By Peter McPherson
A hungry child knows no politics. That’s what President Ronald Reagan declared in 1985 after approving food aid to famine-stricken Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands were starving. There has been some progress in parts of Africa, but big challenges remain. In February, the United Nations declared famine in parts of South Sudan, where 100,000 people could die of hunger without intervention.
In addition to South Sudan, families are teetering on the brink of famine in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Organizations like the World Food Programme are scaling up relief operations to reach the most vulnerable households, but funding shortfalls mean resources aren’t keeping up with the need. People are really facing starvation.
I have seen the faces of famine firsthand, and it is as devastating as it is preventable. During the height of the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and 1985, I served as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency responsible for administering America’s foreign aid. That role took me to the front lines of the crisis.
Over 12 months in 1984 and 1985, the U.S. government shipped more than 2 million tons of food aid to Ethiopia. That’s enough to fill roughly 76,923 large semi-trucks. Thankfully, the technology and tools at our disposal in 2017 are more effective than they were in the 1980s. Aid organizations have the capacity and expertise to contain and avert famine, but they need adequate funding to respond.
On Saturday, Michigan is hosting the state’s first hearing on the 2018 Farm Bill, which invites area farmers and food producers to share their perspectives on how taxpayer dollars should be spent over the next five years to help America put more food on the table. This legislation is especially important in Michigan, where agriculture sustains a significant number of jobs. It will also have a huge impact on global food security — especially for the world’s hungry and most vulnerable. Public hearings like these offer the opportunity to create federal policy to mitigate famine and save lives. The Farm Bill can bolster ongoing humanitarian efforts by financing the pre-positioning of food supplies, disaster reliance projects and early warning systems.
The farm bill not only establishes most federal farm and food policies, it also codifies global food assistance programs like the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which provides school meals in the world’s poorest classrooms, and the Food for Peace Program, which has provided U.S. food aid to more than 3 billion people around the world since it was first signed into law in 1954.
At the same time, universities across the country are working on groundbreaking research that can further strengthen the impact of the Farm Bill and prevent famine in the future. Michigan State University has made enormous contributions to U.S. agriculture since its founding in 1855. It hosts two of 24 Feed The Future Innovation Labs, where scholars and students are pioneering smarter, more sustainable ways to reduce global hunger, poverty, and undernutrition.
Over many generations, universities like Michigan State have been critical to solving the country’s agricultural challenges and extending their discoveries across the country and world. When it comes to feeding the planet, the challenges that face us are multidimensional and multinational, requiring a response that crosses borders and disciplines. This is why Association of Public Land-grant Universities is releasing a report, The Challenge of Change, focused on the role of public research universities in helping the world become food and nutrition secure. While universities alone will not solve the food security crisis, their discovery, engagement and learning will be critical as universities are the only place where people of all relevant fields and backgrounds come together to address such complex problems.
Sharing agricultural innovation conceived by our brightest scientists or surplus crops harvested by our best farmers is a gesture of goodwill, an economic investment and a crucial way to protect our national security.
Solving global hunger is a cause that transcends political divides, especially when it comes to preventing famine. Over the last six decades, the U.S. played an indispensable role in combating hunger and famine. This legacy is a testament to what America stands for and what unites us. That leadership continues to this day in the bipartisan nature of the Farm Bill and cross-party relationships between lawmakers from the heartland like U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. Just this week, Congress passed an additional $990 million in humanitarian assistance to specifically address the imminent famines.
Michigan has played an integral role in America’s incredible legacy fighting global hunger — one that voters should know about, take pride in and work to advance. As David Beasley, the new head of the World Food Programme, recently put it: “The world often struggles to wake up when history happens right in front of us.”
It’s not too late to speak up and take action in the face of famine. But time is short and we must act now.
Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, president emeritus of Michigan State University, and a former Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry’s hearing on the 2018 Farm Bill was at 10 a.m. Saturday at Michigan State University’s Saginaw Valley Research and Extension Center in Frankenmuth.