Friday, December 01, 2006

Philanthropy and food security

I'm trying to understand the role of philanthropy in food (in)security. Once upon a time food insecurity was called "hunger."

There has been a lot of philanthropic interest in food security in the USA and elsewhere. While the shift in terminology from hunger to "food insecurity" has many observers cracking jokes about political rhetoric, the fact is that people in countries both wealthy and poor are not getting enough nutritious food. In the US, we have (seemingly oxymoronically) intertwined problems of hunger, obesity, diabetes, and bankrupt small farms. Several movements are afoot to promote sustainable agriculture and farmers markets, get junk food out of schools, and limit the use of "lab" products like high-fructose corn syrup and transfats.

Foundations are supporting the efforts noted above, but the big news is about American foundations and Africa. Most recently the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations announced a new initiative, Alliance for Another Green Revolution (AGRA). Some have noted this as the first large-scale case of one huge foundation outsourcing work to another (Rockefeller's expertise, Gates' money). Others are sure the $150 million investment will fail because it ignores much of what was learned from the first Green Revolution as well as all of the current issues about global warming, sustainable agriculture and economies, and biodiversity.

The Rockefeller Foundation has undisputed credentials in terms of philanthropic investments in agriculture. It spent an estimated $600 million on the first green revolution. As one of the nation's oldest foundations and one of the few that makes its archives (relatively) public, RF also seems to think that history matters.

How will the new effort learn from the past? The first Green Revolution did not bypass Africa, huge investment were made and many strategies attempted. Why did they work or not work? Is the problem food production or is it really about distribution and access for poor people? The former is far more amenable to bio-technology solutions. The latter set of issues is far more complicated and involves cultural traditions, market forces, geography, political economics, and so on.

Will this second "revolutionary" set of investments address the complicated social structures that exacerbate the problems of hunger? Can it focus on diverse, native, sustainable food sources? Or does the alliance assume the answers lie in the lab and consequences be damned?

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