On Farming, Food Security, and Favorite Sports Moments

Roger Thurow talks to Action Against Hunger about his latest book, 'The Last Hunger Season' -- among other things
Cover image from Thurow's book
This image appears on the cover of Roger Thurow's new book. Courtesy PublicAffairs

Action Against Hunger friend and Advisory Council member Roger Thurow, senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, released his new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change last month.  It is an intimate portrait of the lives of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya as they work to move from subsistence farming to sustainable farming, from farming to live to farming to make a living.  It is a narrative of struggle, resilience and, ultimately, success. Roger was in New York last night to discuss the book at an event, and Elisabeth Rapport recently had a chance to catch up with the author. Here, ten questions for Roger Thurow.

Elisabeth Rapport (ER): For two of your three decades at The Wall Street Journal, you were a foreign correspondent. Where and when did it first strike you that food security was a major issue, and that you’d want to devote a significant amount of your journalistic energy to shedding light on it?

Roger Thurow (RT): It was during the Ethiopian famine of 2003 when I realized this isn’t a story I can just walk away from.  An aid worker at the World Food Program told me on my first day in Addis Ababa: “Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul.  You see that nobody should have to die of hunger.”  He was absolutely right.  What I saw in those emergency feeding tents opened my eyes – and grabbed my soul – like nothing I had witnessed before as a journalist.  I knew I couldn’t simply move on to the next story.  I had to stay and concentrate on this one: no one should be dying of hunger in the 21st century.

ER: Your last book, ENOUGH, tackled food insecurity at the institutional and policy level. The Last Hunger Season is markedly different, focusing on a year in the life of one group of farmers in western Kenya. How does the process of telling a “big” story compare to telling that of a comparatively specific, personal one?

RT: The “big picture” is always important, and requires a more sweeping, panoramic view.  But within that larger story are many individual tales that demand a greater attention to detail.  A premium is placed on listening and observation.  A profound moment can be captured in the tone of a voice, the tilt of a head, the longing in the eyes.  I prefer spending time in conversation rather than in research. There’s humor, emotion, life in conversation. My time with the farmers in The Last Hunger Season was a supreme journalistic experience.

ER: Sometimes the small, quieter stories are the most powerful ones. Agree or disagree?

RT: Agree, absolutely.  While the big picture stories can grab a reader’s attention with bold, surprising facts and challenging scenarios, the smaller stories of individual struggle and triumph are what often move readers to action.  Readers can relate to other individuals, try to imagine what their lives are like.  Empathy, understanding, appreciation – outrage and inspiration! -- come through the individual stories. I prefer spending time in conversation rather than in research. There’s humor, emotion, life in conversation. My time with the farmers in The Last Hunger Season was a supreme journalistic experience.”

ER: A great majority of the smallholder farmers you describe in The Last Hunger Season are women. Why?

RT: Women are the majority of smallholder farmers in western Kenya and pretty much throughout Africa.  One reason, I think, is that much of smallholder farming is subsistence farming, growing staple crops for food to get through the day, farming to survive.  It is seen as another household chore, rather than an income-earning job.  But what is interesting – what I observed in reporting the book – is that as the harvests grow, as surpluses bring in money, the men get more interested. They tend to focus on the cash crops.  So larger harvests can elevate the woman’s role in the household; they become more involved in discussions of how money is spent, they make the decisions on what crops to grow.  Agricultural development can have a profound impact on empowering women in the rural areas.

“I prefer spending time in conversation rather than in research. There’s humor, emotion, life in conversation. My time with the farmers in The Last Hunger Season was a supreme journalistic experience.”

Roger Thurow

ER: You describe the Kenyan farmers as living and working in something of a time warp. Describe that.

RT: I came up with that idea when reading Karen Blixen’s description of her farm in the great book Out of Africa.  Her words describing the farming methods of the smallholder Kenyan farmers were exactly the words I was using today.  And she was writing in the 1930s.  As I continued to observe the farmers, I noticed how far behind they are compared to farmers in the U.S. and other rich world countries.  For instance, many of the Kenyan farmers are just now receiving reliable access to hybrid seeds that started to spread across the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s.  The farmers’ tools – almost all of their work is done by hand -- haven’t evolved much from the Iron Age.  To travel from the American Midwest – I’m based in Chicago – to rural Kenya was like traveling in the way-back machine.

ER: We live in a world with more than enough food to feed everyone, but you contend that to feed the world’s growing population, we must nearly double the world’s food production by 2050. Explain the disconnect.

RT: In the next several decades, the world’s population is expected to increase by more than 2 billion.  That’s like adding another two Chinas to the planet.  At the same time, that growing population will be growing more prosperous, changing eating habits and consumption patterns.  Also, there is a growing demand for biofuels, putting food into gas tanks.  So the strains on the global food supply will increase.  And there’s this: we’ll see much of the population increase in the developing world, in countries already struggling to feed themselves.  So food production in those places will need to experience a quantum leap.  That’s why it is so crucial to reverse the neglect of agricultural development – which was a main theme of the first book, Enough.

ER: There are always skeptics who doubt that food insecurity in a place like Kenya can produce lasting, negative effects here in the United States. What would you say to them?

RT: I would point out the looming strains on the global food supply.  Shortages increase prices around the globe – including in the U.S.  And food insecurity leads to social instability; we’ve seen food shortages and rising prices trigger violence in many parts of the world in the past several years.  Also, there’s the lost opportunity that comes from food insecurity.  Hundreds of millions of people are too poor to fully participate in economic activity.  One example: as China moved from a country of great hunger to a country with a burgeoning middle class – and its agricultural transformation played a significant role in this shift – it has become a large customer of American farmers.  A more prosperous, better-fed world means more trade and business opportunities for the United States.

ER: You worked at the Journal for 30 years, and now you’re a Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Who’s coming with you to a desert island – a group of Journal foreign correspondents, or a group of policy wonks from the Council?

RT: Hah, a good question.  Probably a combination, a few of each.  The foreign correspondents would keep us entertained with great tales of adventure – and they would find the bar, if there is one, or create one if there isn’t.  And the policy wonks would figure out a way to get us back to the real world -- if we wanted to return!

ER: You’ve covered 10 Olympic Games in your career. Favorite sports moment?

RT: Barcelona, 1992.  The women’s 10,000 meter final.  It was an epic battle between Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer of South Africa.  It was South Africa’s first Olympic Games in three decades, having returned to the international fold after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the lifting of sports sanctions.  I had been based in South Africa with The Wall Street Journal; I had witnessed the last-gasp brutal years of apartheid and Mandela’s release from prison.  Now here, in Barcelona, was a glimpse of a new Africa: black and white battling on the track, lap after lap.  Mandela was in the stands; I was sitting trackside with a group of South African journalists.  Tulu surged ahead of Meyer in the final meters to win the gold, but the South Africans were nevertheless ecstatic.  The lap of honor, with the women embracing and joining hands and draped in their national flags, symbolized the post-apartheid possibilities.  Tears filled my eyes.  They are back now as I write this.

ER: I’ll give you the last word on your book, but since we live in a digital age, you’ll need to keep it tweet-worthy. Tell me why, in 140 characters or less, folks should pick up The Last Hunger Season.

RT: Intimate narrative storytelling, empowered women, resourceful moms, courageous African smallholder farmers. If they succeed so might we all.

Learn more about the book at: www.thelasthungerseason.com

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About Elisabeth Anderson Rapport

Elisabeth Anderson Rapport, Senior Communications Officer

Elisabeth is Action Against Hunger's senior communications officer, reporting on our impact and current events around the world.