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Food Tech Leaves Rural People Behind


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we want to talk about food and security. Many people around the world just finished celebrating the major holidays Easter and Passover. They probably had big family and even communitywide feasts. But that reminded us that according to the United Nations, nearly and eighth of the world's population suffers from chronic hunger.

While that number is down since 2010, hunger persists despite unparalleled technological know-how. We wondered why hunger is still a problem in a wire, tech-savvy world. So we've called upon our next guest Kanayo Nwanze. He is the head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD, at the United Nations, which works to fight hunger in rural areas. I caught up with him in our D.C. studios on a recent visit to the U.S. Kanayo Nwanze, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Can I start with a basic question? You say that there's technology available now that can get food to a lot of people that are going hungry right now. Why aren't they getting it? Why isn't it working?

NWANZE: You know, that's really true. We say to ourselves that the world produces enough food to feed 7 billion people. And yet, about 1 billion people still go to bed hungry. The problem is not so much as the quantity of food that is produced.

It's what about to do with accessibility and its availability, affordable prices. The irony of it is all that in the developing world where those that produce the food that feeds about 80 percent of the populations are the ones that go hungry.

MARTIN: I mentioned that the number of people going chronically hungry has actually declined in recent years. Why is that? And I'd also like to of course know what your agency's doing to address this.

NWANZE: The number of - yeah, the number has declined from over - close to 1 billion to about 845 million. For me that's irrelevant. The fact that every day one child goes to bed hungry, we have not done our job. Simple as that. And because, you see, the fact that 75 percent of the poor live in rural areas means that we have to invest in rural transformation.

MARTIN: How do you do that? How do you go about deciding where to invest your resources? And what kinds of resources do you invest?

NWANZE: For us, we target rural populations. So it's not a question of having to find them. We know where they exist. They live in rural areas. So our investments are 100 percent targeting rural populations. And more importantly, because in these rural areas we know the pivotal role that rural women play, we target empowering rural women. So there you see our priorities, our focus is cut out for us.

Now, the point is, how do you help them to build the assets because what is important here is building their resilience. And to be able to build resilience is not what you do from one day to the other and it's done.

It's long-term investment to build the assets to be able to absorb shocks whether those shocks are due to civil crisis, due to climate change or due to extreme weather conditions. We have to help them to build their resources, to empower them to have access to the necessities of development, access to financial services, access to land, for example.

MARTIN: Is part of the problem here to keep people on the farm and show them that that can be a good way of life because you would see that you're struggling year after year after year and that people are kind of gravitating toward urban areas and not struggling that way, at least that's what you think? Is that part of the challenge is to persuade people that they can have a good life and remain on farms?

NWANZE: Well, the problem is bigger than that. The problem is that food is grown in rural areas not in urban cities. That's point one. Now, the government invests in ensuring that urban populations are well fed. That means they do not invest in rural areas that produce the food. So there's a tendency for rural youth to migrate into urban cities. But what happens, you have the urban bulge.

Essentially, they're moving to urban areas, where they lose the security of the communities in the rural areas. They become more frustrated because moving to the urban areas does not necessarily mean they find jobs. So they become frustrated and become very susceptible to rhetoric. They become easily, easily diverted into less normal activities. And so what happens that you find the urban areas begin to evolve nothing but ghettos.

So you have ghettos that are swarmed by unemployed youth and which become really a danger to society. So I think basically what we're seeing here is that government policies have to recognize that the need for us to invest in the rural space - and they have to understand the nexus between the rural and urban.

MARTIN: Do you see any success stories that you could point to as an example of where these kinds of principles are coming into play to achieve the results that we're talking about here - alleviating hunger, creating kind of a more inclusive society where everybody feels that they have an opportunity to succeed and also creating a secure food supply? Is there an example you can point us to?

NWANZE: Well, I can certainly speak about IFAD's work, for example, in Guatemala where we supported rural farmers to organize themselves into cooperatives - basically, giving them access to financial services, infrastructure. And where their productive ability has increased are their productivity's higher and they're organized. And they're able to access markets - access into markets.

And this particular group I'm talking about, which is called AGRISEM, we help them to build their own institution or framework that they're able to sell their produce to international markets. AGRISEM today, through a partnership with this cooperative, is beginning to supply food items like beans (ph) and onions and tomatoes to the markets of Miami. And their primary client is Wal-Mart.

MARTIN: How do, though, address the question of violence? I mean, there are places now where agriculture's continually disrupted. In Mexico, you know, we've recently reported on the fact that some of the drug cartels have figured out that limes are lucrative. So they're stealing the crop from the farmers. I mean, how are farmers supposed to fight people with guns?

NWANZE: I'll give you an example which comes from my own country, Nigeria. I was there last September where I visited a project in the Niger Delta. And there I met, you know, youth who used to be, basically, very restive. And through organizing them and giving them access to financial resources, linking them to markets, they have, you know, been able to organize themselves out of famine. And here is fish farming - albacore.

MARTIN: Fish farming?

NWANZE: Fish farming. So 2,000 youth are now able to make money growing fish, catfish, as well as diversification into vegetables. So actually you have increased the nutritional intake of the youth.

MARTIN: And for people who are familiar, the Niger Delta's one of those areas that's been particularly noted for a lot of conflict around the oil fields and a lot of conflict around various issues. And so you're saying if you show people another way...

NWANZE: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...They will take that way.


MARTIN: Final thought, if I could from you, it's interesting that in this country - before we went on the air, we were actually having an interesting discussion about food. You know, there's been kind of a renewed interest in fresh, locally grown food in this country. A real kind of move away from big, processed foods etc. On the other hand, a lot of people see that stage of development as being essential to alleviating kind of the basic of hunger. And I just wonder if there's a way you can marry those two ideas.

NWANZE: I think the trend today of people going back to natural foods, to home gardens and the rest is basically back to nature. The food that you eat has to be something that nourishes your body. So it's not just the quantity but also the quality. And for us, while we're encouraging our rural communities, it's for them to grow more food, not necessarily in large areas if they don't have the land, but to grow enough food that they have surpluses that they can commercialize their produce and have access to markets.

So commercialization is not necessarily big. It can be small. And by linking small producers with larger producers or larger markets, you need the back and forth. So I think it's a question of both big and small farms working together.

MARTIN: That was Kanayo Nwanze. He is the head of the IFAD - the International Fund for Agricultural Development. That's a special United Nations agency. And he was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. on a visit to Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

NWANZE: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.