Annan urges students to tackle food security

Nov. 11, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made an appeal to the Stanford community to help solve issues of food security when he spoke to an audience of more than 1,400 students in Memorial Auditorium on Thursday afternoon.

The event co-sponsors, Stanford in Government (SIG) and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), said they had been in talks with Annan for nearly two years in order to arrange the visit.

Annan urges students to tackle food security
Kofi Annan spoke to students in Memorial Auditorium on Thursday afternoon, encouraging them to join the fight against global food insecurity. (MEHMET INONU/The Stanford Daily)

“You are well equipped to undertake research which increases our knowledge,” Annan told the audience. “You also have the capacity to actively engage to influence policy to find and implement solutions to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet.”

Annan began his speech by noting that although the world has made considerable progress in research and technology, these successes are marred by what he called “shameful failures.”

“That failure is that almost one in seven people on our planet will go to bed without enough to eat,” he said. “We live at a time of great contrast: new technology and benefits of globalization have created greater opportunity and more prosperity than ever before. However, this progress has not been shared equally.”

The former U.N. Secretary General detailed how global warming, population growth, rising food prices and general political instability are the major contributors to food insecurity worldwide.

Annan emphasized that climate change is not a problem of the future, but one that must be dealt with today. He linked recent examples of extreme weather such as a heat wave in Russia and flooding in Thailand to global warming.

“Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns are already affecting agricultural productivity,” Annan said. “Eighty percent of fertile farmland in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to turn to ‘dustbowls’ by the end of the century.”

According to Annan, the world’s growing population is another major factor that will affect food security. While the world’s ability to grow food is declining, the number of mouths to feed is rapidly increasing.

Experts predict that by the year 2050, the world’s food demand will grow by 70 percent. Annan said that while estimates from two years ago estimated that the world’s population would level off around 9 billion, more recent studies point to 10 billion as the “leveling-off point.”

Rising food prices will also contribute to global food insecurity, according to Annan.

“By the year 2050, food prices will increase by 50 percent,” he said.

According to Annan, some contributing causes of food insecurity are the result of economic factors in Western countries, such as speculation in agricultural commodities and cultivation of crops for cattle feed and bio-fuel, rather than for human consumption.

Annan remarked on a quote from a personal conversation with Fidel Castro.

“If we give the food to the cars, what will the people eat?” Annan said the Cuban leader once asked him.

Annan described how high demand for crops such as coffee and cocoa often causes farmers in Africa to grow these crops instead of dietary staples, such as cassava or sorghum.

“Africa has become a continent that grows what we do not eat and imports what we need,” Annan said.

The situation, however, is not without hope. Annan cited several examples of innovative programs that are being developed to help African farmers.

In order for these programs to be successful, Annan said he believes that they must learn from the positive and negative lessons of regions that have previously tried to conquer food insecurity, such as Asia. Annan said these new solutions must also be “climate-smart.”

“Most importantly,” Annan said, “[these solutions] must draw from knowledge of local communities so they can be put into practice by small-holder farmers.”

Annan appealed to Stanford students specifically to help in the fight against food insecurity. He said that the new Center for Food Security and the Environment (FSE) is an example of the kind of forward thinking that can make contributions to end hunger.

“My young friends, don’t sit on the sidelines, contribute your curiosity, your energy and your unbounded enthusiasm to end global food insecurity,” Annan said.

James Honsa ’14, a member of SIG, said he thought Annan’s speech was “sensational,” and that the speech showed him “the huge disconnect between the money allotted to food aid and the benefits that could come from that and the money we choose to spend on national security.”

In addition to speaking to Stanford students in Memorial Auditorium on Thursday, Annan will be speaking this weekend at the launch of the new, full-fledged research Center for Food Security and the Environment (FSE) under the FSI.

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