The 2010 World Food Prize Laureates David Beckmann and Jo Luck were introduced by the President of Iowa State University Gregory Geoffroy for a talk titled: Grassroots Efforts in the Fight against Global Hunger. The speakers were met with record attendance for this annual event, about 500 students, faculty, and community members. Tonight’s lecture is part of a week long series of events celebrating the legacy of Norm Borlaug and looking to what we can do to solve hunger in the US and across the world.
Many World Food Prize Laureates have been scientists, and scientists are undoubtedly important in developing new crop varieties and new methods that can produce more food with fewer inputs, particularly for small famers. This year’s Laureates have a new message to share. As David Beckmann pointed out during his talk, great scientists are important, but it also takes groups like Bread for the World and Heifer International to organize and mobilize people to help. This year’s Laureates share a message of hope and inspiration.
David Beckmann is the President of Bread for the World and President of The Alliance to End Hunger. He starts his talk with a positive note: there have been stunning changes for the better, including large reductions in child mortality due to hunger. Countries with reduced poverty include diverse countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, and Great Britain. Their successes show that it is possible to reduce hunger and poverty in our own communities and all over the world.
Bread for the World organizes people to change the politics of hunger. To make dramatic changes we need to change laws and systems. Front line work such as with food banks is important, but only make up about 6% of the food provided by US government programs like food stamps and school lunches. “We can not food bank our way to the end of hunger.”
Beckmann’s organizations help people make the connection between Jesus and justice, bringing Christian churches from many denominations as well as students, companies, and legislators together to work towards ending hunger. Bipartisan efforts have helped to triple US international aid in the last ten years. Even more important, that aid has been made more effective with a sharp focus on hunger issues. For example, the Obama administration was responsive to calls for improvement in international aid, but they did not have the political capital at the beginning of the term. Bread for the World helped provide political capital with millions of supporters. The results have been great, including a doubling of nutrition assistance to the hungry in the United States. As US elections approach, Beckmann urges us to consider which candidates will make time to help the hungry.
Beckmann, a Lutheran minister, concludes his talk with a reminder that God is calling us to help the hungry. He adds, if you don’t believe in God, the fact that hundreds of millions of people have escaped hunger should still be sacred. The proven effects of individual efforts should motivate us to work to help more people. “It’s not just about technology. We have to organize the give-a-damn to get it done.”
Sheri Reilly, campus minister at of St. Thomas Aquinas, who helps run a small farm in Ames, asked about problems with food aid, specifically referring to the problem of food aid to Haiti putting local farmers out of business. Beckmann replies: “food aid needs to be fixed”. The US needs to provide cash to buy food from farmers, not grain, whenever possible. For example, the biggest need is food for babies, but babies don’t eat grain. We need to look beyond grain as aid. The US spends two billion dollars a year on food aid. If we took half of that and used it to purchase food in country, we would get double the aid value. Originally food aid was about using up US surplus but now the amount of US food used for crops is minuscule. The problem is that there are a handful of shipping companies that are making money from shipping food aid grain – tax dollars are being used to pay these companies. There is also resistance to change from congressmen that is difficult to cut through.
In response to a question about subsides, Beckmann says that there is a higher rate of poverty in rural America but the poverty affects small farmers disproportionately. One cause is that subsidies are given to larger farms. A lot of the problems is that public policy is affected too much by special interests that don’t have issues like world hunger or the needs of small farmers in the US or abroad in mind.
Jo Luck, CEO of Heifer International, started her talk by saying that you “don’t have to be a scientist or a researcher, it takes all of us together,” including educators and teachers. Luck is a teacher by training.
Luck contracted a disease while traveling in Africa that has caused her to be sight-impaired. After the talk, I asked how long she has had this illness and she shared that over the past 20 months she has endured many surgeries and a lot of pain. As a student remarked while we were waiting to speak to Luck, so many of us complain or stay in bed when we have the sniffles. Luck is a role model to many of us who live comfortable lives, who have never slept on the ground or gone without food.
Luck said that her experience with this illness has not impacted her as negatively as it might because of some experiences she has had with blind individuals in Africa. She has worked with a blind family that once was shunned, that once had no dignity or self-worth, but who learned to farm, to tend animals, to plow and to plant, that regained their dignity through hard work. If they could persevere through their blindness then so can she.
What has made Heifer International so effective is that it is grounded on principles, called the 12 Cornerstones. These cornerstones echo not only the goals of the organization but also the goals of the people that Heifer International helps. Luck surveyed 200 people in 45 developing countries to see what was most important for them. We can think of many things we might expect to see on the list, such as running water, medicine, cars, and televisions, but the top ten included family, love, peace, spirituality, health, friendship, livelihood, justice, and dignity. These were consistent across economic, ethnic, and other factors. These commonalities can help us to better respond to needs in the US and across the world.
These principles appear in another way: recipients consider the animal a living loan. Once they are able to raise themselves out of poverty, families and individuals are quick to want to help others that are in the same situation that they were able to leave behind. This often includes passing on offspring of the animal to neighbors, but can also include monetary donations back to Heifer International to help families in other countries. Luck didn’t say it but the conclusion to this thought hung in the air. If these families who are just able to meet their food needs are able to find money to spare to help other families, what can we in the United States do?
Alan Koslow, community activist, vascular surgeon, and local radio show host, asked whether Heifer International focused on cows or if they provided other animals and how they worked around cultural sensitivities when it comes to animal choices. Luck responded that Heifer International originally provided just cows, but now they have a number of species, and the appropriateness of each species for each situation is carefully considered. For example, communities with little space might be encouraged to take guinea pigs. Some animals are more useful that others in that they provide more options for families. Buffalo and goats are called “7 M” animals becuse they can provide milk, muscle, money, materials, meat, motivation, and manure – such animals are particularly useful in helping families and communities move out of poverty. In a conversation after the event, Luck shared that Heifer International is committed to a system of agriculture that includes plants and animals, and as part of their efforts they offer not only animals but seeds and education.