Food insecurity a threat to already unstable nations

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — Two tropical cyclones hit civil war-torn Yemen in a span of 10 days in 2015 and brought a large amount of rain to the arid country. Wet conditions favored breeding locusts, which were a threat to crops. The conundrum was that insecticides used to control locust swarms would have been detrimental to the country’s bee industry, and swarms were difficult to localize because of the civil war.

In instances of extreme weather events like the cyclones in Yemen, devastation quickly turns into desperation as victims scramble to secure food and shelter.


Floodwaters surround a building in Yemen following Cyclone Chapala in 2015. (Photo by UNICEF Yemen/Ahmed Tani)

Rod Schoonover, director of Environment and Natural Resources with the National Intelligence Council, said that when the standard of living changes for people, particularly because of natural disasters, they often take to the streets to voice their concerns. Countries that already face national instability are at a high risk of worsening, Schoonover said.

“It’s going to be a trigger for social disruption,” Schoonover said. “When you have a food shortage or insecurity, you can perhaps open a vacuum for others to come in.” The others, he said, are those who would take advantage of the weakened state.

Food becomes a matter of national security, Gregory Treverton, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said. Food can be used as a weapon through bioterrorism, threats to food safety and against displaced populations. Factors like environmental degradation, conflict and disease disrupt food production and cause upheaval.

“It’s important to look at food as a factor of conflict,” Schoonover said.

Treverton pointed to recent disputes over the South China Sea and the productive fisheries in the region as an underappreciated category of food and national security. He said that billions of people rely on fish in their diets, so this is not an issue to be taken lightly.

If fisheries continue to dwindle, those who rely on aquaculture for business and consumption will turn to traditional agriculture, Schoonover said. Food supply from the ocean cannot be as easily manipulated as traditional crops, and once fish resources are depleted from the ocean, it is difficult to bring them back, he said.

“No reservoir is infinitely expandable,” Schoonover said.

Treverton and Schoonover agreed that food can’t be isolated as a single component to developing conflicts. In addition to food, water, energy and infrastructure all have connections and cannot operate independently of one another.

“You don’t have to be in the country that is food insecure to feel the vulnerability,” Schoonover said. As the global food system becomes more complex with multiple players, he said, new properties will emerge that will have to be addressed.

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First 1000 Days: outrage and inspire

By Kathryn Cawdrey

DES MOINES, Iowa — Roger Thurow released The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children-and the World, a new book that delves into the stories of new mothers and their babies in Uganda, India, Guatemala and Chicago.

The book focuses on the first 1,000 days of an infant starting at the mother’s pregnancy and reveals how severe malnutrition of newborn babies influences the child’s capabilities to learn well, grow without stunting and work later in life.

Among the mothers Thurow follows, one is Jessica Saldana, a high school student in a violence-scarred Chicago neighborhood. Others include Esther Okwir in rural Uganda, where the infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world; Shyamkali, the mother of four girls in a low-caste village in India; and Maria Estella, in Guatemala’s western highlands, where most people are riddled with parasites and moms can rarely afford the fresh vegetables they farm,

Thurow spent 1,000 days following these mothers to tell their story. A feat rendered not-so-daunting after he spent a year in rural Africa with smallholder farmers to “raise the clamor” for his 2012 book, The Last Hunger Season: A year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

Thurow believes that in order to grab the world’s attention on the issue of hunger, and now malnutrition, he needed to spend time on the ground following the people he writes about. For The Last Hunger Season, it was four families of smallholder farmers. This experience helped pave the way for his newest book.

As a foreign correspondent, Thurow worked at the Wall Street Journal for 30 years, and found a special interest in “hungry farmers,” a phrase he believes is “obscene, a shameful oxymoron, and the cruelest irony in Africa.”

The hunger season is the time of year, usually in May and June, that farmers do not have any food for themselves or their families and must wait until the next harvest. In some cases, the hunger season starts as early as January, when families run out of food, or have to sell their remaining supply for education or other expenses.


Roger Thurow moderates the Farmers and a Warming Planet panel at the 2016 World Food Prize conference. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

Seeking to shed light on the hunger season and make it more understandable to readers in the U.S., Thurow picked western Kenya because its farming seasons are similar and corn, the main crop, is familiar to people in the U.S. Thurow approached the non-profit organization One Acre Fund, which supports farmers in the region, to help him find smallholder families.

Thurow found that the farmers he met were very engaging, and says the four families were “willing to put up with [him] over the year.”

Thurow followed a mantra for this project: “outrage and inspire.” Outrage is represented by the statistics and data that depict the severity of hunger and poverty, and his goal is to inspire with the stories of these four farming families.

“Hopefully as readers come to care about the individuals in the book, they will come to care about the issues,” Thurow says. “As a journalist, if I can do nothing else, I can at least raise the clamor.”

Thurow says his year in Kenya was the most difficult reporting he has ever done. Not physically, as his time as a foreign correspondent put him in more dangerous cities and situations, but because he couldn’t help. And, it was difficult for the African families, as their cultural traditions dictate they should offer hospitality and food to guests.

Thurow believed that to best tell this story, he could not intervene. Instead, he had to simply observe and tell the story as it unfolded.

So he stayed in a town about 20 minutes from Malaria, the village he wrote about. He knew that bookif he stayed with the families, he would force someone out of their bed, and pressure his hosts to provide meals.

Thurow witnessed a common dilemma for smallholder farmers: feed the family or give their children an education. Thurow hopes to show readers how difficult these decisions actually are.

“We laughed together, we cried together, we antagonized over decisions together,” Thurow says. He and Leonida, a farmer in his book, discussed food rationing and school costs. But he also participated in communal meetings and oral storytelling.

“There were difficult times,” Thurow says. “But there were also times of joy and laughter and warmth that made it an enriching experience.”

Thurow hopes to visit the farmers again in the near future to follow up with a video series on how their lives have changed. He continues to pursue long-term projects in order to get to the root of issues around the world.


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Small scale farming to large scale agriculture: the move toward environmentally friendly practices

By Kathryn Cawdrey

DES MOINES, Iowa — Conservation agriculture is critical for modern farming. With pressures from climate change and the need for sustainability, smallholder farmers and large corporations are implementing new, environmentally friendly farming practices.

Members from One Acre Fund, Farm Journal Foundation and DuPont shared their stories about the positive impact of conservation agriculture through their own individual practices on sustainability, profitability and resilience.


Jenya Shandina takes to podium to share One Acre Fund stories, goals and successes. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

Jenya Shandina, business development manager of One Acre Fund, said One Acre aims to facilitate a higher income and a lower climate impact for smallholder farmers in rural Africa. One of the first conservation practices One Acre Fund teaches to the farmers, Shandin said, is composting decayed organic matter, such as banana peels or coffee grounds, that can be used to treat soil. One Acre Fund hopes composting will help move the needle on climate change because the farmers won’t waste any piece of food.

“These are the people who will be impacted by climate change the most,” Shandina said.

Medium-sized farms can also use conservation techniques, such as the 10,000-acre Dee River Ranch in Alabama and Mississippi owned by Annie Dee.

Dee is the lead Alabama farmer for the Farm Journal Foundation’s Farm Team Program, and she says she represents the average “mid-scale” farmer. She’s the first farmer in her family and believes that’s the key to her success. Dee didn’t stick to traditional farming practices just because “my grandparents did it this way,” she said. 

Constantly seeking to test new practices that save the environment and money, Dee uses no-till farming. This technique increases earthworm populations and the amount of organic matter while retaining nutrients in the soil and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.


Alabama farmer Annie Dee gave thorough explanations of her own farming practices. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

Another conversation farming technique Dee uses involves the planting of diverse cover crops, which reduces erosion and compaction, improves soil structure and increases organic matter. Cover crops are solely for soil improvement — they’re planted but are never harvested and sold.

The cover crops Dee planted has attracted hungry visitors. Dee began receiving calls from people who wanted to pick her cover crops, and she easily obliged. Word spread, and people up to 60 miles away come to pick the produce. At thanksgiving, Dee and her daughter also donated produce from the fields to others.

“We had enough for the soil, the deer and for us,” Dee said.

Corporations, such as DuPont, are beginning emphasize similar conservation goals as One Acre Fund and Dee River Ranch

Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont’s director of sustainability, said the company produces a drought-resistant corn hybrid that can rely on rain instead of irrigation. The corporation also teaches farmers when and where to use fertilizer, placing a special emphasis on illustrating the right amount of fertilizer to use. Too much fertilizer causes run-off, Rittenhouse said.

Solutions that work well in the U.S. may not work in Africa, Rittenhouse said, so it is important to think locally when implementing new technologies..

“There is a science to feeding the world,” Rittenhouse said.

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Thirty years after the birth of Sasakawa Africa Association, no signs of slowing

By Kathryn Cawdrey

DES MOINES, Iowa — When Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o took the stage to celebrate 30 years of Sasakawa in Africa, she stepped out from behind the podium and into the crowd — her preferred way of speaking.


Hon. Ruth Oniang’o stepped into the crowd to talk about Sasakawa in Africa. (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

Oniang’o is the chairperson of the Sasakawa Africa Organization and its sister organization the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education, which are international non governmental organizations that aim to create a more food-secure rural Africa. SAA began in 1986 when Norman Borlaug, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa came together to combat world hunger.

Oniang’o said she met Norman Borlaug at an event in Narobi years later when she was a member of the Kenyan Parliament.

“Everyone was so excited, and everyone was surrounding him,” Oniang’o said.

And then Borlaug approached her. He took her hand, firmly enveloped it in his hands, and encouraged her to make a change. He told her that it was the politicians that created opportunities for the hungry in India and Pakistan and now it was her turn to make that change in Africa.

“You can imagine that kind of responsibility,” Oniang’o said. She was overwhelmed by Borlaog’s goals for her.

However, she believed God wouldn’t give her a load that she couldn’t carry, so she prayed for the wisdom to grant Borlaug’s wish. And in 2010, a year after Borlaug’s death, Oniang’o became the chairperson of SSA.

Oniang’o faced many challenges leading SSA: the pressures to diversify, the goals to share scientific findings and managing the field operations. She learned on the job, taking time to learn more about organization and SSA’s history and goals.

Borlaug left an unorganized — and somewhat nonexistent — paper trail. He wasn’t a fan of administrative work or sitting in meetings; he preferred to be with the farmers. Oniang’o continues that tradition and visits farms to see how Borlaug’s technologies have been implemented. However, the books are much more organized under her guidance.


Oniang’o reenacts her encounter with Norman Borlaug with the help of her colleagues. (Photo by Kathryn Cawdrey)

Getting farmers to discuss their experiences is a difficult thing to do, Oniang’o said, but they appreciate, embrace and adopt new technologies and are willing to move forward with SSA.

Kebba Sima, an SSA theme director for Monitoring, Evaluation Learning and Sharing, described the changes he’s seen over one year. He’s seen farmers adopting new technologies and making gains from them. SSA provides boosts to production levels and access to new knowledge and skills.

For Sima, it is really enriching to see smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods. When famers combine their previous, indigenous knowledge with the new scientific technologies, “it becomes crazy.” For him, crazy means there is a significant increase farming success, which for many SSA workers, is very rewarding.

Oniang’o said she loves to join in with the smiles and laughs of the farmers that SSA has helped. Though the organization has made large strides to enhancing the lives of farmers in rural areas, it is not done yet.

As a chairperson of SSA, founder and director of the Rural Outreach Programme and more, Oniang’o has a lot on her plate.

“People tell me to slow down,” she said. “I say, who am I to slow down?”

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Empowering women starts with girls at home, school

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By Kristen Reesor

DES MOINES, Iowa — When Fatima Denton’s son was 8 years old, he had a school project on volcano eruptions. As he explained how an eruption happens, Denton —who is the director of the Special Initiatives Division in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and has worked in science all her life — interjected with an idea.

Her son responded, “Hang on, Mommy. Let me finish explaining. You’re not a scientist.”

That was one of the experiences five women leaders told the audience at the Women Leaders Driving Science and Innovation for Agricultural Transformation in Africa panel Friday at the 2016 World Food Prize conference.

The panelists emphasized the importance of changing social gender norms and improving the climate for women scientists and farmers. Lindiwe Sibanda, the CEO and head of the Mission, Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, moderated.

The women said the prevailing negative attitude in Africa toward women in science is evident from an early age, as Denton’s anecdote illustrated. Most of the panelists experienced backlash for having childhood interests in science and agriculture. Their enthusiasm did not fit the stereotype that women can only perform domestic work.

“When we got back home from the farm, my sisters and I had another job to start: collect the water, collect the firewood, make dinner for everybody, clean up, get ready for school the following morning. My brothers studied and played,” said Jemimah Njuki, senior program specialist at the International Development Research Centre.

“At a time when teachers believed women could not do mathematics, I was a mathematician, and I used to beat the boys,” said Ruth Oniang’o, the chair of the Boards of Sasakawa Africa Association and Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, president of the Republic of Mauritius, shared a similar memory. She wanted to study chemistry when she was a child, and a school guidance counselor questioned her choice. The counselor told her chemistry was for boys and no jobs would be available to her.

The women said devaluing girls’ education makes it harder for girls to achieve high-level leadership positions and diminishes the impact of their voices and research as adults.

The women offered many solutions to gender-based inequality

“We need the men to support the women,” said Oniang’o, citing the women’s rights contributions of World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn and African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi Adesina.

The panelists also stressed the role of women helping and supporting each other. Sibanda said women leaders must pass the fight for equality onto their daughters and other women. Oniang’o takes this on by mentoring young women.

Dominique Charron, the director for agriculture and environment at Canada’s International Development Research Centre, said institutions also can help by providing opportunities for women to grow their confidence early on in their careers. Institutions should insist on accurate gender representation in research teams and provide grants for women researchers, she said.

Teachers also have a role to play in encouraging girls to pursue fields in science.

“We have to make agriculture far more sexy,” said Gurib-Fakim and added that educators must make science relevant to young girl’s lives and make them appreciate how science is alive all around us.

All of the panelists agreed progress has been made toward equal opportunities for women, but more improvement is needed.

“It seems like we’ve been chipping away at a rock, and it is not falling,” Njuki said.

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Collaboration, networking are key to combatting food insecurity

By Sean McNealy

DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. universities can learn a thing or two from Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. The school has developed open networks of information between academic departments to promote sharing of scientific research developments among faculty and students.

The example set by Wageningen UR is what a commission by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities want to emulate in the U.S.

The commission, titled “The Challenge of Change: Engaging Public Universities to Feed the World,” seeks to solve food insecurity and agricultural challenges. The commission aims to focus on access, availability and utilization of resources while accounting for water demand, climate change and food waste.

A panel at the 2016 World Food Prize conference brought together university leaders from the U.S. and Europe to discuss how universities can solve food security through collaboration and data sharing.

Unfortunately, the funding for agricultural research and development is inadequate, Steven Leath, the president of Iowa State University said. But rallying around the problems, rather than specific disciplines or academic departments, is the key to solving complex problems like worldwide hunger.



Steven Leath of Iowa State University and Gebisa Ejeta of Purdue discuss open networks at the World Food Prize. (Photo by Sarah Goellner)

“The fundamental idea is if you can identify the big problem, we can mobilize energies on campus and across campuses,” said Peter McPherson, the president of the APLU.

McPherson pointed to cancer research as an example of how different university departments work together to make a difference.

Louise Fresco, president of the executive board at Wageningen UR, said that if faculty are focused on impact and teamwork, then their publications and contributions can be used by other researchers toward achieving something greater. Collaborations on campus can cast a wave of change in faculty action.

“Open up, find things that mobilize people, and work on science that has an impact,” Fresco said.

Leath said digital agriculture is a new development that is necessary to make the sharing of data more efficient and easier to access. He said that universities need to give faculty proper resources for them to form interdisciplinary compacts.

To conquer global food insecurity, Leath said sustainability needs to be at the forefront of agricultural development because as the population continues to grow there will be less tillable land and more water scarcity.

“As a society, we aren’t satisfied with just production,” Leath said and added that researchers need to study and reevaluate the steps leading to food production to become sustainable.

With the commission in place, U.S. university departments will be charged with crossing discipline lines to work together for one common goal: eradicating worldwide hunger.

“The premise is that this is a global problem and agenda,” Gebisa Ejeta, a 2009 World Food Prize Laureate and professor at Purdue University, said. “It’s addressing the most fundamental needs.”

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Four scientists honored for accomplishments in biofortification at 30th anniversary of World Food Prize

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By Kristen Reesor

DES MOINES, Iowa – Four biofortification experts received recognition for their contributions to improving the health of millions at the 2016 Laureate Award Ceremony for the World Food Prize on Thursday.

The 2016 laureates –Maria Andrade, Howarth Bouis, Jan Low and Robert Mwanga –were greeted with standing ovations as they each entered the Iowa State Capitol House of Representatives chamber.

Andrade, Mwanga and Low are from the International Potato Center. The World Food Prize honored them for developing and promoting the consumption of the orange-flesh sweet potato, a crop enriched with vitamin A.

Bouis, the founder of HarvestPlus at the International Food Policy Research Institute, won the World Food Prize for leading a plant breeding strategy where nutrient-fortified crops have been released or tested in more than 40 countries.

The laureates’ achievements in biofortification, according to the World Food Prize, have helped improve the health of 10 million people and have the potential to affect up to one billion people by 2030.

“I’ve learned science can only serve the poor if we scientists actively take leadership in motivating and organizing the many actors and institutions involved in bringing new agricultural technologies to farmers and consumers,”Bouis said.

Low gave her speech in the form of a poem. She said, “Our deepest joy is watching children consume their first biofortified fruits, improving the odds for healthy lives.”

Low’s rhyming remarks were not the only artistic touches in the award ceremony. Music was involved throughout the night, from the Southeast Polk High School band playing on the Capitol steps before the ceremony began to country singer Emily West performing “I want to live”— a song from the first World Food Prize award ceremony in 1987.

African opera singer Bongiwe Nakani was scheduled to sing at the ceremony as well, but a delayed flight trapped her in Vienna. In her absence, former Borlaug-Ruan intern Anne Micheal Langguth played a violin piece.

Leslie Odom Jr, from the Broadway musical Hamilton, performed the final songs of the evening. He sang a song from the musical in which Andrew Jackson and Aaron Burr tell their children they will fight for them to have prosperous futures. Odom Jr said it was a fitting song for the occasion because The World Food Prize recognizes individuals who invest in children’s health and the organization strives to inspire the next generation to tackle the issue of world hunger.

Some members of the next generation received recognized at the ceremony for their work to improve food security.

Isiah Brandt won the 2016 John Chrystal Intern Award for research on rural youth in Kenya. Madeline Poole was one of the two winners of the 2016 Elaine Szymoniak Intern Award. She conducted research on rhizobacteria in India. The other recipient was Precious Listana, who focused on forming self-help groups in India.

Students, scientists, dignitaries, 14 past World Food Prize laureates and more attended the award ceremony. Many family members of the late Norman Borlaug, founder of the World Food Prize, and the late John Ruan, who brought the World Food Prize to Iowa, also attended. Ruan’s grandson and World Food Prize Chairman, John Ruan III, sat on stage next to an empty chair.

“It’s open so that (Borlaug) spirit is always here with us,” Quinn said.

President Barack Obama sent a letter read by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack saying,“This year’s honorees—two African scientists and two Americans—remind us that we need not come from similar backgrounds or origins to help ensure global food security.”

In the House Chambers, as many as 40-50 languages were spoken from people all over the world who came to celebrate agriculture, Quinn said.

“In any of those languages, hunger is a terrible word.”


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