Q&A with Roger Thurow about The Last Hunger Season
Q. That gives rise to my next question. There is something so mind-boggling about the term “hungry farmers.” It just sounds too crazy. How can food growers go hungry?”
A. Unfortunately, the movements of the 60s and 70s to develop new farming practices derailed before they ever reached Africa. To make it worse, investment in rural areas of Africa and aid to the farmers shrunk to negligible levels during the 80s and 90s and that has stretched into the 21st century. Though they made up the bulk of Africa’s farming population, the smallholder farms tending less than five acres were basically ignored. They were deemed too poor and too remote to worry with. The common thread of thought was that if those smaller farmers became hungry, we could just feed them with food aid.
Ignoring the farmers on the world’s poorest continent defies logic, but it became the prevailing development policy in the US and the world’s other rich precincts. Trapped by poverty and having no access to quality seeds, fertilizers, tools, training or irrigation systems, the bulk of Africa’s farmers planted low-yield seed saved from the previous year’s harvest from exhausted soil. Of course with these planting methods, the yields continued to be low year after year, and while the farmers remained dependent upon on what grain they’d grown to feed their families, there was rarely, almost never, enough to stretch from harvest to harvest. Combine this with the fact that in the main, there is no electricity or running water. Health care is distant and meager. Sanitation is rudimentary. Roads are wretched. Buying additional food consumes almost every spare shilling. Unfortunately, while “hungry farmer” may sound like an oxymoron, it has been a reality in Africa far too long.
Q. You gave up a prestigious career as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal to become an advocate for ending world hunger. Could you please tell us why?
A. Until 2003, when I was assigned to cover the famine outbreak in Ethiopia, global hunger was more like background noise to me than anything else. I was aware of it, but I just didn’t give it much attention. Then I arrived in Ethiopia during the famine and went to the World Food Program for background information. While I was there, an aid said something I couldn’t get out of my mind. He said, “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 right. I began looking into the eyes of those dying in the Ethiopian famine and realized no one should have to die that way. I wanted to know why, in the 21st century with all of our capabilities and knowledge, it was still going on. Suddenly, all the other stories I was reporting on paled in comparison. I could remember attending the local Lutheran Church as a child and first learning that it was my responsibility as a Christian to make sure the hungry were fed. I couldn’t help but think about that one scripture, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” What I saw in Ethiopia in 2003 and what I still see today are the “least of these brothers and sisters.” Not only did hunger become all I wanted to write about, it became what I wanted to stop. It became my calling.
Q. Well, you’ve written a lot about hunger since. This is your second book on the topic, and you’ve devoted countless columns and articles to it. Do you think your “disease of the soul” has been eased by what you have been able to communicate to the world?
A. No. I think this disease of the soul will always be with me. This is one kind of disease I think needs to spread. There may be some who do not want to deal with this issue, but if we can inform others and have them embrace the issue in an optimistic way, we can really begin to see an end to world hunger. When enough people stop and realize it doesn’t have to be this way and that it is up to us, then that’s when it will stop. When enough people have been stricken by this disease, then world hunger will end. I would like to think my writing is one of the contagions that will spread the disease to others. That is my hope.