets that give them top dollar.

The Midwestern son of Norwegian immigrants, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for breeding short stemmed wheat able to bear double and triple the weight of grain once proper fertilizer and water were applied. But he knew that he had to battle with bureaucracy and culture to force Indian agriculture officials to accept the new varieties of wheat.

"You have to hold their feet to the fire," said Borlaug in a matter-of-fact way. He told me that when India declined to try his miracle wheat, he got the Pakistanis to try it. That forced the Indians to do so as well. Then, when Indian officials reneged on a pledge to build fertilizer plants vital to maximizing yields, he threatened to tell the New Delhi press that the government was killing the Green Revolution. Next day the government changed course and agreed to build the plants.

The last thing Borlaug said to me in our final meeting was that we have little chance of major breakthroughs in blight resistant potatoes or other African crops unless roads are built to speed the commerce of agriculture. Yet even if roads are finally built, a new generation must challenge the status quo of corruption and feudal power that blocks agricultural productivity.

I've seen rail-thin Haitians returned home by the U.S. Coast Guard from attempts to enter the United States. One of them took me to his village in the Artibonite Valley and showed me his tiny plot the size of my living room. The farmer paid for seeds, water and fertilizer yet he had to split half his crop with the landlord.

Next, speculators from the capital arrived to buy what remained at far below the market price. This is the culture of human bondage dressed up in the costume of the modern economy. Non-government groups, the United Nations and donor nations try to break up this system: they train farmers and organize them into co-operatives to buy inputs cheaply and market produce. But without a culture of law and accountability, hunger reigns.

And beyond roads and culture, Third World Agriculture is bound by the global food markets in which U.S. and European wheat and rice is shipped to Haiti and Pakistan and Afghanistan far below the prices that farmers there must get to break even. I've seen a Mexican farmer walking behind his mule to furrow the soil for red beans. But he knew that freight trains loaded with U.S. red beans were coming into Mexico daily — beans that sell below his break even point.

U.S. farmers use tractors to plow 10 furrows in one tenth the time the Mexican needs to make one row. Yet the U.S. farmers also benefit from farm subsidies. In some cases tariffs block Third World farmers from selling cotton and sugar to the United States.

And finally, when the United States steps in to provide food aid to the hungry — we are the largest donor nation — the farm lobby insists that we send U.S. grain which tends to glut overseas markets and drive local farmers out of business. Suggestions by aid experts to instead send cash to buy relief grain from local farmers overseas and stimulate their farming efforts have been largely ignored.

So when a child asks you why there is hunger, you can tell them that the answer lies on both sides of the world.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached by e-mail at benbarber2@hotmail.com.