The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time

The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time

by George McGovern

View All Available Formats & Editions

In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described a future world founded on four essential freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Sixty years later, nearly 20 percent of the earth's population are still seeking the third freedom, "which," Roosevelt said, "translated into


In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described a future world founded on four essential freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Sixty years later, nearly 20 percent of the earth's population are still seeking the third freedom, "which," Roosevelt said, "translated into world terms, means economic understanding which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants - everywhere in the world." In The Third Freedom, former three-term Democratic senator George McGovern describes his strategy to end world hunger in our time. When McGovern was the Democrats' nominee for president in 1972, 35 percent of the people in the world were hungry. By 1996, that figure was cut in half. Now, McGovern says, is the time to end world hunger entirely. "Ending it (hunger)," he says, "is a greater moral imperative now than ever before, because for the first time humanity has the instruments in hand to defeat this cruel enemy at a very reasonable cost." McGovern raises two central questions: first, what would it cost for the nations of the world to end hunger and second, what would be the cost if hunger is allowed to persist at its present levels? McGovern concludes, "I can think of no investment that would profit the international community more than erasing hunger from the face of the earth." We have the ability to end hunger, McGovern says, now it's just a matter of finding the leadership.

Editorial Reviews
Former Democratic nominee for president George McGovern experienced the struggles farmers face during his childhood in rural South Dakota, but he first confronted the issue of hunger as a young bomber pilot in Italy in 1944. Throughout the course of his career in public service, he has sought solutions that serve both those who grow our food and those who are dying for lack of it. In The Third Freedom, McGovern, currently serving as U.S. ambassador to the UN Agencies on Food and Agriculture, offers a five-point plan that he believes can effectively end starvation in our lifetime.
We're making progress. In 1972, thirty-five percent of the world was hungry; by 1996, the figure had lowered to seventeen percent. And yet, even today, more than ten children under the age of five die every minute from hunger. Fervently, reasonably and very clearly, McGovern lays out a five-point plan to end world hunger, a goal he considers eminently achievable by the year 2030. McGovern's more than up to the task. After serving twenty-two years in Congress (he earned from Bobby Kennedy the designation "the only decent man in the Senate"), the former governor of South Dakota is perhaps best remembered for his quixotic bid for the presidency in 1972. Nixonian darkness enveloped him and consigned him to the sidelines of history. But it didn't sideline his ideas: The first director of the U.S. Food for Peace program, Ambassador McGovern now represents the United States in the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, where his sensible liberalism underscores the pragmatics of his passion. With nearly eighty percent of the world's undernourished children living in countries with food surpluses, political change is clearly necessary, as are advances in scientific farming, a shift in economic and educational priorities and global cooperation. While McGovern's treatise is unassailably researched (facts and figures aplenty), it's also a testament to the nobility (and intelligence) of one man's struggle for a cause. It's obligatory reading for anyone with a conscience.
—Paul Evans

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A longtime liberal politician and the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, McGovern makes an impassioned plea for a cause he has worked on long and hard: ending world hunger. He believes this difficult goal is attainable by the year 2030. He traces the history of American involvement in fighting hunger both at home and abroad over the past several decades, not surprisingly nodding approval at programs that he himself backed during the Kennedy and Nixon administrations and criticizing the reduction in antihunger spending under Reagan and Clinton. The most provocative part of his generous manifesto is a five-point program to be spearheaded by the U.S. that includes free school lunches for children around the world; free food, nutrition counseling and health-care services to disadvantaged women and children; the establishment of international food reserves; aid to farmers in developing nations to improve their yields; and the genetic engineering of crops, calling these controversial foods "an indispensable instrument in the war against hunger." McGovern believes in the power of government to solve social ills, and politically conservative readers may find his faith misplaced. Moreover, his uncritical appraisal of the 1960s programs that failed to end poverty is irksome. Nevertheless, in an age marked by extensive cynicism toward government, McGovern not only offers optimism, he also outlines specific initiatives that government can undertake to wipe out world hunger now. (Jan.) Forecast: McGovern's liberal sentiments may not reflect the beliefs of the nation at large, but there is a solid core of dedicated liberal and progressive believers and activists who will welcome this plan by one of their enduring standard-bearers. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.94(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.41(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: A Strategy to Defeat World Hunger

In the blistering, heart-rending drought and depression days of 1932 I was a ten-year-old boy growing up in Mitchell, South Dakota. Most of the time I was a contented youngster, but some memories are not pleasant. A lifetime later, I recall the huge boiling dust clouds that rolled across the parched Dakota plains, hiding the sun in a darkness like midnight. The finely ground dirt not only blackened the sky; it came hard at the crevices of our eyes, ears, noses, and throats. The tiniest cracks or openings in windows and doors ushered the dust inside.

The first such fearful storm that I remember happened during a summer hike several miles east of Mitchell with my boyhood friend Vernon Hersey. After failing efforts to grope our way in the blinding dust to a country road, Vernon suggested that the Milwaukee railroad tracks would lead us back to Mitchell. We followed them homeward, listening over the howling wind for a train whistle.

When the Dakota sun was not blotted out by dust storms, it was frequently shrouded by flying grasshopper invasions. They could strip growing crops down to the ground in a matter of hours. Farmers who had invested their cash and months of labor in planting and nurturing crops would watch their harvest disappear. The voracious pests would even devour the wooden handles of hoes and pitchforks.

My father was a Wesleyan Methodist clergyman who believed in God, John Wesley (the founder of Methodism), and the St. Louis Cardinals. This "Holy Trinity" helped our household get through the Depression. I knew about the Twelve Apostles, but I knew even more about the Cardinals' "GashouseGang" -- Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick, Frankie Frisch -- and from that day to this, the first item I have looked for in the morning paper is the standing of the St. Louis Cardinals. (As I write, they are in first place in their division, of course!)

One day in the autumn of 1932, my dad took me pheasant hunting, which included a stop at our friend Art Kendall's farm, ten miles southwest of Mitchell. Kendall was one of my heroes, a hardworking farmer and a devout member of my dad's congregation. I admired his prowess in hunting pheasants, which was not only an enjoyable sport, but also enriched our tables. Art was the best shot with a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun I ever saw. He also had a sense of humor -- of a kind. On my first trip carrying a small-gauge shotgun, he told me that there was a rabbit just ahead of me. I saw something move and promptly filled it with buckshot. It was a skunk, as Art knew, and it sprayed its dreadful perfume all over me before expiring. I was invited to ride on the outside fender of the car for the rest of the day. I can still hear Art Kendall's laughter.

Not only did I learn about skunks that day, but I received another, more serious lesson. When my dad and I arrived at Art's farm to pick him up, we found him sitting on his back porch looking at a slip of paper. As we approached him, I realized that he had been crying. How could this be -- big, strong, brave Art Kendall crying? It was the first time I had seen an adult cry, except for my mother the night Grandma died. Why was he crying? Because he had just received a check for all of his hogs barely big enough to cover the trucker's fee for hauling them to the livestock market in Sioux City, Iowa. Art had worked for a year feeding his corn crop to those hogs and getting them ready for market. In the end, he netted nothing. This was the kind of ruinous price level that choked a farmer's spirit and sent him into bankruptcy.

Over the years, when I saw how hard farmers worked and how little they frequently received for their labor, it broke my heart. That happened for a long, hard decade when I was a boy. A similar downturn has hit the farm economy during the present decade.

In the mid to late 1920s, American farmers were primed to produce. They had geared up a magnificent agricultural machine in response to the demand generated by World War I. Farmers were similarly primed to produce in the mid-1990s Global demand for American agricultural products was high, and projected to grow higher.

Farmers in the post-World War I period saw the bottom fall out of their markets when foreign countries cinched their belts as war debts forced them to economize. Similarly, the growth projected for agricultural markets in the 1990s has been stunted by the Asian financial crisis. To compound the difficulties, both the mid-1920s and the late 1990s were characterized by larger than average crops -- a blessing turned into a curse. Farmers were not earning enough from the sale of their crops or animals to cover production costs in either of these two periods.

Financial stress, then as now, accelerated the trend toward reducing the number of farmers -- a trend that technological advances have amplified throughout the century as more food is produced with fewer farmers.

When Henry Wallace became secretary of agriculture in 1933, he put his keen mind to work on crafting the most innovative package of government farm programs ever -- a package that became a central part of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal. Wallace's approach was to provide incentives for farmers to cut back on production while markets were glutted and prices were low. His plan for an "ever normal granary" enabled farmers to protect their markets by storing surplus grain in times of bumper crops. They were allowed to borrow from the federal government against their stored harvests. When production was down and prices were higher, they could then profitably sell their grain and pay off their loans. This ingenious approach worked and is a prime reason that Henry A. Wallace is acknowledged by many as the most important agricultural leader of the twentieth century. This system, or some version of it, was the basic agricultural law of the land from the mid-1930s for the next sixty years until Congress terminated it, I think unwisely, in 1996. The Freedom to Farm Act of that year did give farmers more freedom to plant as much grain as they wished, but it left them with no price stabilization system. Once acreage restrictions were lifted, surpluses mounted, and in the absence of any price support floor, farm prices collapsed. I have heard more than a few farmers describe this congressional action as the Freedom to Go Broke Act.

As a youth in South Dakota, I saw anxious parents trying to stretch scarce dollars to feed their families. I also saw the steady stream of hoboes who came to our door asking for food. My father and mother never once said no to these young men, who were riding the rails looking for work. But not until I arrived in Italy in 1944 had I seen the kind of hunger that stunts young bodies and can end lives prematurely.

In September that year, I was on board a troopship as it eased into Naples harbor. In the approach to the docking area, I could see scores of Italian children lining up and shouting to us to throw Hershey bars, Babe Ruths, and Wrigley's gum. At this point the ship's captain broke in over the loudspeaker and ordered us not to throw anything to the youngsters. He explained that children in war-torn Italy were hungry -- on the edge of starvation -- and that a few days earlier, when American troops had thrown candy from an incoming ship, some of it fell into the water and a number of children had drowned scrambling for it.

I served in Italy for the next year as a bomber pilot, hitting targets in Nazi Germany and the oil refineries of Eastern Europe. Frequently I awakened to the sound of Italian mothers scratching through our garbage dumps for scraps of food.

This was the beginning of my lifelong interest in finding a practical formula for using the surplus production of American farmers to feed needy people in America and around the world. Such a plan could strengthen the markets of our farmers while feeding the hungry. A decade after my experiences in wartime Italy, I was elected to Congress with the first opportunity to translate my ideas on agriculture and feeding the hungry into public policy.

In the 1950s, after the war, large surpluses of grain accumulated in American storage facilities. The secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, began to speak publicly of "burdensome surpluses" as the source of a serious American farm problem. I had a different view. It seemed to me in the 1950s, as it does now, that farm surpluses could be a blessing rather than a curse. It is true that without positive, imaginative action, surplus crops would depress market prices to the point where farmers would be unable even to recover the cost of production. This is the route to bankruptcy, mortgage foreclosures, and an agricultural depression that is damaging to the national economy. The serious troubles in the farm belt during the 1920s helped bring on the 1929 collapse of the New York stock market and the Great Depression of the 1930s. When farmers quit buying tractors, cars, appliances, tires, clothing, paint, lumber, and a host of other items, the entire economy is dampened. But if the government were prepared to purchase the surplus part of the crop and distribute it carefully to hungry people in our own country and abroad, we could both protect the markets of our farmers and reduce the number of hungry people.

With the Cold War over and defense spending down, the U.S. government has its first budget surplus since 1963. Some of this surplus could be used to meet the cost of bolstering our farm economy and feeding the hungry. In this kind of effort, we would need to be careful not to disrupt the commercial markets of other farmers and exporters, both in the United States and abroad. Nations that produce surplus grain, including Canada, Australia, France, and, in due course, India, China, and Russia, should be enlisted to share their abundance with the world's hungry. Developed countries that do not have farm surpluses could contribute cash, shipping, field personnel, utensils, processed foods, and other things needed in a well-planned feeding program.

As matters now stand, according to the most recent estimate of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, slightly fewer than 800 million people around the world suffer from hunger. Most of them live in rural areas of the developing countries. They depend on farming for both their food and their income. To attack the world's hunger, we must move on two fronts: first, we must institute direct special feeding programs especially for schoolchildren and pregnant and nursing mothers and their infants; second, we must improve local agricultural practices.

Women should be given the opportunity to play a central role both in the direct feeding programs and in the production of food. A number of studies by the World Food Program in Bangladesh, Angola, and other Third World countries have demonstrated that women are more likely than men to budget and handle food resources carefully. The children in a family are more likely to be fed well if their mothers are in charge of the food.

I suggest the following five-point program:

I would like to see America take the lead in working toward a school lunch program that embraces every child in the world. Such a program is well within the reach of the international community. We, and other countries, have the food resources and the know-how to establish and maintain such a program. There is no practical reason why any child should go hungry anywhere in the world.

While writing this book I discussed the concept of a universal school lunch program with President Clinton at the White House on May 26, 2000. Knowing how intensely busy the President is, I had expected only ten or fifteen minutes of his time. Instead he assembled his top assistants -- White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, national security advisor Sandy Berger, economic advisor Gene Sperling, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Deputy Aid Administrative Hattie Babbitt, a top executive from the Budget Bureau, and Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts, who has long been interested in the issue of hunger.

The animated discussion lasted for an hour and a half with the President obviously fascinated by the idea and asking frequent questions. When I finished my presentation, he struck the cabinet room table in front of him and exclaimed, "This is just simply a grand idea! I want us to go forward with it."

True to his word, on July 23, 2000, while attending the G-8 Summit in Okinawa, Japan, President Clinton announced to the seven other heads of State that the United States will take the lead in establishing a school lunch program for the world's children. The President then committed an additional $300 million, largely in farm surpluses, to launch the effort in its first year. He invited other nations to join in this effort.

Then on July 27, 2000, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, scheduled a public hearing on the international school lunch proposal and invited former senator Robert Dole and me to be the lead-off witnesses. Senator Dole and I testified as a team, which lent a strong bipartisan flavor to the hearing. As former presidential nominees of our respective parties, we had also established an effective bipartisan coalition in the Senate on matters related to agriculture and nutrition. While still testing the universal lunch idea with my colleagues in Rome, in the spring of 2000, I telephoned Bob Dole in Washington and asked him if he could support my effort. After asking a few questions, he said that he would be proud to team up with me on the proposal. He was the first person I called in the United States. It has been reassuring and most helpful to have his support. Our former Senate colleagues gave us the warmest, most supportive reception that I have ever witnessed at a congressional hearing.

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the ranking Democrat on the committee, observed that "your idea is so compelling and so morally and economically sound that I wonder why we didn't think of it a long time ago."

Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic Leader of the Senate, came to the hearing to register a ringing endorsement of the proposal as did the other South Dakota Senator, Tim Johnson, who has developed a keenly informed knowledge of hunger issues.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a longtime member of the Agriculture Committee, was equally forceful in his support of an international school lunch program. Chairman Lugar planned and conducted the hearing admirably. Also on the Republican side was a man with whom I once served on the committee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi. He also lent his support to the lunch idea.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Congressman McGovern followed Senator Dole and me to the witness stand -- they've been supporters of the school lunch concept from the moment that they first heard it mentioned. Then came supportive testimony from Dan Glickman and the director of the UN World Food Program, Catherine Bertini. These two people will play crucial roles in supplying, funding, and administrating the program. Working in concert with them will be the private voluntary agencies such as Catholic Relief Service, Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief, the Joint Distribution Committee, and Bread for the World. Witnesses from these agencies completed the Agriculture Committee hearing. I stress that we can't operate a universal school lunch program effectively without the richly experienced and highly motivated participation of the private voluntary agencies around the world.

(1) Of the world's hungry people, 300 million are school-age children. Not only do they bear the pangs of hunger but also their malnutrition leads to loss of energy, listlessness, and vulnerability to diseases of all kinds. Hungry children cannot function well in school -- if, indeed, they are able to attend school at all. Hunger and malnutrition in childhood years can stunt the body and mind for a lifetime. Every minute, more than ten children under the age of five die of hunger. No one can even guess at the vastly larger number of older children and adults who lead damaged lives because of malnutrition in their fetal or infant days.

A nutritious, balanced school lunch for every child is the best investment we can make in the health, education, and global society of the future. After President John Kennedy appointed me in 1961 to head the U.S. Food for Peace program, I was contacted by a remarkable Catholic priest who was stationed with the Maryknoll Fathers in the impoverished Puno area of Peru. Father Dan McClellan convinced me that if the United States could supply the food, the Maryknoll Fathers could administer a school lunch program in the Puno region.

On May 12, 1961, Prime Minister Pedro Beltran of Peru came to my office at the White House to place his signature on an agreement for school lunches for 30,000 Puno students, to be administered by the Maryknoll Fathers. At the prime minister's suggestion, however, the food was given to the children as a breakfast, upon their arrival at school. Mr. Beltran told us that the children did not receive enough food at home to begin the day. A school breakfast would be an incentive for students to be on time and would give them enough energy for the day's educational activities. Perhaps a glass of milk with a cookie or a piece of bread could be added at midday as an energy pickup.

In the Puno area of Peru, illiteracy was 90 percent. Only a meager fraction of the students were in school. In some schools, nine out of ten students dropped out before completing the sixth grade. Schoolchildren were seriously handicapped by the lethargy and drowsiness that resulted from malnutrition. But within six months after the U.S.-assisted school lunch program began in the fall of 1961, teachers noted that attendance had nearly doubled and academic performance had improved dramatically.

The signing by Prime Minister Beltran and me signaled a new emphasis in Food for Peace on U.S.-assisted school feeding programs. This was the first U.S. agreement of this kind. By 1964, 12 million, or one out of three, schoolchildren in South America were being fed a nutritious daily lunch through Food for Peace.

President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in 1961. It was a cooperative effort on the part of the United States and the states of Latin America to raise the standard of living in Latin America. I observed at the time that "the most important resource of Latin America or of any continent and the one which holds the key to the future is children. Unless the children of Latin America can develop into healthy, educated citizens, the Alliance for Progress will amount to very little. That is why the expanding Food for Peace program focused more and more on the child-feeding programs. No part of the Alliance for Progress efforts was more important." (Food for Peace was a separate White House initiative that was launched before the Alliance for Progress, but we coordinated our efforts with the Alliance.)

What better investment could we make than locating a competent institution to manage and monitor a school breakfast or lunch program, which we could then confidently supply with our surplus foods?

Shortly after I began directing the Food for Peace program around the world, the dean of the University of Georgia telephoned my White House office. He told me that in his opinion the federal school lunch program had done more than any other federal program to advance the development of the South.

The school lunch program was launched in 1946, just after the Second World War. The wartime draft had revealed that a shocking number of young American men were ineligible for military service because of poor health -- much of which appeared to be diet-related. Congress acted in considerable part because it became convinced that the poor health of much of our youth -- especially in the South -- threatened our national security. This concern was enough to convince even vigorous conservatives, traditionally opposed to more federal involvement in the schools, that school lunches should be an exception to the rule. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and President Harry Truman were key players in establishing the School Lunch Program. The Georgia dean, a thoughtful lifetime educator, gave the federal school lunch program major credit for improving the physical strength, the mental alertness, the athletic ability, the self-confidence, and the productivity of the youth of the South. "If I had to preserve one federal program above all others, I would still choose the school lunch program," the dean said. It should be noted that until 1968 children were required to pay most of the cost of their lunches. Senator Dole and I were instrumental in legislation that provided free or reduced price lunches for poor children.

In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, wherever we have experimented with school lunches, we have seen school attendance double in a year or so; grades have also climbed. A daily lunch is the surest magnet for drawing children to school that anyone has yet devised. This is a very important fact because of the world's 300 million school-age children, 130 million are illiterate and not attending school. If education is the key to development in the Third World, and I believe it is, the school lunch is the key to unlocking the education door. The lowly school lunch indirectly produces healthier youngsters, advances education, reduces the birthrate, and provides a profitable market for the surplus farm commodities of the United States and other surplus-producing countries.

A school lunch every day for every child in the world would require the labor and initiative of many people and nations. In the United States, we would need to call on churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as our secular philanthropic groups. Such religious and charitable institutions are already engaged in administering and distributing food relief abroad. But they should be urged and enabled to do much more. Wherever such private agencies can take the place of government in administering and monitoring school lunches or other food programs, they should be encouraged to do so. Also, wherever possible, local farmers should be given an opportunity to supply food at a fair price to the local school lunch program. When locally produced food is available, food aid can be acquired more cheaply from recipient or neighboring countries than from more distant sources where shipping and handling charges would be significant. The program will still require substantial dairy, livestock, and cereal grain production from the United States and other surplus-producing countries, because local supplies are not always equal to the demand. Beyond this, private foundations, labor unions, corporations and individuals should consider contributing to this cause. Such contributions should go to the UN World Food Program in Rome.

I would estimate the start-up costs covering the first two years of a school lunch program seriously intended to be universal at $3 billion. With the United States initially in the lead, our portion might reach half of that figure -- $1.5 billion spread out over two years. The bulk of that would be in surplus commodities purchased in the American market: Texas and Montana livestock; Kansas wheat; South Dakota corn and hogs; Arkansas and North Carolina poultry; California and Florida oranges; Wisconsin and New York dairy products; Washington, Oregon, and Massachusetts cranberries and fish; Idaho and Maine potatoes.

As more and more students enrolled in the program, costs would increase, but we may hope that more and more countries would join in helping to finance the program, so American costs would probably not increase significantly, if at all. Also, expected contributions from private foundations, corporations, labor unions, and individuals should hold down government costs.

It is my hope that the receiving governments would themselves be able to take over and finance the program within five or six years. Meanwhile, the program would be under the instructional and monitoring eyes of the World Food Program, which has highly capable and experienced people in field offices within eighty countries.

(2) A second nutritional program that I would like to see go worldwide is the American Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children. This program, known as WIC ("Women, Infants, and Children") provides food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services for low-income pregnant and breast-feeding women, other postpartum women, and infants and young children who are at nutritional risk.

I had the privilege of cosponsoring the legislation establishing WIC in 1972, with the late Senator Hubert Humphrey and Senator Bob Dole. The program has been a dramatic success in the United States, significantly improving the health and well-being of millions of young mothers and their children. In doing so it has reduced the cost of Medicaid and other medical programs.

Given our experience with WIC, Americans could lead the way in extending this program abroad through the United Nations. Along with a universal school lunch program, an international WIC system would offer a mighty one-two punch against world hunger. And here again, American farmers, ranchers, and dairymen would benefit, along with producers in other countries.

I estimate the start-up cost for an international WIC program at $1 billion for the first two years. With the United States in the lead, our cost would be $500 million spread over two years. As with the universal school lunch program, costs would rise as more and more needy young mothers and their infants were drawn into the vitally important WIC program. And again, I anticipate that the participation of other U.N. member states would make unnecessary further increases in the U.S. portion of the cost.

Some of my colleagues in Rome are a little more skeptical about the operation of a WIC program abroad than they are about school lunch programs. They point out that the schoolhouse and its faculty and administrative staff provide a structure for feeding students; no such structure exists for young mothers and their infants. One possible answer is to set aside one hour a day when a school classroom could be used for WIC recipients. Where there is a church or a public meeting room, it may offer an alternative location. Mothers could be given food rations to take home for the weekend.

(3) A third step in the battle against world hunger could be the establishment of food reserves around the globe. The biblical story of Joseph in Egypt building a granary to store bountiful grain harvests for use in poor years is still a valid lesson. Countries producing grain surpluses should be encouraged to store the surplus against the day when crop failures, droughts, or international emergencies call on it. In the developing world, with less experience in modern grain storage, reserve storage facilities could be improved and expanded and then closely monitored by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to prevent neglect or mishandling.

(4) A fourth step could be the fundamental long-term instrument in the war against hunger: assisting developing states to improve their own farm production, food processing, and food distribution. Most people in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East live on farms or in rural villages. Agriculture is their physical and economic lifeline. Many of them are still farming with methods and equipment little improved since ancient times.

One ingredient in the amazing success of American agriculture has been the technical help and improved farming methods offered farmers by the land-grant colleges, including research on seeds, soil conservation, better cultivation practices, pesticides, and water usage. Agricultural experiment stations and county extension agents have also advised farmers on improved production methods. Such know-how could greatly lift the production and standards of life in the developing world. How could it be supplied?

I would suggest a Farmers Corps, patterned after the Peace Corps. Retired farmers in the United States and other developed countries could be recruited and paid a modest salary to go abroad for six months or more to teach improved farming methods. Each country would pay the cost of its own Corps. Many farmers who have retired for reasons of age or health are at a loss for how to use their retirement years. The Farmers Corps could provide a satisfying and adventurous outlet for such farmers. Some years ago, a treasured South Dakota friend of mine, my wife Eleanor's uncle, Harlan Payne, retired after a lifetime of farming. Restless, feeling useless, depressed in his retirement, he committed suicide. I believe that the Farmers Corps could have saved this good man's life while helping other farmers abroad. He would have loved all of that. Farm women, too, with their years of hard work and varied experience as partners in managing the farm, would have valuable wisdom to share.

Young men and women who have grown up on farms in the United States and other developed countries might also wish to do a stint in the Farmers Corps. As farms have grown larger, there are fewer opportunities for individual ownership for the sons and daughters of farmers. The Farmers Corps could provide a transition for such young people, who would also gain a new experience in a wider world.

A Farmers Corps should be administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As with other UN initiatives, the United States would be expected to pay 25 percent of the cost. Congress, of course, would have to authorize this expenditure. The American members of the Corps could be recruited and prepared for overseas service by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(5) A promising fifth weapon in the war against world hunger is the emergence of high-yield scientific agriculture, including genetically modified crops. The gene modification controversy has obscured its promise. Legitimate questions have been raised about some aspects of the use of chemicals in livestock. These questions deserve honest, scientifically sound answers. But the biotechnical improvement of both the quality and quantity of animals and plants is a major breakthrough in the battle against global hunger. That scientific breakthrough enables life-sustaining plants to survive pests, salt, and dry weather -- all with less reliance on pesticides and irrigation water. Cereal grains can be modified to mature more quickly and yet have more nutritional benefits.

Some of the earlier successes with modifying plant genes have resulted in plants with greater resistance to insects. Since such plants require less pesticide, they improve farm income while reducing environmental damage.

Research is also moving ahead by Swiss scientists to produce a more nutritious strain of rice, a crop that feeds nearly 2.5 billion people. With increased Vitamin A and iron content, this newly modified rice could potentially prevent millions of cases of blindness and anemia among children. The modified rice is better for the overall health of youngsters.

Every new scientific breakthrough has been greeted over the centuries by skepticism, fear, and hostility. Such reactions are not all bad and, indeed, can be productive: they may force a measure of caution and proof before new methods and techniques are accepted. There must be more research, experimentation, and discussion before the final word is reached on the emerging biotechnology in agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has now established an intergovernmental group of experts to look into critical issues related to biotechnology, including risk assessment, labeling, and standards for international trade. Through this group, some of the best minds in the world can conduct a searching inquiry into genetically modified crops. The FAO has no ax to grind, no agenda but to arrive at the most realistic assessment possible of all aspects of this issue.

What we do know already is that for the past century science and technology have played a key role in greatly augmenting the production of American farmers and those in other advanced countries. The hybrid seed corn developed scientifically by Henry Wallace and his family in Iowa after 1926 was a valuable breakthrough, not only for Iowa farmers, but for farmers around the world.

The "Green Revolution," which began in 1968, got its name after scientists discovered through gene modification how to increase the capacity of green plants to use sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. This breakthrough essentially made it possible to grow more food on less land with fewer pesticides and less water.

Since the 1960s most of the increase in food production -- notably, an estimated three-fourths the increase has come in India and other parts of South Asia -- has stemmed from the Green Revolution. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been poisoned or sickened by these modified crops. Indeed, the health of people and livestock consuming modified grains has improved. The Green Revolution and other crop modifications will continue to be the source of food production increases in the next thirty years if farmers proceed with modern scientific agriculture. This should be good for farmers, good for consumers, and good for the environment.

It was the technology of farm machinery and the use of science to modify plants that enabled food producers to head off the prediction by Thomas Malthus that population growth would outstrip increases in food production. But as we move into the twenty-first century, population continues to grow, with shrinking per capita arable land and irrigation possibilities. I believe that genetically engineered crops may be an indispensable instrument in the war against hunger, by increasing both the quality and the quantity of food produced per acre. If so, we need to discuss openly and fairly the fears and risks, as well as the hopes and values, of scientific farming.

Thus far, most genetically altered crops -- three fourths of the world's total harvest -- have been grown in the United States, a source of anxiety in France and a few other countries. We need to promote a continuing dialogue with our European friends and the American public about all aspects of the issue.


It was the technology of farm machinery and the use of science to modify plants that enabled food producers to head off the prediction by Thomas Malthus that population growth would outstrip increases in food production. But as we move into the twenty-first century, population continues to grow, with shrinking per capita arable land and irrigation possibilities. I believe that genetically engineered crops may be an indispensable instrument in the war against hunger, by increasing both the quality and the quantity of food produced per acre. If so, we need to discuss openly and fairly the fears and risks, as well as the hopes and values, of scientific farming.

Thus far, most genetically altered crops -- three fourths of the world's total harvest -- have been grown in the United States, a source of anxiety in France and a few other countries. We need to promote a continuing dialogue with our European friends and the American public about all aspects of the issue.

Meanwhile, we should keep in mind that for more than four decades, the United States and other countries have helped keep millions of our fellow humans alive because science has enabled us to achieve a much higher output of corn, rice, wheat, and potatoes. We have shared our technology of production widely with the developing world, including the small, impoverished farmers of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Scientific agriculture has made American farmers the envy of the world. I believe that the new genetic developments will prove vital in equipping farmers to win the war against world hunger.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A & M University, writing in the March 15, 2000, issue of the International Herald Tribune, declares: "Science and technology are under attack in affluent nations, where misinformed environmentalists claim that the consumer is being poisoned by high-yielding systems of agricultural production, including genetically modified crops."

I count myself a Borlaug fan. The father of the Green Revolution, he is an esteemed socially conscious scientist. But I must confess that some of my grandchildren disagree with Dr. Borlaug and me about genetically modified crops. The headline on the Borlaug article I have quoted reads: "Biotechnology Will Be the Salvation of the Poorest." Not so, contend some of my bright grandchildren. Biotech and gene modification will ruin the poorest, the richest, and those in between, they say. Why? Because, they argue, such technologies disrupt the natural growth of crops and no one can be certain of the long-range results in our bodies of such manipulation of nature's food.

Some would be so cruel as to suggest that my grandchildren are smarter than their grandfather -- that they might even be smarter than Dr. Borlaug. I come back at them with the eternal response of old people to young people: "Where is your respect for the wisdom of us old guys?" But usually I reply with an answer that carries more weight with grandchildren: "The jury is still out on genetic farming. Let's wait for the final verdict." I don't add what I'm thinking: "And then you'll see that I am right and you are wrong!"

Without the application of these new and better farming methods, the task of defeating hunger becomes more difficult and less certain of victory. There is reason to believe that recently developed scientific farming methods can reduce farmers' costs, increase their production, safeguard the environment, and provide more food for the hungry.

In defending scientific farming against the criticisms of the more extreme environmentalists, Dr. Borlaug further notes: "Were Asia's 1961 average cereal yields of 930 kilograms per hectare to still prevail today, nearly 600 million hectares of additional land of the same quality would have been needed to equal the 1997 cereal harvest. Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available in Asia. Moreover, even if it were, think of the soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, wildlife species that would have occurred had we tried to produce these larger harvests with low technology."

If the reader will allow another quote from Dr. Borlaug, I urge its careful consideration: "Thirty years ago, in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary victory in man's war against hunger, which if fully implemented, could provide sufficient food for humankind through the end of the 20th century....

"I now say that the world has the feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology.

"Extreme environmental elitists seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress. Small, well-financed, vociferous, anti-science groups are threatening the development and application of new technology, whether it is developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science."

It is probably true that affluent countries can afford to reject scientific agriculture and pay more for foods produced by so-called natural methods. But the 800 million poor, chronically hungry people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America cannot afford such foods. If scientific agriculture had not been introduced to parts of these poor continents three or four decades ago, millions of people now alive would have died. If further efforts to bring the advantages of science to developing countries are thwarted by ill-advised critics, millions of poor people will pay a painful price -- perhaps making the ultimate sacrifice, of life itself.

* * *

Shortly after I set down my thoughts on the possible role of biotechnology in delivering humanity from hunger, Time magazine editors and scientific writers devoted much of their July 31, 2000, issue to a cover story on this vital subject. The article included statements from some of the world's most renowned scientists who support the genetic modifications of grains, as well as criticisms from some environmentalists.

Time's cover carried the picture of Ingo Potrykus, a Swiss scientist and professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who has been working for years in his laboratory and in the field to alter crops so that they become more nutritious, more resistant to pests, rot, and disease, and require less water, pesticide, and fertilizer. In recent years he has concentrated his experiments on rice with the collaboration of another distinguished scientist, Professor Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. These two scientists and others were aware that half of the world's 6 billion people depend on rice as their major dietary staple. Time's editors concluded that "these people were so poor that they ate a few bowls of rice a day and almost nothing more." The scientists' investigations demonstrated that the rice diet of the world's poor was deficient in vitamin A -- so much so that it is causing a million children to die annually.

With these grim facts to spur them on, Potrykus and Beyer sought an acceptable way to modify rice so that it would contribute to the health of children rather than contributing to their blindness and deaths. After seven years of diligent research and experimentation with the expenditure of $2.6 million supplied by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swiss government, and the European Union, they found the answer. It came in the form of modified rice that has come to be known as "golden rice" because of its yellow color in contrast to the whitish color of conventional rice. Golden rice supplies the vitamin A, the iron, and the overall nutritional enrichment that is lacking in conventional rice.

Despite its life-enhancing qualities, the new rice had been assailed by some environmentalists in Europe, followed by a small but vocal minority in the United States. Potrykus, himself an environmentalist, had been dismayed by the attack on his scientific findings. "It would be irresponsible," he told Time, "not to say immoral, not to use biotechnology to solve this problem."

As the Time editors point out, by the year 2020, the global demand for grain is "projected to go up by nearly half, while the amount of arable land available to satisfy that demand will not only grow much more slowly but also, in some areas, will probably dwindle. Add to that the need to conserve overstressed water resources and reduce the use of polluting chemicals, and the enormity of the challenge becomes apparent."

Gordon Conway, an agricultural ecologist and environmentalist who heads the Rockefeller Foundation, is baffled, like every other scientist I have interviewed or read, by those environmentalists who object to genetically modified plants and gains. Conway told the Time research team that "21st century farmers will have to draw on every arrow in their agricultural quiver, including genetic engineering. And contrary to public perception, those who have the least to lose and the most to gain are not well-fed Americans and Europeans but the hollow-bellied citizens of the developing world."

In the United States, the opposition to genetic farming is trying to pressure the federal government into requiring that all foods containing genetically modified grains be labeled. This would embrace 70 percent of all the processed food in American supermarkets. This federal intervention is now gathering strength in Congress. My first reaction on hearing about the food labeling movement was that it is an unnecessary nuisance for industry and another increase in the cost of food, but if it will ease the minds of protesters why not do it. But as Gene Grabowski told Time: "Our data show that 60% of consumers would consider a mandatory biotech label as a warning that it is unsafe." Dan Eramion, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization added: "It is easier to scare people about biotechnology than to educate them."

After reading widely on the potential role of scientific farming, including the genetic input, I am convinced that if the world does not move forward on this front, untold millions of people will die as a consequence. I have for years admired the principles and policies of such environmental groups as the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth. I believe most of the officers and members of these and similar groups have long endorsed my public positions. But I believe their opposition to biotechnology as the newly emerging handmaiden of agriculture is both ill-founded and threatening to human survival in the poor countries of our planet. I propose a bargain to my dissenting environmental friends: I will continue to read any literature you make available to me on the dangers of genetically modified grains and other foods if you will read carefully the findings and reasonings of Professors Potrykus and Beyer.

* * *

In 1996 the World Food Summit convened in Rome under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agriculture organization. Virtually every country on earth was represented, many by prime ministers and heads of state. After extensive deliberation, the conference resolved to reduce human hunger by half by the year 2015. By this goal, the 800 million people suffering from hunger in 1996 would be reduced to 400 million in the next 15 years -- a reduction of 27 million annually.

This is a difficult and complicated goal, but a reasonable and practical one. I believe that if the United States and the international community will adopt the five steps I suggest for feeding the hungry, we could go further; we could eliminate all hunger within another 15 years, by 2030. The five-step formula will also promote prosperity for the farmers of America and other surplus-producing countries, including France, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. What could be a greater achievement than to free the world of the ancient scourge of hunger during the first three decades of the new millennium?

There will, of course, be problems, concerns, and risks involved in ending world hunger while maintaining the prosperity of farmers, livestockmen, and dairymen, respecting commercial markets, and preserving the global environment. These and other issues will be dealt with in the pages that follow. Understandably, some of the economic and social issues will prove controversial. But one compelling moral issue is clear: every major religion and ethical system commands its adherents to feed the hungry. There is no room in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any of the other great traditions for those who turn their backs on the hungry. We should feed the hungry because it is right to do so. I believe this undertaking will enrich us all, but we should do this regardless of economic advantage to ourselves because it is the right thing to do.

In the battle against hunger and poverty it is easy to retire to the sidelines, complaining that not much can be done. But as Pope John Paul II told the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on November 18, 1999: "What is needed is the more profound and infinitely more creative power of hope." If we follow that spirit, said the Pope, we can realize the promise of the Scriptures: "He hath filled the hungry with good things" (Luke 1:53).

Copyright © 2001 by George McGovern


Meet the Author

George McGovern was U.S. Senator from South Dakota from 1963 to 1981, and the Democratic candidate for president in 1972. He was the first director of the U.S. Food for Peace Program. McGovern is now U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies on Food and Agriculture in Rome.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >