Enough: Why the Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

ACF Executive Director Nan Dale interviews Roger Thurow about his latest book.
ACF-Niger, courtesy S. Hauenstein-Swan.

Enough, a new book by Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, vividly explains how neglect and bad policies have kept more than a billion of the world’s poorest people hungry and calls readers to action in the eradication of this deadly scourge. Thurow and Kilman’s previous reporting on famines in Africa was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In recognition of their exceptional commitment to the issue of hunger, Action Against Hunger will honor Thurow and Kilman with its Humanitarian Award, to be presented at the Annual Gala on November 18, 2009.

This new publication by journalists Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman explores why more than a billion people suffer from hunger at the dawn of the 21st century, even though we have the tools and knowledge to end hunger worldwide. For anyone who cares about the issue of hunger, Enough is essential reading.

Nan Dale Discusses Global Hunger with Roger Thurow

You and your co-author Scott Kilman have been covering hunger and world agriculture for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade. Why did you decide to write this book and why now?

I knew that our souls wouldn’t rest until we wrote the book. Although Scott and I had been writing stories on hunger for The Wall Street Journal for a number of years, we believed our reporting would be more powerful and have a greater impact if we could bring it all together in a book. We would be able to craft a narrative arc that would show how the hunger problem has developed and how policy actions in the U.S. and Europe contribute to it. We wanted readers to make the connections as the story unfolds over time and to see how we have brought hunger with us into the 21st Century in ever-increasing numbers. And we wanted to show readers that hunger can be conquered, that it can become the great achievement of our generation. We believe that finding the solution to a problem often begins with people reading about it.

Our mantra during the writing was “Outrage and Inspire.” Outrage that one billion people in the world are hungry at the beginning of the 21st Century, largely due to neglect and policy decisions. Inspire that everyone can join the swelling constituency shouting “Enough is enough!”

Why now? We wanted to fuel the momentum of what we were observing: a growing movement across ideologies, politics, religions, borders and class to fight hunger like never before. And the timing of the book is indeed fortuitous as the Obama administration has set out to attack hunger with a new global food security initiative. The next year or two will be crucial in rallying the forces in the fight against hunger.

The Green Revolution in Asia has boosted agricultural productivity and saved millions of lives, but it’s also had some adverse consequences. What are the lessons learned from Asia? Why hasn’t this revolution taken hold in Africa?

The agriculture revolution stopped short of Africa mainly due to neglect. There was a widespread belief that the Green Revolution in Asia had largely solved the problem of hunger. Attention shifted to other matters. Development theory and practice turned away from African agriculture. African farmers were seen as the problem rather than the solution to the continent’s poverty. The momentum of the Green Revolution faded. Investment in agriculture development, by both donor countries and African governments, dramatically declined.

In a haunting prophecy, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, warned that this would happen during his lecture after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Borlaug pleaded: “Man can and must prevent the tragedy of famine in the future instead of merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of the famine, as he has so often done in the past. We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines.”

So the first part of the book–the Outrage part–is a crime story, about the greatest crime of our time: 25,000 people die every day of hunger, malnutrition and related diseases.

Those pursuing a Green Revolution in Africa today seem to be heeding the lessons of Asia, particularly the overuse of fertilizer and the draining of water resources. They also know that Africa’s geography, climate and agriculture history present a unique set of challenges. And they realize that unleashing an agriculture revolution in Africa means more than boosting farm production; it also means developing the infrastructure and the markets to be able to store, transport and sell the greater harvests. These are some of the things that were sorely neglected in the past.

You describe the devastating effects of U.S. agricultural policies on poor farmers around the world. What will it take for policymakers to reform this system?

Awareness and political will.

Awareness by policymakers that their actions have contributed to, and are contributing to, the growing hunger. And awareness that they can do something about it by reforming policies like food aid and farm subsidies that impact farmers in the developing world.

Political will to bring the work of the scientists, researchers and farmers to fruition was vital to the success of the original Green Revolution. Now that will is needed by leaders in both rich and poor countries to reverse the neglect and make agriculture development a top priority.

Policymakers in the rich world also need to be aware that hunger is a global security issue. The unrest in many countries that followed the spike in food prices last year was a harbinger of the tension and turmoil to come as global demand for food increases. So boosting agriculture development and ending hunger isn’t just the right thing to do, it is the smart and strategic thing to do.

We agree with you that ending hunger is entirely possible, and your book does an extraordinary job of outlining solutions. Since solving hunger is do-able, why hasn’t it been done yet?

Good question, particularly since we’ve had the knowledge, tools, resources and experience to do it since the time of the Green Revolution in the 1960s.

Neglect, as we’ve mentioned, is one big reason. Also, until the food crisis of 2008, there was a widespread lack of urgency.

Inertia may also be one reason. We’ve met many people who think the problem of hunger is so big, so overwhelming, that they are seized by a kind of paralysis, wondering where they can start. In the book, we try to break through this inertia by illustrating the work of a number of people and organizations on the front lines of the war on hunger.

Your book was written largely before the global economic recession and the sharp rise in international food prices. How have these events affected our ability to fight hunger? What are their long-term impacts?

Hunger has spread, touching a wider circle of people. During the sharp rise in food prices last year, the World Food Program identified what it called a “new face of hunger.” Before, the hungry people who needed the WFP’s emergency food provisions were mainly those who didn’t have access to food. Now, the high prices have brought hunger to people who couldn’t afford the food that was available. Estimates are that another 100 million people have joined the ranks of the hungry since the price spike.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the total number of hungry is soaring past 1 billion people this year, the highest level since the Green Revolution. And, even more damning, the prevalence of hunger–the portion of the world’s population that is hungry–has grown to 15% from the 13% of just a few years ago. That increase in prevalence–the first since the Green Revolution–indicates the war on hunger is losing ground.

This should have put us all on notice that, at this rate, the long-term outlook is grave. The same factors of growing demand and shrinking stockpiles haven’t vanished in the recession. And when the economy picks up again, the food crisis will only likely get worse.

This has injected a greater sense of urgency into the assault on hunger. Now is the time to say “Enough is enough” to hunger. There’s no time to waste.

While we work toward developing lasting solutions to hunger, a child dies every six seconds of acute malnutrition. As you point out, ready-to-use foods like Plumpy’nut and Plumpy’doz have revolutionized the way we prevent and treat malnutrition. How do you see efforts to combat this immediate crisis fitting into the larger picture?

"The challenge: feeding those who are starving today while also investing in agriculture development to reduce the number of hungry tomorrow"

Plumpy’nut has been a great weapon in the war on hunger, and the emergence of ready-to-use foods shows the importance of innovation. These advances, as you say, help to treat both today’s malnutrition and prevent future problems. That one-two punch captures the essence of the challenge: feeding those who are starving today while also investing in agriculture development to reduce the number of hungry tomorrow. The goal, as it is on the health front, is to move from treatment to prevention.

That was the imperative Norman Borlaug laid down in 1970: Prevent the tragedy of starvation in the future so we don’t have to go on “with pious regret” salvaging the human wreckage of famine.

Your book describes how even a small amount of money can go a very long way. What can the average person do today to make a difference?

Get involved. Lobby, advocate, donate. Call your member of Congress–over and over again if necessary–and urge action on hunger legislation and on reforming policies that harm farmers in the developing world. Roll up your sleeves and take up the work of organizations like Action Against Hunger. Voice your outrage. Shout from the rooftops, “Enough is enough!”

This is the message of the Inspire part of the book: In the fight against hunger, individuals can make a huge difference.

About Roger Thurow

Roger Thurow, co-author of Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, has been a Wall Street Journal reporter for 30 years and a foreign correspondent for 20 of them. He has reported from more than 60 countries, including two dozen in Africa. Thurow has written on a number of subjects ranging from hunger and food security in the developing world to race relations in the United States. A series of stories by Thurow and fellow Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Kilman was credited with breaking new ground in the understanding of famine and food aid, and their stories on African famine in 2003 were a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. In 2005, they were honored by the United Nations for reporting on humanitarian and development issues.