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Thurow: Solving global hunger is not impossible

Barry McNamara
10/15/2013
Roger Thurow, senior fellow on global agriculture and food policy for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is seated at the center of the symposium’s panel, which also included, from left, Stewart Leeth of Smithfield Foods; Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank; Dennis Plummer, co-founder and executive vice president of Arvegenix; and Dan Block, a professor at Chicago State University. Nierenberg and Plummer are graduates of Monmouth College.
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“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Roger Thurow didn’t cite that Chinese proverb during his keynote address at Monmouth College’s Midwest Matters symposium on global hunger last week, but that was a central theme as he talked about the smallholder farmers he’s met since he first began writing in earnest about the issue a decade ago.
 
“One place, one story stopped me cold,” the former Wall Street Journal reporter told the audience of students, faculty, trustees and community members in MC’s Dahl Chapel. The place was Ethiopia in 2003, where 14 million people were dramatically affected by famine.
 
“There, for the first time as a journalist, I looked into the hearts and eyes of the hungry,” he said. One particular boy, Hagirso, “had no hint of playfulness in his eyes. His eyes were empty. The father spoke of guilt. What have I done to cause this?
 
“My career changed at that moment.”
 
Thurow, who is now senior fellow on global agriculture and food policy for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, went on to co-author “Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty,” with Scott Kilman and also wrote “The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.” In the latter book, he spoke with several families in western Kenya.
 
“Africa’s cruelest irony is that its hungriest people are the smallholder families,” Thurow said. “Hungry farmers – what a hideous oxymoron. How absurd. How obscene.”
 
As he conducts follow-up reporting, he sees the situations of those smallholder families improving. That is because the world mentality is shifting from supplying emergency relief to taking the time to teach the farmers how to create a better harvest, and how to sell their goods.
 
The family whose hut is pictured on the cover of “The Last Hunger Season” had a yield of just two 90-kilogram bags of corn in 2010, enough for two months of food, but ensuring that the majority of the year would be a “hunger season.” After being educated by the agriculture development project One Acre Fund in such basics as proper spacing of seeds, using one seed per planting hole, etc., they also planted more of their one-acre plot the following year and increased their yield to 20 bags.
 
“That’s what happens when you reverse neglect – when you provide assistance, as opposed to emergency food aid,” Thurow said.
 
In his opening, Thurow expressed confidence that world hunger can be beaten.
 
“I want to share with you the words of a wise man, which were spoken shortly before the students in this auditorium were born," said Thurow, who then read the quotation, “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”
 
The speaker? Nelson Mandela, who was still in the midst of a 27-year prison sentence, in a nation rocked by apartheid. Within a few short years, Mandela was free, and South Africa’s elections of 1994 officially ended apartheid – the impossible had been accomplished.
 
“How have we brought hunger into the 21st century?” Thurow asked, the passion in his voice rising. “Monmouth College can be the place that poses answers to this issuethrough civil discourse.”
 
One member of the MC community, 1995 graduate Danielle Nierenberg, is working hard on the answer and, during her rebuttal time as a member of the symposium’s panel, she agreed with Thurow.
 
“The way things are is not the way they need to continue to be,” said Nierenberg, the co-founder of Food Tank, a food think tank, who recently spent two years traveling to more than 35 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America meeting with farmers and farmers’ groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and government leaders, students and academics, and journalists collecting their thoughts on what’s working to help alleviate hunger and poverty, while also protecting the environment.
 
“I want to reiterate Roger’s point that change is happening all over, and we need to keep supplying that change.”
 
Although a complex issue, Nierenberg suggested that eliminating hunger could be as simple as eliminating waste.
 
“We waste around 1.3 billion tons of food per year,” she said. “Half is post-harvest,” related to issues such as improper storage. “The other half is you and me. We buy too much, then throw it out. We order too much, then leave it on our plate.”
 
Another Monmouth graduate is also working on a solution. After a 28-year career at Monsanto, Dennis Plummer ’73 is the co-founder and executive vice president of Arvegenix LLC., which is developing the oilseed field pennycress, a crop that grows after corn in the fall and produces “oils with desirable properties.” Specifically, pennycress has fewer chemical and energy inputs and produces twice the oil per acre as soybeans.
 
“This an idea that entrepreneurs need to get a hold of,” said Plummer, providing yet another example of the intersection of science and business that his alma mater is emphasizing. “Our work with field pennycress dovetails nicely with Monmouth’s Midwest Matters. We’ve got a lot of capabilities to address this.”
 
The other two panelists were Stewart Leeth of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, and Chicago State University professor Dan Block, who spoke about “food deserts” in metropolitan areas. He called for community development to address the “vibrancy” issues that turn those food deserts into areas where life expectancy is lower and where there are higher rates of violence and diabetes.
 
In his introductory remarks at the symposium, MC professor Steve Buban called hunger “a vital and timely issue that is crucial to our region.”
 
Said Thurow, “Does the Midwest matter? Absolutely. We know how to produce food. We know how to feed the world.”