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Thought for food: Iowa world hunger conference focuses on farmers

The World Food Prize Symposium in Iowa brings together hundreds for ideas to fight hunger through increased production, politics, technology.
Image: Kofi Annan
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks Thursday at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Politics and technology are key ways to to help 1 billion small farmers, many of them women, tackle world hunger, hundreds of people were told at the The World Food Prize Symposium that wraps up Friday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The symposium speakers and audience included small farmers from Central America and world leaders such as former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Jeff Raikes, chief executive of the Gates Foundation, started by the billionaire founder of Microsoft.

( is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

The conference's goal is to find ways to provide smallholder farmers with technology "so they can get the most out of their land, not to just feed themselves but to become producers who are growing food for others in their country and their society," Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, which hosts the conference annually in Des Moines.

One of the symposium's highlights was the award Thursday of the World Food Prize, $250,000 to be split between two hunger-fighting laureates:

  • David Beckmann, a Lutheran preacher and president of Christian advocacy group Bread for Life, which uses a church-based program to press U.S. lawmakers to support anti-hunger policies.
  • Jo Luck, president of Heifer International, which provides families with food- and income-producing animals, such as cows and sheep.

The World Food Prize was conceived by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Also at the conference:

Annan's Green Revolution
Annan, chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which aims to boost food production in his native country, delivered the keynote address Thursday.

He said that several years ago, he set a goal to significantly reduce the number of people in poverty around the world by 2015. Annan said the effort involves improving the way people farm, access to loans and hoping to open up trade barriers.

First and foremost for the people of Africa, food, nutrition and security do not sit "firmly and rightly at the top of the development agenda, and this is unprecedented," said Annan.

“It is so distressing that one billion of our fellow human beings will today go without sufficient food,” Annan said. “There remain too many countries where people go hungry and many more where the threat of food shortages is all too real.”

Annan said Africa is the only continent which does not grow enough food to feed itself. But, he said the situation is beginning to improve and the World Bank recently agreed to provide $160 million to expand the initiative.

Seeds of growth
The Gates Foundation, which has donated $1.5 billion to agriculture in developing countries, is focusing more investments on seeds and technology to help small farmers adapt to climate change, Raikes said Thursday.

"Most of our grants support conventional breeding. But in certain instances we include biotechnology approaches because we believe they can help farmers confront drought, flooding, disease, or pests more effectively than conventional breeding alone," he said.

He cited recent funding for a project to develop drought-tolerant corn for African farmers, which is now being used in Malawi and other countries. Other grants have helped develop a variety of rice that can tolerate submergence so that farmers won't be wiped out by floods.

"We've known for years that farmers were going to have to contend with harsher weather, but now we're getting a clearer idea of the scale and scope of the crisis," Raikes said.

"The places that will suffer the most severe weather — the volatile temperatures, the changing patterns of rainfall, the droughts and the floods — are the same places where the poorest farmers live. Their very survival will depend on their ability to adapt to climate change."

He said high-tech research has helped develop 50 drought resistant varieties of corn, which can boost harvests by 15 percent to 35 percent, and flood-resistant rice, which by the end of this year is expected to be planted by about 400,000 farmers.

By 2017, 20 million farmers will be using it, Raikes said.

Back to basics
Technology isn't always the answer, said Howard Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. director and possible successor to his famous father, Warren Buffett, as chairman. The foundation bearing his name, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation runs research farms in Illinois and South Africa.

Western-style farming, which relies heavily on expensive fertilizers and equipment, may not work in poor countries, Buffett said.

"People want to provide a silver bullet solution and there aren't any," said Buffett in an interview ahead of his symposium speech. "It's not easy to do and you can't take technology, better seed and fertilizer and think that's going to solve the problem."

He said smallholder farmers need what he called "basic types of intervention," such as cover crops, conservation-based tillage systems and very basic farm equipment. They also need help improving soil fertility to stop "slash-and-burn" farming.

"They will farm a few acres for a few years and then get no more production because there is no soil fertility left and they will chop down and clear three to four more acres to farm on," he said. "We need to do this in ways that will improve food security and agriculture and be good for the environment."

Beefing up efforts
Terry Wollen, veterinarian and interim vice president of advocacy for Heifer International, and Kevin Watkins, co-chair of the Elanco Hunger Team and Hunger Board, discussed the role of livestock in reducing food insecurity.

Their exchange was covered by

“Thoughtfully evaluating how foods and food systems affect all four dimensions — human nutrition, people’s health, their economic status and the environment — is critical as we take on the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) challenge of producing 100 percent more food by 2050,” said Watkins. “The good news is both research and real-world experience show that animal-source foods deliver on all four of these dimensions.”

Elanco, an Eli Lilly and Company division, develops and markets products to improve animal health and protein production.

According to Wollen, an ongoing project in the mountains of western Honduras is an excellent example of how an integrated food-diversification can empower families to produce nutrient-rich foods, ultimately lifting them and their community to self-reliance.

“Impoverished people often make short-term choices based solely on their desperate need for food,” said Wollen. “Introducing management practices like zero-grazing, terracing, tree-planting, and biogas generation creates an ecosystem that is both environmentally friendly and culturally acceptable. This focus on livestock and agro-ecology is transforming the lives of 2,058 families in 43 Honduran communities.”

Help from the laureates
Beckmann, who grew up in Lincoln, Neb., told The Des Moines Register that farm policy “is too heavily influenced by well-organized special interests” and that subsidies go to large landholders instead of the rural poor who need the help more.

Beckmann told the Register he wants to see reforms in U.S. food aid so that commodities are purchased closer to where the food is needed rather than being required to be shipped from the United States.

“You can often do more good, get better help to people, and quicker help to people who are desperately hungry, if you use locally grown food, but we don’t do that very much because we’re beholden to the interests of half a dozen shipping companies,” he said in a Register interview.

Luck, president of Heifer International, said in a Register interview that helping farmers overseas increases their productivity, will lift people out of poverty, discourage child trafficking and prostitution, and help combat terrorism.

"Give them a few resources, give them a few animals and some training and you can't hold them back," she told the Register. "They may not all be a millionaire, but they're going to be successful."

In an op-ed Luck wrote for the Register, she said the role of "farmers' wives" is often misunderstood.

"In reality, women produce over half of the world's food and between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries. They are a repository of knowledge about preserving seeds and other genetic resources and can track the source of their food to its origin."

Progress is slow, but it's achievable, she wrote.

Market solutions
The key to improving the lot of small farmers in developing nations is better markets and good prices, said Gregory Page, chairman and chief executive officer of Cargill Inc.

Minneapolis, Minn.-based Cargill describes itelf as an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services. Founded in 1865, the privately held company employs 131,000 people in 66 countries. It reported earnings of $2.6 billion for fiscal 2010.

"We always have to go back to the centrality of price in agriculture," said Page, according to the Register. "You give farmers good prices, then stand back and watch amazing things happen."

"So often in developing countries, farmers don't have good markets," Page said. "They have to sell at harvest, prices are depressed because of large supplies. So they don't get good prices, which affects their incomes."

"I am confident that we can feed the world's population on the current land mass," he said. "But it is important to physically connect more farmers with world markets."