World Food Prize - The 2011 Borlaug Dialogue

World Food Prize - The 2011 Borlaug Dialogue, Des Moines, Iowa, USA

Presidents Lula and Kafuor,

Ambassador Quinn,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am saddened by the fact that I am unable to be with you in Des Moines for the World Food Prize this year. It would have been an incredible honor to meet two such great men as Presidents Lula and Karfour.

But allow me to begin by delivering a congratulatory message to them from Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon:

"Financial crises and political conflict consume so much of the attention of world leaders today. They have distracted us from addressing an alarming surge in hunger and malnutrition in the last few years and historically high food prices that now plague poor families all over the globe. Nearly one billion people still do not have enough to eat and, sadly, it is women and children who suffer most.  We pay a high price for our negligence. Malnutrition inevitably leads to disease and lost economic productivity. Ultimately, we all pay for every hungry child who fails to grow to meet his or her full potential.

Some despair at the lack of progress in halving hunger and poverty -- as all our nations pledged to do in the Millennium Development Goals we adopted in 2000.  But that despair is not well founded when leaders like President Kufuor and Lula da Silva have helped Ghana and Brazil not only meet those goals, but surpass them.

On behalf of the United Nations, I express my appreciation to them both for their remarkable achievements. But this cannot compare to the appreciation of the millions of hungry people whose lives they have transformed."  

My sadness at not being with you is mixed with joy, as I am eagerly awaiting the birth of my second child in January. As such, your focus on the food challenge for the next generation is something I have been thinking about lately.For as long as I can remember, I have heard speeches on nearly every humanitarian issue that ended with the question, “Is this the world we would like to leave our children?”

A few weeks ago, there were truly painful images of starving Somali babies on the evening news. Because of my pregnancy I could not travel there. One of the things that hit me hardest though was sitting with other people from privileged backgrounds who briefly touched on the subject over dinner… “Did you see those terrible pictures from, gosh where was it? Darfur? No perhaps, oh yes Somalia. Awful. Can you pass the fish please? And where are you going on holidays this summer?” All of that, all in the same breathe!

And yet, in so many ways, that IS the perspective of so many people in the developed world – Europe, the US, the Gulf States.It is not that they don’t care – hunger is just very far from their daily lives, nor do they appreciate how complex it is.

We all know there are many factors at play -- a distorted world trade system that favors rich farmers over poor, low donor investment in agriculture, biofuel subsidies, climate change, skyrocketing food demand in Asia, too little help for subsistence farmers, especially women. And the list goes on. 

Experts argue over which of these factors are most important -- but there is general consensus about what we can do to help the next generation.

- Expand and improve irrigation -- that is a big focus for us in the Middle East,

- Cut billions of dollars in food waste and postharvest losses, especially in Africa,

- Raise crop yields and develop more improved seeds,

- Give more credit and training to women farmers to close the productivity gap between men and women.

- And promote more environmentally friendly farming

These and other measures would produce enough food to feed hundreds of millions more people. A change in our social attitudes, in accepting and exploiting what science offers us in applying biotechnology and other advances responsibly to food and agriculture would feed hundreds of millions more.

That sums upone perspective on the challenge of hunger.

But what about the perspective of the hungry themselves? For them the issue is painfully urgent.

On one of my first field visits for the United Nations, I met anemaciated AIDS victim. Although he was receiving donated drugs to combat the affects of his illness, he was slowly starving to death and too weak to help his family.

Then there was the malnourished little girl about my daughter’s age in a hospital in Malawi who died moments after I met her.  I cannot forget how thin her body was, how it barely made an impression on the sheets.  I had never seen death in the eyes of a child before and I hope I never will again.

How is it we are so far from feeling a true sense of urgency to do more to help?

The truth is there is already enough food worldwide for everyone.  There has been enough for a half century -- even in most developing countries.  We simply do not share very well -- 1.6 billion of us are overweight, while 1 billion go hungry. 

Learning to share is not a job for the next generation --  it’s a job for now, and for all of us.

The poor will no longer tolerate being nourished on promises. In our world today there are over 6 billion people, about half below the age of 25. More than I billion are poor and hungry. In ten years, at the rate of growth of today, the world’s population will be over 7 billion. Unless something is done soon several hundred million more will not have enough to eat.

Young people are idealists. And today they are connected in ways we would have never been able to fathom even ten years ago. They will not sit quietly through this. They are a generation that wants to have its own voice, and they are more than willing to take action. That’s what the Arab Spring is essentially about.

Those who would like to think it’s just about democracy are wrong. Far from it, the central themes are poverty, hunger and jobs. A public opinion survey in Egypt funded by the US Government found that only 20 percent of demonstrators there were concerned about a lack of democracy, while two-thirds were frustrated by chronic poverty and unemployment. Forty percent had trouble feeding themselves and their families. 

And the Arab Spring is just part of a far larger and growing culture of protest.  Social networking has morphed into social protest.  The streets of Madrid, Athens and Rome seeth with frustration.  In Israel there were just demonstrations over food prices and economic inequality, and in Britain riots over unemployment and poverty.

When will our politicians begin to listen and take up the challenge of hunger?  How do we move them to social justice? Sadly, few political leaders have the moral stature and persistence that Presidents Lula and Kafuor have shown. Brazil and Ghana are not rich countries – yet they committed their funds to supportfarmers and invest in nutrition programs for the poor.  Sadly, most politicians make promises to do the same when the cameras are rolling and then simply forget them later on.  

A perfect example is the failure of world leaders to meet the goals they set for more investment in agriculture.  At the G8 Summit in 2009, 27 countries and 14 international agencies pledged $22 billion in new aid by 2012. How much has materialized? The most recent analysis shows only about one-quarter of the amount pledged.

In Dubai, we are proud of our skyscrapers, the Palm Island, and the world's tallest building, but I know Sheikh Mohammed is even prouder that we are meeting our pledges to help others. The United Arab Emirates is one of only a handful of countries to meet the United Nations target for development aid and Dubai is now the UN’ largest center for emergency aid operations.

In my homeland of Jordan, we will soon follow in the footsteps of Presidents Lula and Kufuor and vastly expand our domestic food assistance programs.  Our goal is very ambitious but we hope to make Jordan hunger free by 2015.

We can no longer afford to wait.  We must attack hunger wherever we find it. We cannot leave it as a sad legacy to our children.  A dollar invested in ending hunger, is a dollar invested in peace.