Food in the land of plenty

I was having a perfectly pleasant conversation with myself over this story—yogurt smoothies or squash this week?—when I caved. I went to the World Food Prize a little over a week ago with students in a global food insecurity class in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. And the issues there press. The meeting in Des Moines drew scientists, government folk and journalists from all over the world by plane and car to the agrarian United States.

We’ve all seen the bounty we can produce. Fields of plenty undulated outside the van windows for most of the six-hour drive north. Yet hunger and its treacherous cousin, malnutrition, are on every continent. And the worry is we might not be doing enough now to meet the expectations of 9.6 billion people by the year 2050.

After Norman Borlaug — an Iowan credited with the Green Revolution and saving countless lives with his advances in agriculture — received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, we collectively took a long breath. But we really shouldn’t have done that. The world’s food supply needs tending. Governments took precious resources away from agricultural development and farm-to-market infrastructure needs. To counter this and encourage and recognize agricultural advances, the World Food Prize is awarded every year during the Borlaug Dialogue.

“Over the past decade, countries are maintaining growth in productivity on global average,” Margaret Zeigler, executive director of Global Harvest Initiative, said. “But those findings should not downplay the serious and urgent fact that we must maintain an increasing rate of global agricultural productivity year after year for the next 40 years.”

Despite overall growth in productivity worldwide, strains on our food system include a happily increasing middle class who want more access to protein and other agricultural products. The middle class in China, for instance, is projected to grow from 270 million to 950 million people by 2030. Then, too, production of food in developing nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, continues to lag behind.

Access to food might be as important as productivity of farms, though. A large part of food shortages today come down to logistics. Food spoils because of poor storage options, is wasted, never makes it to market because of terrible road conditions, poor ag extension and failed farm policy.

None of this is apparent in my kitchen as I stir my homemade chicken soup for dinner tonight. But I mull the central question of our time, as stated by my co-professor Bill Allen: “Why is it that we humans grow plenty of food to feed everyone on the planet yet millions starve to death each year? Still others live desperate, debilitating lives of malnutrition. Even in our own country, the United States, countless children go to bed hungry. How can this be?”

Next column, I promise, we’ll talk yogurt or squash, I’ll have a discussion with myself and decide which. But for now, in this land of plenty for many of us, give a little thought and support to not only the Food Bank’s good work but to issues of food policy and how best to maintain a livelihood for farmers around the globe so they can feed themselves and all of us.

For more information, The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow is an excellent book on this subject.

Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of “Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine” and “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland.”

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About ninafurstenau

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau teaches a Food and Wine Writing for the University of Missouri Science and Agriculture Journalism program and the MU School of Journalism School. She has published Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland, a food memoir, which was selected as the MFK Fisher Book Award and Grand Prize Award winner by Les Dames d'Escoffier, as well as Savor Missouri: River Hill Country Food and Wine, celebrating Missouri foodways. Ms. Furstenau was in the Peace Corps in Tunisia from 1984 to 1986 and then began working life as a journalist and publisher/editor of three construction magazines beginning in 1987. Ms. Furstenau and her husband launched and published these magazines and two others until 2001. She was a month-long resident at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, in 2008.
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