As you celebrate New Year’s Day and pack up your Christmas tree or Hanukkah candles this holiday season, offer a moment of silence for the needlessly hungry of the world who won’t be having holiday feasts this year.
In North Korea, the Communist government that both controls the food production—and, more importantly, distributes the Western food aid—has abandoned entire regions of the country’s population. North Korea is now in its eighth year of widespread famine. The food aid goes largely to the army, and the defense industries. As we all now know, North Korea recently admitted spending huge sums to develop nuclear missiles while its citizens starve.
In Africa, at least fourteen million villagers (and perhaps as many as thirty million) are threatened with starvation due to drought. Africa has failed to raise its crop yields high enough in the good-weather years to build food stocks for the inevitable bad years. (30 percent of Africa is “highly vulnerable” to drought.)
If current trends continue, Africa is likely to have 200 million malnourished people by 2020. To keep hunger at even this level, they will have to clear wildlands equal to the land area of Texas for more low-yield crops.
Yet the head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority demands that the First World stop pushing fertilizer and biotechnology, and respect the low-yield “African farming model.” Tewolde Egziabher says everything in this homeland is fine; “only the southern region is hungry.”
The African farming model is based upon getting plant nutrients from animal manure—on a continent famous for its livestock-killing droughts and cattle disease epidemics (tsetse flies, rinderpest, East Coast fever, etc.) Africa even has lots of natural gas to product industrial fertilizer—but hasn’t done so.
This year, the African food aid problem is compounded by a scare campaign against donated American corn, led by the anti-technology activists in Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Convinced that mud huts and sandals are the best way to preserve the world’s wildlife, they told African leaders that the donated American corn (some of it biotech) is “poison.” This, of course, is the same corn Americans have been eating without any negative effects for nearly a decade. The United States has now offered less-desired sorghum and wheat, but months will be lost in the struggle to prevent mass starvation.
Meanwhile, AK-47s are more abundant in Africa than food, so every wild creature from the gorilla on down is in immediate danger of going into the stew pot. Is this the Greenpeace model of wildlife conservation?
India, beset by massive food shortages in the 1960s, now has more than sixty million tons of surplus food, thanks to the high yields of the Green Revolution wheat and rice varieties.
Devinder Sharma, an Indian critic of biotech crops, says India still has 320 million people who go to bed hungry every night. He says India has done all it could, cutting the cost of food grain in subsidized “poor shops” to less than five cents per pound. Unfortunately, people in India’s “hunger belt” (the states of Bihar and Orissa) can’t afford even that low price, so even that low price, so how can biotech crops help?
But how many hungry would India have if it now grew only sixty million tons of grain as in 1960, instead of today’s technology-aided crop of 240 million tons? Or if it fails to increase food production as its population rises by 300 million over the next forty years?
Moreover, the free trade Sharma opposes has stimulated more jobs, more income growth—and more hunger reduction—for more millions of the world’s poor people than any other effort in human history. Until the last decade, India’s Hindu elite scorned technology, trade, and poverty reduction, preferring the red tape and government mismanagement of hard-line socialism.
During the world’s most holy season, it is worth asking whether humanity achieved its capacity for learning by accident or through divine will? Should we have stopped learning at the bow and arrow? After the printing press? After hybrid seeds? Before biotechnology? Do we dare to stop the knowledge process while more than 800 million humans are hungry, and threatening to destroy the world’s wildlife in an ignorant expansion of antiquated farming systems?
Technological abundance gives my family a Christmas feast every year, even as we leave our farm’s steeper slopes to the deer and wild turkeys, leave the ducks on the pond unharvested, and keep refilling seven bird feeders with enough grain and oilseeds to rescue an African family.
My family believes families in Africa, India, and North Korea deserve as much security and opportunity as we have. Ditto for the birds.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on December 17, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.