DES MOINES (DTN) -- While the accolades and scale of the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue have gotten bigger over the decades, the challenges of addressing global hunger have gotten worse.
Named after famed Iowa wheat breeder Norman Borlaug, a 1970 Nobel Prize recipient, the Borlaug Dialogue over the decades has built its success on highlighting achievements in reducing global hunger. As many as 1,300 people from 76 countries are attending this year's conference in Des Moines.
Yet, leaders speaking at the Borlaug Dialogue about agricultural development noted efforts to reduce hunger are going backward.
One report highlighted at the event points to the World Food Program declaring a record 349 million people globally were facing acute food insecurity this year -- the most severe form of hunger.
The United Nations forecasts roughly 1 in 10 people -- about 735 million -- are facing hunger. A major U.N. goal of "zero hunger" by 2030 is in jeopardy. War zones in Ukraine, Yemen, Somalia, and now Gaza and Israel exacerbate these risks.
"The numbers of food insecure has actually risen. The crises have become more frequent," said Cary Fowler, special envoy for global food security at the U.S. State Department.
The causes of food insecurity "are perhaps more intractable than they've ever been," Fowler added.
Citing both conflict and climate change, Fowler said the push to address food production needs to accelerate, along with the needs to "protect and recapitalize our soils." More balance is needed in nutrition and better research is needed on minor crops that populations in Africa and Asia often rely on.
"We, I think, need to be more aspirational. We need to think more boldly and act more boldly. And we need some game-changing developments in agriculture and food security," Fowler said.
The U.S. also isn't immune to food insecurity. USDA's Economic Research Service on Wednesday released a report on Household Food Security in the United States for 2022. The report found that about 12.8% of households, about 17 million households, were food insecure at some point in 2022, including 6.8 million households that reported very low food security. These were significant increases from 2021.
Speaking at the dialogue, Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was among multiple speakers calling for more investment into long-term agriculture in developing and underdeveloped countries instead of continually increasing food aid. Such efforts, he said, would require a broad political coalition.
"I don't think at all we are meeting the moment on effective government investment," Shah said.
Talking about political division, Shah said he found out during his time at USAID there can be bipartisanship when it comes to addressing hunger both domestically and abroad.
"Hunger carries a different level of moral and ethical and real commitment for certain members of Congress in a way that it's just different from all the things we talked about," Shah said.
Shah also pointed to how U.S. policymakers worked to address grain exports from Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
"I still think America carries this special moral purpose around the fight on hunger. I think there's a strong bipartisan effort there," he said.
Edwin Price, a professor at the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University, noted that international food assistance has gone from $2.5 billion a year to around $14 billion a year. At the same time, international agricultural research has been stagnant, averaging about $1 billion a year.
"Why are we not thinking about the long term?" Price said.
Pointing to some food pressures that help drive migration in Central America to the U.S., Price said productivity of cereal grains in Central American countries has not changed in 50 years.
Kim Tom, an Indiana farmer and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, said rather than relying on government, more effort needs to be made to engage the private sector. He noted too often, everyone tends to rely too heavily on U.N. agencies.
"But who has the intellectual property? Who has the capital? Who has the ability to educate people in the private sector?" Tom asked. "We need private-sector engagement across the developing world to bring the tools and technology and let them reinvest in those communities."
Tom said there need to be more connections between private companies in agriculture and development "because ... let's face it, we're not making the inroads we need to solve this global problem."
Tom also criticized the reliance on fertilizer from Russia, Belarus and China, and said more needs to be done to break that reliance. Tom pointed to recent meetings by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladmir Putin, who are trying to collaborate more.
"We need to take that as a warning," Tom said.
Bram Govaerts, director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), pointed to the ripple effects globally from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and this disruption of agricultural production and exports that resulted.
"There is no peace without food, and it is very difficult to produce food without peace," Govaerts said.
Looking at scientific challenges, Govaerts said scientists and policymakers are reactive to situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. A new virus struck, and scientists went to work on a vaccine.
SORGHUM SCIENTIST HONORED
Missing from the Borlaug Dialogue on Tuesday was Gebisa Ejeta, a plant breeding professor at the Purdue University Center for Global Food Security. Ejeta, a 2009 World Food Prize recipient, instead was at the White House where President Joe Biden awarded him the National Medal of Science. The award is the highest recognition the nation bestows upon scientists.
Ejeta's work has focused on developing sorghum hybrids that are resistant to both severe drought and the destructive parasitic Striga weed. A native of Ethiopia, Ejeta's work on sorghum has resulted in a dramatic increase in sorghum production, which has helped feed hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa.
Also recognized at the White House on Tuesday was the 2013 World Food Prize recipient, Mary-Dell Chilton from Syngenta, who received a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Chilton was among the scientists who established one of the world's first plant-breeding programs to incorporate biotechnology.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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