Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One billion hungry people need action now

By DeWayne Wickham

If you didn’t know it, this past Friday was World Hunger Day. To make sure I knew it, a press aide to Hillary Clinton invited me to join a conference call with the secretary of State and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who touted the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing hunger around the world.

There are a billion people who are chronically hungry. That’s roughly one of every seven inhabitants of this planet. Hunger is a far greater pandemic than AIDS. Nearly 16,000 children die of hunger every day, according to Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C., faith-based organization that advocates for the hungry. That amounts to more deaths in a single year that the total of all the people who died violently in wars over the past 50 years.

“We are very pleased to be part of a commitment, along with other nations, of more than $22 billion over three years to spur agriculture-led economic growth,” Clinton said. That money will be used not just to the delivery of food to starving people but to pay for programs that provide food security for countries where hunger is widespread.

Food security is diplomatic-speak for what the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Helping poor countries feed their hungry masses is not just a grand humanitarian gesture; it is good diplomacy – a refreshing change from the jingoism and dollar diplomacy of previous administrations.

“Our goals should be to increase the availability of food by helping people in countries produce what they need, to make that food accessible to those who need it, and to teach people to use it properly so that they can make the most of it,” Vilsack said.

Understandably, it is the Obama administration’s efforts to keep Iran and North Korea from joining the world’s nuclear club and end the long-running conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East that grabs the headlines. But it is the shortage – or unavailability – of food that is the immediate threat to global security.

Last year there were food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan. Since 2007, there have been more than 60 food riots around the world, Clinton said. That’s a warning shot that shouldn’t be ignored. The Obama administration’s effort – along with that of other members of the G-8 (the countries with the world’s eight strongest economies) is movement in the right direction.

I’ve seen what chronic hunger does to people in places like the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The long-term strategy for the reducing the widespread hunger there and elsewhere in the world poor nations the resources they need to sharply increase their production of food. That won’t be easy.

For example, there is little arable land in Haiti, a once lush-green Caribbean nation. Trees are used for fuel by that country’s poor, a vandalization of the landscape that robs the soil of vital nutrients needed for agriculture – and condemns millions of Haitians to a life of hunger and despair. A part of the answer to Haiti’s food shortage is the biotechnology (the use of scientifically altered seeds to improve food production) that Clinton and Vilsack said the United States will share with other nations to jumpstart their food production.

But as the deadly food riots in Haiti and other places last year indicate, there is an urgent need to feed hundreds of millions of starving people around the world now – and then teach them how to fish.

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