By R. Thimangu
When it comes to helping the hungry -- including farmers who produce less than they eat -- the world suffers from a lack of leadership, rather than a shortage of solutions, said Josette Sheran, head of the UN World Food Programme
Technology and tools exist to help farmers produce greater quantities of nutritious food, she said on an April 28 panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. And that’s just what the world needs.
Her comments echoed those of fellow panelist Jerry Steiner, Monsanto’s executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs.
“It has not been cool and it has not been the top priority to care about the hungry and agriculture,” Sheran said. “But food is not just anything else. When you ask, ‘How do we solve it?’ all I know is that we’d better get into the mindset we’re in with energy sustainability where it is a big, global priority and strategy.”
“That’s what makes me lose sleep at night – it’s not that we can’t solve it, but it’s not getting attention where it needs to get it,” she said, noting its absence on the agenda for this year’s G8 meeting of heads of the world’s eight richest industrialized countries.
That wasn’t the case at the Milken conference, which drew about 3,000 people including nearly 500 speakers on topics ranging from the media and the environment, to the recession and education.
Sheran and Steiner discussed strategies for “Building a World Without Hunger,” along with Rajiv Shah, director of agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture; and William Meany, CEO of the Zuellig Group that sells farm equipment and feed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Steiner talked about the need for partnerships among companies, governments and NGOs in order to promote sustainable agriculture. By combining resources and tools, it is possible to help farmers produce more bountiful harvests while consuming fewer precious resources, he said.
“Increasing production is a really huge part of the solution … when we’re talking about smallholder agriculture in (developing) countries,” Steiner said. In the U.S. and other developed countries, “it’s also part of the solution when we think about this global challenge to produce twice as much food between now and 2050, and we need to do it very differently. We can’t use the kind of natural resources, like water and energy, as we’re doing today.”
One partnership that will help famers to produce more food, with less water, is Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, known as WEMA. It is funded by the Gates Foundation.
“That project alone would really help tens of millions of people avoid the kind of famine, and the pictures of famine, that we probably all see and remember in a very personal way,” Shah said. “These kinds of projects have great returns.”
Still, greater public investment is needed in order to “fundamentally solve the problem” of feeding a growing world with limited land and other resources, he said.
When Norman Borlaug spread hybrid seeds and modern farming techniques to help avert famine in India a half-century ago, he had great public support. But his success bred complacency and a feeling of “problem solved” among leading nations, Glickman said. The United States must renew its leadership and invest in global agricultural development, he added.
Government support may have lagged – and should now be renewed – but private investment in agriculture has dramatically expanded since the Green Revolution, Seiner said.
“We need to take some of the fruits of that private investment and find its way, via partnerships, into public need,” he said.
An audience member asked how that makes sense for a private company that must earn a financial return on its investments.
“A company is going to succeed if it solves a problem that society wants it to be solving,” Steiner said. “We’re part of the solution here – the part that increases productivity.”
All of the panelists agreed that biotechnology must be a part of the solution, along with seed breeding, improving agronomic practices and establishing infrastructure and markets for farmers to sell their crops.
On its own, or through partnerships, Monsanto is involved in each of these.
One attendee asked whether public opinion has shifted away from biotech crops – even in the U.S., as evidenced by the organic garden planted at the White House by Michelle Obama.
Glickman, who as a member of Congress helped to write and pass the Organic Foods Production Act, said organic agriculture is not the way for the world to meet its food needs.
“This reminds me of that slogan, ‘For every complicated problem, there is a simple – and a wrong – solution. And this is no different,” he said. “This is a complicated problem. It requires a myriad of solutions.”
Glickman said he is proud of the organic food standard and the movement that it sparked.
“It gives people a choice,” he said. “But … you’ve got to have technologies that allow additional production. It’s got to be done safely. That means you’ve got to not be afraid of technology.
“We’re going to have community gardens. We’re going to have a lot of food grown locally. But, overwhelmingly, that’s not going to solve the problem of hunger in this world. We’ve got to produce more food.”