Finding the political will to end hunger

As a young soldier in Italy during World War II, George McGovern caught his first glimpse of hunger - "the kind of hunger," he writes, "that stunts young bodies and can end lives prematurely." The encounter sparked a lifelong quest to find ways to harness surplus agricultural production to the task of feeding the world.

Five decades later, after two terms in Congress and three in the Senate, McGovern insists that the food shortages that have blighted history can become history. In spite of the grim fact that 800 million people - 300 million of them school-age children - are malnourished, he writes, a solution to the problem of world hunger is now within reach, if not entirely assured.

"Ending hunger is a greater moral imperative now than ever before," writes McGovern, "because for the first time humanity has the instruments in hand to defeat this cruel enemy at a very reasonable cost." Such hope comes none too soon. During the past half century, nearly half a billion people died of malnutrition and related causes - three times the number who perished in the century's military conflicts. Every minute, more than 10 children under the age of 5 die of hunger.

In this brief, lively handbook of hope, McGovern lays out a range of solutions that require only a little money - comparatively speaking - but a lot of political will.

The place to start, says McGovern, is with direct feeding programs to school children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and infants - a kind of global application of the US school lunch program enacted when he served as administrator of President John Kennedy's "Food for Peace" program. The next step is to educate girls and help provide women - already the main producers of food in developing nations - with the land, credit, capital, and technology to maximize farm output.

"We can't have half the population held back by enforced ignorance, poor health, job discrimination, and other gender inequities and then expect hunger to vanish through some miracle," McGovern writes.

McGovern's most innovative recommendation is for the creation of a "Farmers Corps" - in effect, a Peace Corps for retired farmers to teach improved agricultural methods to farmers in poor nations.

After three decades in the political arena, McGovern now serves as US ambassador to a trilogy of UN agencies - the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program - that have played a huge, if largely unnoticed, role in boosting global agricultural production. His career rivals - indeed, surpasses - that of Herbert Hoover, whose prodigious efforts saved millions from hunger in Europe after World War I.

McGovern is buoyed by heartening indices of progress. Only 17 percent of the world's population is hungry today, less than half the number in 1972. Meanwhile, scientific advances in agriculture have averted famines predicted by many doomsayers.

But at points McGovern stretches optimism to the limit. The fact that food production has outpaced population growth globally may provide cold comfort for the dozens of nations - mostly in Africa - where the reverse remains true. Moreover, McGovern - famously liberal for his backing over the years of food stamps, school lunches, and summer feeding programs - lends his qualified endorsement of genetically engineered crops.

Many of the underlying conditions that contribute to food shortages, ranging from civil conflicts to weak governments to water shortages, remain largely beyond the reach of UN agencies, Western money, and international goodwill to solve. All of which underscores McGovern's main contention, that the key element in eliminating world hunger - political will - may be harder to come by than money, technology, and expertise.

If the community of nations, acting through the UN, spends an additional $5 billion annually over the next 15 years, the ranks of the world's hungry could be cut in half. The alternative - allowing nearly one-sixth of humanity to remain on the brink of starvation - has a price tag of $16 billion annually in lost productivity, according to the World Bank. "This is a problem we can resolve at a fraction of the cost of ignoring it," writes McGovern. "We need to be about that task now."

George Moffett is the president of Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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