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World Food Prize Honors Those Who Fight Hunger

posted on January 9, 2004

The New York Times reported this week that the world's two largest seed companies met repeatedly in the 1990s to fix prices for genetically modified seeds. One of the firms in question is Monsanto Company. The other is Pioneer Hi-Bred, an underwriter for this program.

The companies acknowledge that senior executives did meet, but only to discuss an existing licensing agreement and not to illegally fix prices. The Times reports the two companies control about 60 percent of the $5 billion market for corn and soybean seeds in the U.S.

From the board room to the back 40, the GMO revolution has influenced agriculture in many ways. Its promise of soaring yields and resistance to pests could mean continued record crop production around the world.

And yet, fostered by poverty, disease, and war, hundreds of millions of people still go hungry every day. For that reason, the anti-hunger soldiers carry on, often against overwhelming odds. John Nichols explains.


World Food Prize Honors Those Who Fight Hunger

Every year, millions of people around the world suffer from hunger. According to the United Nations, globally, more than 800 million lack adequate food supplies and 24,000 people die every day due to hunger.

While wars and natural disasters create food shortages and starvation, poverty remains the chief cause of hunger -- and the cruel irony is that the world is full of food. For decades, planet Earth has provided enough food to sustain every man, woman and child.

Dr. Norman Borlaug: "You know, when people become very elite, they think differently..."

For generations, scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug have dreamed of ending world hunger. In the 1940s and 50s, Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat that enabled impoverished farmers to harvest more grain from fewer acres. This "high-yield" agriculture, as it came to be known, is credited with keeping starvation at bay for millions of people in Third World countries. Borlaug's humanitarian efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Since the Nobel Foundation had no prize for food or agriculture per se, Borlaug envisioned an award like the Nobel Prize to individuals making significant contributions to the issue of food security... and the World Food Prize was born.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Director, UN Millennium Project: "What the world food prize does is draw attention not only to the struggle against hunger, but to the fact that this problem can be solved."

Founded in 1987, the World Food Prize recognizes exceptional individual achievements in alleviating human suffering by increasing the quantity, quality and availability of food.

An endowment provided by Iowa businessman and philanthropist John Ruan, enables the organization to award a $250,000 prize annually to the World Prize Laureate. This year's winner is Catherine Bertini of the United Nations' World Food Programme.

Catherine Bertini, 2003 World Food Prize Laureate: "I share this award tonight with the 8,000 plus staff members of the World Food Programme..."

Bertini was chosen as the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate for her leadership in savings millions from famine and starvation while serving as the Executive Director of the United Nation's World Food Programme, or WFP, for the past 10 years.

WFP is the world's largest food relief organization and, in 2002, fed 72 million people in 82 countries. Bertini, currently the Under Secretary of the United Nations, is a champion of women's rights and claims getting food to women is paramount in the struggle to end hunger.

Bertini: "Women are the people who cook the food all around the world, they grow it or forage for it or shop for it and they find the water, they cook the food. If we get food to women, that's the way we can ensure that the food is going to go to the rest of the people in the family."

The World Food Programme goes to great lengths to get food to those in need. In Sudan, years of war combined with poor harvests pushed the impoverished nation to the brink of famine. WFP set up an airdrop operation that, at its peak, had 18 aircraft per day flying from nearby bases. Almost two million lives were saved in what became the largest humanitarian airdrop in history. About 90% of WFP food is moved by ship, but the agency employs everything from airplanes to elephants to distribute its life-saving sustenance.

Bertini: "I've been part of a massive effort of like-minded people who have worked very hard in order to ensure that poor people get some of the support that they need and that hungry people get some of the support they need so that their hunger can be alleviated and ultimately ended."

Despite the accomplishments, much work remains to be done. Currently, global population is about six billion people. Concurrently, land devoted to crop and livestock production is diminishing worldwide. According to the World Food Prize, agricultural land the size of China and India combined has been compromised, degraded or depleted since World War I. With global population projected to swell to eight billion over the next two decades, the question begs to be asked... How will all those people be fed?

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman: "There's many kinds of technologies that have developed over the years that have allowed this world to continue to feed itself, and we need to make sure that those technologies are available to the developing countries, particularly those areas which are most food deficit."

For U.S. farmers, who already produce some of the cheapest food in the world, the problems of wide-spread hunger may seem almost incomprehensible. However, growers are familiar with the realities of marketplace economics. And with the rural American economy mired in recession, helping others may be one way for farmers to help themselves.

David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World: "There's a self-interest motive for people who are involved in agriculture to make sure that people in this country and around the world who don't now have enough to eat, that they get something to eat. You know, it's just really clear that you can produce more. When Southeast Asia reduced hunger and poverty over a period of about ten years, that was good for farmers and there's no reason why reducing hunger in Africa or reducing hunger here in the U.S. can't be good for all the people who are involved in agriculture."

For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.

Tags: awards genetic engineering hunger news poverty World Food Prize