Hunger, farmers, technology, and compassion

I’ve been told more than once that I am a bleeding heart; I have a crusader complex, where I instantly want to become the voice for those who can’t speak up for themselves. (Which, oddly enough, has led me to not speak up for myself in the past, also.) Despite being fully-aware of my status as a do-gooder, though, I recently walked into a very philanthropic work-related event with a rather cavalier attitude.

World Food Prize Week. It’s an event in Des Moines which has been heralded as one of the largest annual global hunger dialogues in the world (and it continues to grow each year). The week consists of the Iowa Hunger Summit, the Borlaug Dialogue collegiate lecture series throughout the week, and the World Food Prize Symposium.

This was my lunch at the Iowa Hunger Summit Luncheon. It’s a blend of rice, vegetables, and a protein powder that can affordably brings hunger relief to impoverished areas.

Hunger is a fact. It is found near and far. Illinois grain farmer and global food philanthropist Howard Buffett gave the starting statement that while Fresno County, California (an area I spent a bit of time in last summer) is in the top three U.S. counties for agricultural production, it is also at the top of the list for domestic hunger. Americans tend to operate in a sense of benevolent ignorance to hunger here in the U.S.

It happens abroad, too, and generally in a much more profound way. But, there is hope.

I spent four days listening to awe-inspiring lectures, panels, and discussions about the ways that farmers, scientists, and organizations can team up to improve global security. Technology will open doors.

One after another, scientists stood in front of rooms full of hundreds of people, discussing the massive potential of genetically engineered crops to increase nutrient levels in foodstuffs, to recoup lost yield due to pest and drought, and increase crop stability in less-than-idea environments. (And each one, most of which were academic scientists from around the world, made a point to say that they saw no scientific reasoning as to why GMO’s are stigmatized. Dr. Carl K. Winter of UC Davis, whose entire career is based on researching food safety, even sang a song about it after winning an award.) New and improved irrigation techniques will conserve water stability. Ecoculture, or the partnership between naturally-occurring resources and agricultural resources, can improve the soil profiles and biodiversity. FFA students in Florida are feeding their local hungry with schoolyard gardens and a closed-loop aquaponic system that provides the local pantry with fresh fish and greens.

The technology involved will go far beyond “just” agricultural methods, though. Mobile technology has also greatly impacted agriculture. Happy, a successful female farmer from Swaziland stated that she believed about 90% of farmers in her region had cell phones, and that it had opened massive doors for learning, growing, sharing, and innovating in Africa’s rural farmlands. Startups and governmental organizations and philanthropic groups have all turned to on-the-go communications technology to improve agriculture’s ability to meet food needs in a growing world. Internet access in rural Africa has enabled teenagers to get involved

While the entire week was a very inspiring occasion, perhaps the most poignant moment of the week came in the form of Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein. Born of Jordanian royalty and married into the royal family of Dubai, Princess Haya serves as Messenger for Peace on behalf of the United Nations. She spoke deeply of seeing hunger all around her in the Middle East as a child, and the epiphany she had in early adulthood about just how serious of a problem this was. She spoke about how, as a member of the affluential Middle East and as a mother, she devoted herself to giving a voice to the impoverished, disenfranchised, and suffering in all corners of the world. Deep inside, my relentless crusader identified with this beautiful real-life princess as she stood on the world’s stage.

Her Royal Highness Princess Haya was both dignified and humble as she pleaded on behalf of those who can’t share their own stories of hunger.

She had a sobering message for the audience, both those in the room and the thousands streaming the event worldwide. While the technologies at our disposal improve our ability to produce food, many of them do not aid in the distribution of food, nor do they address food waste and lack of funding for programs meant to end world hunger. At the most recent G8 Summit (and I don’t remember hard numbers on this), a great deal of money was pledged to the cause of alleviating hunger — at the time of her appearance at World Food Prize, Princess Haya sadly stated that only about half of that money had actually appeared. While governments and universities and companies can develop technology to improve food security as a whole, it doesn’t really help feed those who need it unless society learns to care more deeply.

Now, I’m not saying we need to run out and donate all of our money to charities that feed the needy; no, I’m much more of the mind that recovery and rehabilitation goes much further in the long run than relief. (Relief has its place.) I don’t have to repeat the old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. But, I think there’s hope for a brighter, less hungry future, if we work together. If we use these technologies, use each other’s abilities and resources in a collaborative manner, and use our brains and our hearts to seek out a peaceful solution…well, we will probably never end world hunger, but we can shrink that number.

And for a person who doesn’t “do numbers” that math seems pretty simple to me.


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