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What can be done to stop world hunger

Roger Thurow

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Along with global warming and a world-wide recession, leaders at the G8 summit this week are going to talk about agriculture. Specifically, aid for farmers in poor countries to help them grow more food. In a new book called "Enough," Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow says there's more that needs to be done to solve world hunger than just growing more food. Welcome to the program.

ROGER THUROW: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: You know, I think probably most of us would guess that hunger and famine in this world are natural phenomena. That they are the results of droughts and poor planting seasons. You and your co-author, though, make a different case -- entirely. That it's all bad politics, really, and broken markets.

THUROW: Yeah, that so much of today's hunger is caused by bad policy that spans the political spectrum. And policies that may have started off with good intentions, say our farm subsidies, food aid, ethanol incentives.

Ryssdal: It sorta sounds as if you're saying for all the good that the West, and specifically the United States, tries to do in the area of food aid, getting food over there, giving hundreds of millions of dollars every year to people who need it, really it's a little bit backwards.

THUROW: The U.S. food aid system as it's started and as it is now, it's 100 percent American-grown food shipped on American-flagged ships. There is no flexibility, or very little flexibility, for using cash to buy food that may be available in the hunger-stricken countries themselves or in the region. And as we described in the book, kinda the classic situation where this arose, and basically got people to really think about this, was the famine of Ethiopia of 2003.

That famine was proceeded by two years of some of the best crops that Ethiopian farmers had ever had. After those two great years of harvest, prices collapsed 80 percent. So a lot of the food remained in some warehouses of local traders. So in that situation, here comes all this American food aid streaming into the country, but it was coming on the road from the point in Djibouti, right past some of the warehouses that were pretty much full to the roof with Ethiopian-grown food that there was no market for, that there was no money to buy up the surplus crops that were still available.

Ryssdal: I wanna make that point again. Ethiopia can feed itself. But the markets don't let that system work.

THUROW: Exactly. So what happened in the famine of 2003 is that the markets failed before the weather did.

Ryssdal: You know, you have a great line in the book. You say, quoting some people in Ethiopia, they say, "I don't care if it rains in Ethiopia, so long as it rains in Iowa." The assumption being, you know, that's where the corn that is going to feed us is being grown.

THUROW: Right, and it really creates this dependency syndrome. That instead of the Ethiopian farmers having the incentive to grow as much as possible, there's this thinking in the back of their minds, well, there's the food aid that is going to come in.

Ryssdal: Is there anything on the international scene that's going to break that cycle?

THUROW: With President Obama, minutes into his administration, in his inaugural address, he addressed the poor nations of the world, and he said, "We will work to make your farms flourish and clean water flow." To make your farms flourish, that's what we're talking about in terms of the agricultural development that's been so sorely neglected. There's a grassroots movement that's coming from churches, and temples, and synagogues, from universities, and from philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation. I think this awareness and this pressure coming from the grassroots is beginning to grab the attention of the statesman and political leaders more. There is leadership on this.

Ryssdal: Roger Thurow writes for the Wall Street Journal. He and his colleague have a new book out about global hunger and international food aid. It's called "Enough." Roger, thanks a lot.

THUROW: Thank you very much.

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