Food Security for the Next 100 years
"Remembering Norman E. Borlaug born 100 years ago, on March 25, 1914"
By Ruth Oniang’o
“Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” by Norman Borlaug, lifted from Dr Amit Roy’s article in this issue on his own reflections of the man.
What would Dr Borlaug say if he were to return? That we still have world hunger to the extent that we do is a huge indictment on mankind. We have lacked the will, both political and moral to ensure food security for the most vulnerable in our midst. Just read Roger Thurow’s article: 1000 days. I shed tears when I listened to Roger speak at the June 2014 IFAMA annual conference held in Cape Town South Africa. Roger is an award winning journalist formerly with the New York Times and has been following individual families on all the continents to record their struggles in trying to feed their families. He was there at one of the Ethiopian famines, and has been there to see real hunger even in the USA. No continent is spared. However, as we speak, sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the worst in terms of progress. Mothers struggle to feed their families; fathers too in some cultures. That is why I advocate for smallholder farmers and especially women. That is why I campaign against the indignity of poverty, because it is normally coupled with hunger and poor nutrition. It puts a lot of stress on women.
So what would Norman Borlaug say now? Roger Thurow also followed Dr Norman Borlaug’s work and had this to say about him at the unveiling of his statue in the Capitol, Washington DC, USA on March 25, 2014, Dr. Borlaug’s 100th birthday:
“Norman Borlaug now stands in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol, a man still at work. He stands in a stylized field of wheat, hat on his head, sleeves rolled up, notebook in his hand, a researcher for the ages. “The Father of the Green Revolution,” says the engraving on the pedestal of the great crop breeder and humanitarian, etched by sculptor Benjamin Victor”. Norman Borlaug now stands beside Rosa Parks—two great emancipators side by side. Rosa Parks helped to free millions from racial discrimination. Norman Borlaug freed a billion from hunger. He took his place among the nation’s icons on March 25, the 100th anniversary of his birth. It was also National Agriculture Day in America.
What would Norman Borlaug say as we foresee the end the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era in 2015, whose first goal was to halve world hunger in 15 years? World leaders signed the Millennium Development Goal compact in the year 2000, at the UN headquarters in Rome. Meetings have been convened to assess how far off target we are likely to be. Clearly that was a tall order. Dr Borlaug would be able to tell us where we have gone wrong, and even as he looks down from heaven and up from his grave, he must be so pissed off with mankind for not picking up from where he left. A lot has been going on, though, and we are yet to see the breakthroughs we saw in the 60’s. But it took more than science; it took a man who used his science to reach those who would make life changing decisions. We have to remember though that research is arduous and scientific breakthroughs take years.
This year’s winner of the World Food Prize as we mark the centennial of Dr. Borlaug’s birth is Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram of India but now a citizen of Mexico, who worked very closely with Dr. Borlaug, succeeding him as head of the wheat breeding program at CIMMYT in Mexico, and went ahead to break new ground with his own invaluable achievements.
“His breakthrough breeding technologies have had a far-reaching and significant impact in providing more food around the globe and alleviating world hunger," said Amb. Quinn, the Executive Director of the World Food Prize Foundation. "Dr. Borlaug himself called Dr. Rajaram 'the greatest present-day wheat scientist in the world' and 'a scientist of great vision,'" Amb. Quinn. Dr Sajaram is now 73 and the first wheat scientist to win the World Food Prize since it was launched in 1986 by Dr Borlaug.
So what do we expect in the next century? Given today’s trends, we can see that much has been achieved by the Asian green revolution through, not just science but more importantly political will. The world now has more food than before the Green Revolution, yet many people still go hungry. A major area of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, was left behind. To date, of the nearly one billion hungry people in the world, most hard hit are in sub-Saharan Africa. India which was more less the epicenter of the green revolution was for a long time accused of piling up grain in stores and even exporting it as its people went hungry. To address this criticism, India has passed the National Food Security Act, 2013 (also Right to Food Act) is an Act of the Parliament of India which aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two thirds of India's 1.2 billion people. It was signed into law September 12, 2013, retroactive to July 5, 2013. Under the provisions of the bill, beneficiaries are to be able to purchase 5 kilograms per eligible person per month of cereals at gazetted subsidized prices.
Pregnant women, lactating mothers, and certain categories of children are eligible for daily free meals. The bill has been highly controversial. It was introduced into India's parliament in December 2012, promulgated as a presidential ordinance on July 5, 2013, and enacted into law in August 2013. "The proposed legislation marks a paradigm shift in addressing the problem of food security – from the current welfare approach to a right based approach. About two thirds (approx 67%) of the population will be entitled to receive subsidized food grains under Targeted Public Distribution System. In a country where almost 40% of children are undernourished the importance of the scheme increases significantly."
As the issue of hunger and malnutrition are addressed, issues of sustainability and the so-called smart agriculture that takes into account climate variability have come to the forefront.
In 2014, and for the past 3 years or so, I can comfortably say the light is finally shining on the African continent. Businesses are willing to take risk and are more prepared than before to work in Africa. African businesses are also picking up with new start-ups by young people. The international media is beginning to cover some positive Africa; but a lot more is required.
As we get upbeat about Africa, there are certain facts that should not be overlooked. The continent relies mostly on smallholder farmers to feed the continent. Until recently, these have been largely ignored. I now see, though, Presidents and senior policy makers talk of the need to acknowledge and assist smallholder women farmers who constitute the core of Africa’s food security. They are keen to reform agriculture in such a way that it can create jobs for the many idling youth.
The picture above depicts a common situation in rural farmlands of sub-Saharan Africa.
If we continue this way, we are not going to attract young people to agriculture or agribusiness. The grain the woman farmer is processing is sorghum, a traditional African cereal, very rich nutritionally which threatens to disappear from African people’s diets.
So where are we headed in the next century, as far as providing enough quality food for everyone? I see the following scenarios:
- Climate variability with more severe events will continue. Floods, weather uncertainty, severe droughts and extremely hot temperatures and frosts affecting planting time, plant growth post harvest handling of foods will constitute major concerns. These events will also displace people in ways that man may not be able to manage.
- Poverty is giving rise to many problems. Where there is income poverty, there is also food poverty. As attempts are made to address the hunger situation, poverty is likely to counter those gains, as population increase surpasses jobs creation. People without gainful employment cannot be able to afford food even if it was available, and when they do, such food is unlikely to be nutritious. The rich or those with better income means will pursue finer more nutritious foods while the poor resort to foods that will make them just survive, and these are foods that exacerbate such conditions as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer and ultimately early death. Governments need to address equity issues.
- Even as new ways to make food to feed the growing population are innovated and found, small holder farming will be around with us for longer in sub-Saharan Africa. The whole issue of land reforms to open up tied up land for food production will need to be considered as we run out of job options for young people. Youth unemployment seems to be a global phenomenon. We can interest young people in agricultural value chain if they see opportunity to make money, they can use modern IT to facilitate their work, and the work itself is not as arduous as their mothers have been used to. I keep hearing: “let us make agriculture sex for young people.”
- Governance is worrying as we see increasing intolerance and polarization, and an increase in bad governance that is characterised by greed and self interests. So long as people feel excluded and alienated, and discriminated against for whatever reason, violence and crime will reign. But we also have on the rise hardened people who kill even children just for the sake of it. This is happening everywhere and therefore calls for world leaders to look for solutions. It is difficult to address food security in circumstances such as these.
- Insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa will get worse unless political leadership is changed to focus on the interest of citizens and begin to address development of the nations and address such issues as poverty eradication and unemployment and equity. Poverty and unemployment lead to anti-social behaviour. Agriculture has been known to play a pivotal role in transforming rural economies and providing social stability. This was the case in Europe centuries back, and in the so called Asian Giants. The new natural resources being discovered on the continent require legislation on how to manage, share equitably and reserve for future generations.
Clearly as rural areas transform, they influence the economic development of the whole country. Sub-Saharan Africa has yet to invest sufficiently in rural areas and in Agriculture. The rhetoric is, however, changing to be more positive and I guess that is good. We need to score as Costa Rica, a small country in Latin America of less that 5 million people is doing now in the World Cup. On December1, 1948, President José Figueres Ferrer of Costa Rica abolished the military of Costa Rica after victory in the civil war in that year and diverted resources towards education, health and environmental services. Costa Rica now takes on countries many times its size in both population and square kilometres/miles. What does it take? It takes leaders making a decision and taking action to ensure they score. And by scoring, you uplift the spirits of your people, you get them out of poverty and you rescue them from hunger and malnutrition and thus enable them to enjoy life, which is a basic human right.
Costa Rica's President Luis Guillermo Solis, center, joins soccer fans celebrating their team's victory over Greece at a Brazil World Cup round of 16 game in San Jose, Costa Rica, Sunday, June 29, 2014. Costa Rica won a penalty shootout 5-3 after the match ended 1-1 following extra time. (Esteban Felix, AP / AP).
One billion people still remain chronically hungry, many of them also face different forms of malnourishment and so far the world continues with its rhetoric and promises to do something. However, not much will change if resources are not committed. Smallholder farmers can still feed not only their families but the world as well. They, however, need to be empowered, appreciated, trained, and equipped properly with the latest working technology, even as their own knowledge is acknowledged. My organization, Rural Outreach Africa has for the past three decades been working with smallholder famers in western Kenya, and these have reached nearly 100,000 women, owning small plots of land, often not more than one acre. What is needed to make a difference is not much, to what is wasted. These women smallholder famers need training, credit, inputs, and most importantly just to be appreciated.
I keep remembering Dr Borlaug’s words as I shook his hand in awe, in Abuja after his mind wrenching speech at the African Fertilizer Summit. “Ruth, it took fearless leaders, willing and prepared to put their political careers on the line, to take up agriculture and prioritize feeding their people. India did it, Pakistan did it; Africa can do it”. And he had just told us in the plenary: “yes, Africa has potential, but you cannot eat potential”.
Yes, that was the man that we are honouring in this issue 64 of African Journal of Food, Agriculture and Development (AJFAND).
Dr. Borlaug surrounded by family and his loved ones. Source: Borlaugdoc.com