Friday, March 30, 2007

Hunger: more alternative(s)

No post yesterday: the nicer the hotels, the less is free. I wasn't going to pay 10 dollars to spend an hour of my sleeping time online, sorry.

What else can we do about hunger, besides giving food?

Education is the key, really, to improving lives in the long run. The old saw is that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, you feed him for life. Well, if you teach him aquaculture techniques, you feed his country for even longer.

Not just agricultural education, though. For many people in places where hunger strikes on a regular basis, their only capital is themselves. They have no savings, no valuables, little to no land: no real assets. But they have themselves. Most of the time, that means they have a body that is used to hard work, which they can rent to people. Wouldn't it be better to provide them with a strong mind, capable of higher-level, better-paying jobs, to accompany that body? With education, Bangalore has gone from low-income to IT center to the world. Despite an agricultural history, they have developed a way to feed their people through non-agricultural jobs.

Ag education does have its place in the grand education scheme. In countries currently relying on ag production, schools and universities should try to develop a strong extension and research service in each of their production zones or regions. This requires a good training program for scientists and extension specialists, preferably to return to their home regions and work in cooperation with the local farmers.

All of this requires a good primary and secondary school system feeding into upper-level training. I cannot stress enough the necessity of universal primary education. It may not put food in stomachs today, but it will do more in the long run than we ever can with free corn.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hunger: alternatives

Since I spent yesterday's post talking about not giving food away, what are our alternatives? I mentioned food for work programs, but there are other choices:
  • fund programs to improve genetics and techniques in local agriculture
  • improve transportation infrastructure from farms to hungry people
  • decrease post-harvest losses with improved storage facilities
  • increase local industry (this improves wages, which increases the amount people can spend on food)
There's something you might notice about these: they mostly involve giving money! As I've mentioned before, most governments would prefer to give food because it makes money for their farmers and agro-allied industries. The truth is, though, money is much more useful. I don't think people will pick this up and run with it. After all, it costs more, doesn't it?

Pregnancy and beef?

This is ridiculous. How many possible sources of bias are there in this study? Looking at the diets of women when they were pregnant long enough ago that they are now grandmothers!?!? And assuming that the current levels of hormones in beef were present then. And that no other possible sources of anything that would affect development might have been present. And that the women even remember accurately how much beef they ate. Bad epi!

Study links beef-eating moms to sons with low sperm counts; AMI objects
By Ann Bagel Storck on 3/28/2007 for

Men whose mothers ate a lot of beef during pregnancy are more likely to have low sperm counts and fertility problems, according to a report in the journal Human Reproduction.

Dr. Shanna H. Swan of the University of Rochester Medical Center, the report's author, identified anabolic steroids used to fatten cattle, pesticides and other environmental contaminants as possible causes of the problems.

Swan and her colleagues studied 387 partners of pregnant women in five U.S. cities. Each man provided a sperm sample, and his mother completed a questionnaire about what she ate during her pregnancy. On average, the mothers reported eating beef about 4.5 times weekly and other meats less frequently.

For women who ate beef at least seven times a week, the son's sperm averaged 24.3 percent below normal. Although those sons did produce a pregnancy, they were three times as likely to have consulted a fertility doctor.

AMI's criticism

The American Meat Institute advised that the study be viewed with "a giant dose of skepticism." Its most glaring fault, AMI said, was its "purely speculative conclusion" that chemical components in the beef were linked to the fertility problems.

"The study does not include any laboratory analysis of the compounds suggested to be contained in beef, much less the beef that may have been consumed by the mothers decades ago," said Randy Huffman, AMI Foundation vice president of scientific affairs.

AMI also criticized the validity of women "of advanced age" recalling what they ate decades ago. Swan conceded that women may have difficulty remembering their diets after such a passage of time, but added, "When you are pregnant, you are very aware of what you eat."

Swan also emphasized that the study needs to be confirmed, and it is too soon to recommend that pregnant women avoid eating beef.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hunger: handouts

At Roxann's suggestion (since I was out of ideas tonight):

Why is handing out food (usually) a bad idea?

Think about a local economy for a moment. Can you make a living from selling something that other people are giving away? Not unless you have higher quality that people are willing and able to pay for. That's the idea behind price wars, right? People pay the higher price when they'll get more for their money; otherwise, they pick the lowest price.

Now think about a situation where money is not abundant. People have to be able to pay the higher price to get the better quality and keep you in business. If they can't afford that extra, even if it's a very small amount, they'll take the free product. They have to.

Now you can't sell your product. Do you keep producing? No, you find another job and get your product for free like everyone else. That's only sensible.

OK, put this in an agricultural setting: you produce food staples, but an outside agency is giving them away (or their equivalent, like rice instead of corn). You stop producing rice because you can get corn for free and no-one will buy your rice. Now no-one produces rice in your area, you look for other work. Of course, if you live in a typical rice-producing region, there isn't much other work to do. So you become unemployed, but you still get your free corn.

If you're the outside agency, you were giving away corn because there was a food shortage. Now, the food shortage has grown. Plus, all the people who used to produce food are sitting around with nothing to do and are slowly losing their sense of self-worth because of it. Does that sound like a dangerous situation to anyone else?

I said that handing out food is usually a bad idea, but of course, there are exceptions. Famines happen, and when they do it's important to provide food. There are ways of making it less damaging, however -- food for work is probably the best example. Your food donation isn't given to people who can work unless they do something to improve their communities. Win-win!


I love this idea. And the name. What fun! Oh, and useful . . .

Researchers hope dipstick holds the key to food poisoning prevention
By Ann Bagel Storck on 3/26/2007 for
Researchers at the University of South Carolina have developed a disposable dipstick that can detect whether a food is safe to eat or whether it has spoiled to the extent that it could cause food poisoning.

The dipstick is made of polymers that change color in the presence of nonvolatile biogenic amines, which are generated during the bacterial decay of food proteins. In a paper presented at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, the researchers said the amines provide an indirect measurement of the extent of food spoilage.

The goal is to eventually market the dipstick as a test kit that consumers could use at home or in restaurants.

Hunger: a little reading

Once again, I don't get to writing this until morning. Didn't want to turn my computer on when I got home last night, forgot I had a reason to.

Some suggestions of reading material on hunger that I have/do enjoy. There's a lot out there, but these are good suggestions:

World Hunger: Twelve Myths -- this is a basic overview of some of the major misconceptions about hunger and how to deal with it. Written for laymen, easy to read.

Food First -- Another basic overview, same author. I actually haven't finished reading this, but I like what I've seen. Also an easy read.

The World Food Problem -- this is a textbook. If you're looking for an easy read, this is not it. If you're looking for an in-depth explanation of, especially, the economics of hunger in the world, this is the book for you. Very good!

More With Less -- a cookbook with a message: if you want to live a little lighter, to conserve, to do more for yourself and have more to give, this is an essential cookbook. Also has good recipes, but the important sections here are the introduction, which talks about how important food is in the world at large, and the quotes throughout from various cultures on the value of food in the face of hunger.

World Ark -- a bimonthly magazine from Heifer International, there are a number of articles and blurbs each issue on hunger and useful tips on what you can do. You get a free subscription when you donate to Heifer, so give a donation already!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Hunger: how?

My mother made a good comment on my last post, which has inspired this post. The question she's asking is basically how? How do we learn? How do we feel? How do we do? And how do we get other people to join us?

I understand that the information available to learn about hunger is overwhelming. There are many sites with many foci. There are many programs. There are reams of books (Amazon lists 53,515 in nonfiction). I don't know where to send you. Well, I lie -- I do know where to send you: Bread for the World and Heifer International are a good start. But you have to make your own way, sift through the information for yourself, and follow your interests; what I enjoy, you might not. If you want a good Bible study on hunger, especially for a group, I suggest The Society of St. Andrew's study The Fast that I Choose. Very good information tied to Biblical texts.

As for how do we feel for others, in the context of our daily lives, all I can do is suggest that we talk to people. Talk to people at a soup kitchen, or talk to people who have worked at one. Talk to people from low-income countries, or talk to people who have visited one. The personal relationships are the ones that touch our hearts.

How do we act, do something? This is the hardest of all. Should we live sustainably, below our income, so we can share what we have with others? Of course -- it is our duty to our world and the rest of mankind to live as lightly as possible. Maybe we don't give up toilet paper for a year, but we should try to make our impact small. Should we all go on short-term trips overseas to help out? Of course not -- only people who are called to do so should be spending the money to travel all that way. But we should help out in our own communities. Should we write letters to our representatives? Of course -- we may not drown out the lobbyists, but we can be heard and we should make our opinions known.

The biggest problem is the one my mother put her finger right on -- it's not easy. So, she asked, how do we make it easy?

We don't.

It's not easy. It never has been easy. It never will be easy. People who want easy don't change the world. And yes, I know, Americans are lazy and want things simplified, dumbed down, and made as easy as possible. I'm sorry, but it's not going to happen.

The good news about the difficulty is that it provides greater satisfaction. I love hiking, and I love especially hiking hills and forests. In most of NY, the public parks trails are smooth, dirt or gravel, with hand rails and stairs in difficult sections and well-marked paths. I enjoy hiking on them. I spent a few weeks in Vermont a few summers ago and camped at Underhill State Park, on the slopes of Mt. Mansfield, so I could do some hiking. The trails on that side of the mountain were very lightly marked, rough, and had nothing resembling a hand rail or a stair. I truly loved those hikes, more than on the nice manicured trails in NY, because they gave me a sense of accomplishment. I had to fight to find my way, almost getting lost, scrambling through loose leaves and over rivulets, trying to get the dog I was sitting over the shoulder-high rocks. I worked to finish those hikes, and I loved it.

Work hard to fight hunger, and you will be glad you did. If you look for an easy way out, you may enjoy it, you may be somewhat productive, but you won't feel the accomplishment in the end. That feeling is worth the effort.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Hunger: how to sum it up

No, I'm not ending my Lenten discipline 2 weeks early (although my food cravings really want me to). When I finish writing this, I need to put together a presentation for my church on global hunger issues, as part of a hunger dinner in support of the Asian Rural Institute. I get 10 minutes to explain global hunger and my work in Uganda. Suggestions?

In 10 minutes, what can I say? I can explain where hunger is, as I've done in the past couple of days. I can talk about why hunger is, as I've done in previous weeks. I think the most important thing, though, is to make people understand why they should care.

This goes back to the LFD method I mentioned last week (or meant to, maybe it didn't go up until this week). The middle step is crucial, feeling for the people who experience hunger. Too many times, I think, we ignore what we don't experience ourselves. There was a good quote in the preface to Killing the Wizards (I need to read the rest of that book sometime) about how we could deal with privations because we knew they would end some day, we could look forward to returning to civilization. Most hungry people can't. How well can we feel for them, these people who struggle daily to meet needs we forget? We can only try.

I've been reading On Liberty lately (I enjoy nonfiction at the gym, it keeps me at the right level of distraction to get the best workouts). One of the biggest points Mill makes is that we need dissension in order to keep our beliefs from becoming rote actions. Maybe we need shocks to our understanding, to our comfortable lives, to keep our feelings from becoming shallow motions. Maybe I can provide some sort of shock to the people at the dinner Sunday.

In 10 minutes.

Or maybe I can show them some pretty pictures, satisfy their desire for liberal warm fuzzies, and send them on their way full and happy. The original plan for the hunger meal (not that I was involved at this stage) was to have what I've heard of other places: people are assigned nationalities and given some facts about what their life would be like. Food is portioned according to the socioeconomic status you have been assigned, from a spoonful of rice to a Happy Meal. Our head pastor vetoed that plan as unfair.

Umm . . . yes. Unfair. Uh huh.

Instead, we're having a lentil and rice dish with a dessert of cookies, but not enough per table to serve everyone. Not quite as strong. And we only have 30 minutes, which gives me 10, 10 to ARI, and 10 to discuss the cookie thing. Not much time to sum up global hunger.

In other words, I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do. Hopefully I'll come up with something.

The farm bill: we might actually agree on something

I don't normally agree with this weekly column. They tend to be the equivalent answer to the hysterical anti-meat protesters, and I don't like either attitude. Here, though, they get it just about right.

THE VOCAL POINT: Reforming the farm bill likely to be industry's job No. 1
By Dan Murphy on 3/23/2007 for

Over the last five years that have elapsed since passage of the 2002 farm bill, one conclusion is inescapable: Our agricultural policy is broken.

Reform is not only desirable; in many respects, it's inevitable.

The pressure — and the political will — to control federal budget deficits is for real, and that alone makes it likely that the next five-year funding cycle for farm programs could be significantly reduced.

Additionally, with the massive federal commitment to diversion of corn from feed and food toward ethanol production, the funding available to prop up program crop prices cannot and will not remain static.

It's time that all constituencies impacted by our current system of ag subsidies recognize that the farm bill has evolved into a gigantic entitlement program, supporting a small, special-interest group to the exclusion of other broader, more beneficial outcomes that agricultural policy could and should support.

With farmers and ranchers themselves being the top beneficiaries.

Certainly, the political pressure to continue subsidizing commodity crops to enhance ag exports cannot be ignored — without the more than $60 billion in food and fiber we export, our balance of trade would be even more horrendous than it already is.

But the bottom line is that serious challenges lie ahead for both farmers and livestock producers in this country, and without a shift in the focus and funding priorities of federal farm programs, the outlook is bleak for continued growth of a healthy, sustainable agricultural sector.

Redirecting policy priorities

There are many, many options to slice apart the way our costly, antiquated farm programs damage both short-term viability and long-term sustainability of animal and plant food production. Let's limit ourselves to three key areas.

Biofuel production. USDA Secretary Mike Johanns just this week touted the department's provision of more than $1.6 billion in new funding for renewable energy R&D, specifically the development and production of so-called "cellulosic ethanol" made from switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass.

Stop me before I hurt myself laughing.

That funding ought to be 10 times the proposed amount if anyone in government seriously intends to make biofuel production something that helps, rather than hurts, the farm sector — meaning livestock producers looking at corn prices heading sky high. There are both huge opportunities to be pursued, and equally huge obstacles to be overcome, in diversifying biofuel production beyond ethanol — as well as serious challenges inherent in making corn-to-ethanol conversion efficient — and it all depends on ramping up the technologies currently available.

Make no mistake: The Bioenergy and Bioproducts Research Initiative proposed as part of USDA's biofuels program is a good start. But that initiative needs much more than the pitiful $50 million a year in funding currently on the table to ensure any real progress toward utilization of renewable fuel sources other than feed grains.

So where can larger levels of funding be found? There's only one logical source: Diversion of program crop support payments. Instead of propping up commodity prices, some of those billions need to go into vastly accelerated research efforts to expand biofuel production beyond the questionable conversion of corn from food to fuel.

Otherwise, we're just paying lip service to our (alleged) commitment to weaning the nation off imported oil.

Land use. This challenge here is simple yet profound: We cannot sustain continued population growth and the concurrent expansion of housing, transportation corridors and commercial development without seriously impacting the availability of arable acreage needed to maintain domestic food security.

Without a national initiative to preserve and protect our agricultural land base, everything else in the way of conservation efforts, resource management and environmental sustainability falls apart. Short-term, several states are working to stopgap the disappearance of prime farmland to development, but eventually, as it always does, those initiatives come down to funding.

As a nation, we either support food security by subsidizing the continued presence of hog farms, feedlots, dairy farms, orchards, vineyards, specialty farms and other non-commodity ag operations on the land base adjacent to our major population centers, or else we'd better be prepared to suffer the consequences inherent in a gradual but ultimately significant outsourcing of food production.

Can't happen here? In just a couple generations, Japan went from self sufficiency — indeed from food exporting — to one of the world's largest food importers, dependent on trading partners for more than 60 percent of its basic foodstuffs. That didn't happen by accident; it happened by default, and it's not inconceivable that a similar scenario could take place here unless dollars are devoted to making sure that farmland stays in production.

Sustainability. Overriding all of the macro-dynamics affecting farm policy is the one factor I consider most crucial: Maintaining the long-term viability of the resource base that supports food production.

If we look ahead 10 or 20 years, we have to ask: Will there be enough water to maintain beef production on the High Plains? Will watershed impacts curtail the growth of confinement pork production? Will there be sufficient rangeland to ramp up production of grassfed or natural beef, should those categories continue to expand? Will loss of soil fertility and ongoing erosion jeopardize current yield levels of critical food and feed crops?

Right now, I'm afraid the answer to all those questions is no.

How do we improve that prognosis? The obvious answer is public-private partnerships to create marketable programs that allow agriculture to be part of the solution to the threats listed above.

Why shouldn't farmers, ranchers and producers be deputized as leaders in programs to conserve water resources, maintain water quality, restore wetlands (anyone remember Hurricane Katrina?), enhance wildlife habitat and even reduce carbon dioxide emissions? Individually, those are all massive challenges. Collectively, they cannot be addressed solely by policymaking mandates — no matter what the level of funding — coming from Washington.

Not that such mandates are anywhere near any politician's agenda.

Bottom line, we need to not just sustain but increase our farm productivity. We will continue to depend on export markets to ensure the profitability of food, fiber and meat products. We can and must depend on the agricultural sector to play a key role in everything from national security to environmental protection to global warming to energy independence.

None of those priorities can be achieved by funneling multi-billions into maintenance of an outdated, crudely structured, long-ago obsolete structure of agricultural subsidies.

If we make the requisite changes, yes: The net result is that we'll end up paying more for our food.

The alternative is paying an even steeper price in terms of lost export opportunities, rural viability and preservation of the resource base on which our entire economy depends.

Dan Murphy, former editor of MMT magazine, is communications integrator + principal at Seattle-based Outsource Marketing and author of the forthcoming book, "Meat of the Matter."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hunger: urban bias

Almost forgot to post again -- I need to get the habit back.

I talk quite a bit about rural poor, rather than urban poor, and hunger. It's not just because I'm a vet, and therefore interested in (predominately rural) livestock. It's also because, globally, the rural populations have a higher incidence of hunger.

One of the main reasons is urban bias. This is the result of governments and organizations paying greater attention to the urban situation. There are perfectly good reasons for them to do so -- that's where they live, for one. Also, urban populations are more likely to be educated and politically active, so passing them over in favor of the uneducated and compliant rural population may be a recipe for governmental overthrow, or at least major protests. Plus, the infrastructure to get aid and development projects is more likely to be available in urban areas. If you want to start a school, isn't it easier to start it someplace that has 50 kids per square kilometer instead of 5? Hence the urban populace being more educated . . .

The importance of the rural/urban divide for hunger issues is that food is produced in rural areas, so development there is essential. It's a tragedy to leave a country's food producers to go hungry, but it often happens because the manufacturers and urban laborers are given priority.

No solution or action point here, just some food for thought.

Hunger: where the livestock are

Oops, should have written this last night. Forgot.

There is a lot of hunger in rural poor livestock keepers. Where? The same places there are a lot of hungry children.

Why? After all, if people have livestock, they have a permanent source of food, right? Not really -- livestock keeping is not a stable career in most places. Drought robs them of fodder, disease robs them of animals and genetics, and poor infrastructure robs them of the ability to market their products.

To tell the truth, livestock keeping isn't a safety against hunger even in the high income countries. Livestock products are a luxury in most of the world, which means that any hit to the economy drives down demand for meat and dairy, driving down prices, forcing many who live on their animals to go hungry or live with food insecurity.

Hunger doesn't always hit those with nothing -- even a herd of animals is no protection.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A system in crisis? Try a crisis in the system

We know that tuberculosis is a problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Multi-drug resistance is on the rise there. Books and movies, like The Constant Gardener, might want to blame us, but the problem stems from the health care system. If we are to blame, it is only for allowing that health care system to continue.

Extreme drug resistance, though, scares the most blase in the health community. This is untreatable TB, deadly, and apparently as virulent as any other strain. We don't know how far it has spread, since most hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa can't test for it. We don't know how many strains there are, since ditto. We don't know if it's waiting to explode in the population.

We do know that most cases have been in AIDS patients. This is a big risk for the immunocompromised. Everyone else? We don't know. We do know that the inability of low income health care systems to provide follow-up to TB patients is probably spurring the development of resistance. How do we fix that? We don't know.

Ignorance is the most frightening concept to any medical professional. We are trained to know before we do, to find the answers. We need to start asking the questions.

Hunger: the world situation

Where are children going hungry? Globally, two places stand out: the Sahel and the Himalayas. Why these two? I would guess at a number of reasons, but mainly the insecurity of the agriculture systems in those areas. Water is not reliable. Weather cannot be trusted. Crops fail. Children starve.

But other areas of the world have similar problems, agriculturally. So why these areas? Look at their history -- how long have they been ignored by their governments and by others? Look at our prejudices -- how many countries do we want to deal with that speak little or no English, practice little or no Christianity, and follow few to none of the Western cultural norms.

I don't have exact answers, again, but I do have questions. Why? I'll be asking this all this week -- why is hunger where it is?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hunger: and I'm not being as active as I should be

I said, as part of my Lenten discipline, that I would write something about hunger here 6 days a week. But this weekend, I was out interviewing . . . and the hotel had a horribly, glacially slow wireless . . . and I was tired . . . and I didn't write anything. Yesterday, I had no excuse -- I got home mid-afternoon and spent a large amount of time reading, putzing around, and not being active -- but I didn't want to turn my computer on for fear that a problem with my thesis model might still be there. So this morning I came back, the problem was gone, and I got to work. You see, I realized yesterday that I have less than a month to write my thesis. Eek! And all these are horrible excuses for explaining my lack of discipline towards my Lenten discipline.

Which is ironic, because the theme of the next essay in my cycle was always going to be what individuals can do, and here I am, not doing.

So what can we, as individuals, do about hunger? I'm going to coin my own term: the LFD method. Here it is, laid out as I've been planning (and not doing) for several days.

  1. Learn. Never, ever, in my opinion, should you jump into a complicated issue like hunger without some study. These may be the words of a perennial student, but you need to know where you stand before you can move. So, if you have an interest in hunger, study it. Learn the physiology if you must, but more importantly learn the sociology. Study the economics. At the very least, sit down and think your way through the consequences of the work you want to do or support. A lot of damage has been done in this world by well-meaning ignorance.
  2. Feel. I never really struggle with #1 (see the perennial student comment), but #2 gives me problems. It is important to work with people viscerally as well as logically, to feel their situation as well as understand it. I like to wall off emotion when I work, to make everything tidy and organized, but hunger affects people and can't be compartmentalized like that. Never let yourself forget that these are real people you're trying to help, not just paper dolls or numbers on paper. Almost as much damage has been done by unfeeling arrogance.
  3. Do. This last doesn't do much direct damage if ignored; after all, if you don't do anything you can't do anything wrong. It does, however, cause indirect damage to avoid taking action when action is called for. You can spend all your time studying, you can pity and cry for all the sob stories in the world, but none of it feeds a single person. Think of this as the faith vs. works argument (my Lutheran training showing it's presence): knowing about hunger and feeling for the hungry should naturally, organically, lead to doing something about it. Don't forget the last step.
There you have it: LFD. Learn, feel, and do. Don't leave a step out. The first two don't have to go in order, but the last should always be last. And repeat. Every time you act, learn what the response is, ask around about the human consequences, and act accordingly. If we all started there, hunger would become a thing of the past.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hunger: community organizations

Yes, there are a lot of community organizations that work on hunger issues, global and local.

What, you wanted more than that? Sorry, I'm busy this weekend with interviews.

Really, if you want to know how to get involved in your community, start asking questions. Someone will point you in the right direction. Every area is different. IF you can't find anything to join, start something and others will join you.

'Nuff said.

Hunger: the business solution

Can regular businesses work on the hunger issue? They can try.

One thing we see happening around here is college students being preferentially hired (this being a college town). They have fewer complications (kids etc.), better transportation, more flexible schedules, and the look better. Plus, they only want part time with no benefits, so you don't have to feel bad giving it to them. In other towns, these jobs might go to high school students; same thing, really. Businesses that want to make a difference for the hungry should try hiring single moms and other groups that experience disproportionate amounts of poverty and hunger.

Other suggestions: sell fair trade goods (that helps hunger in other countries), sell local goods (supporting local farmers and craftsmen helps local hunger). Business offices can consider educating employees and offering matching donations to good NGOs. Businesses are in business to make money; they could try sharing some with those who can't.

This post is a little late. Oops. Packing and data-gathering don't mix.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hunger: churches

Can churches do anything to help the issue of hunger? Um, duh?

The truth is, the poor in the US are better off than the poor in most low-income countries specifically because the churches do so much. Philadelphia churches spend over $24 million on feeding the hungry every year, for one example.

What can churches do, then? Well, the first is obvious: feed the hungry. Churches are excellent centers for food aid distribution; they usually have kitchens, volunteers, and donors. They have dinners to which they can invite people (my church has a standing invitation to anyone who's hungry to our Wednesday dinner, and they come). They can run food pantries and/or soup kitchens. And they do, frequently.

But if you hadn't noticed yet, I'm more interested in development than aid. What can churches do there? Some may disagree with me, but I say churches should get active -- yes, I mean politically active. Christians should take issues they think are serious to their representatives at all levels of government (and any church that doesn't think poverty and hunger are serious should read the Bible a bit closer). Not as churches, per se, but as individuals. I want churches to encourage people to vote and advocate for issues of Biblical import, and hunger is one.

Maybe I'm asking a lot, but I think it's not too much to ask.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Corn and consequences

It's coming. Until we find a) a non-corn-based ethanol system or b) a non-corn-based livestock system, we're going to see fuel and meat going head to head. Consequences are a bummer.

Ethanol's demand for corn raising meat prices
By Tom Johnston on 3/12/2007 for
USDA indicated in a report late last week that the ethanol industry's robust demand for corn is elevating the cost of livestock and will hike prices for beef, pork and chicken.

The agency says ethanol is consuming 20 percent of last year's corn crop and is expected to use 25 percent of this year's harvest, driving up the price of corn. The average price of corn is $3.20 a bushel, up from $2 last year.

Higher feed costs will reduce meat and poultry production. The National Chicken Council reported that the price of corn has forced a 40-percent increase in the cost of feeding chickens, and poultry will soon cost more at retail.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said USDA is closely monitoring corn supply and demand, which is likely to force farmers to plant more acres of the crop.

"We do have confidence in the marketplace's ability to react," Conner said. "We believe producers are seeing the market saying, 'I need more corn, not only for ethanol, but for our feed needs in this country."

However, USDA announced that a mere 4.1 million acres will be withdrawn from the Conservation Reserve Program in the next four years, ruling out the possibility, as economists have suggested, that it be used for extra corn production. The CRP program pays landowners to take out of production land that is highly erodible or otherwise environmentally sensitive. Its holdings are often used as hunting preserves.

Meanwhile, USDA has formed an ethanol panel to address the effects of ethanol and other biofuels on animal agriculture, a move urged by NCC, the National Pork Producers Council, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation, National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Milk Producers Federation.

Hunger: local government

What can a local government do to stop local hunger? (By local, I mean state and community levels).

There are a lot of answers to that, but first we must establish that local government should have a role in stopping hunger. To do that, we must admit that government has a moral responsibility to our well-being, not just a legislated responsibility for our behavior. And I'm not going into that argument -- just accept that I'm coming from that direction.

The first thing we think of when we think about local hunger issues is food and food prices, but that's not where government comes in, at least not mainly. The only real food pricing thing local government can do is to think about taxation of food. Sales tax on food is a regressive tax; it hits much harder if you're poor and spend 50% of your income on food than if you're middle class and spend 5% of your income on food. That's simple math.

There are other ways local government can help, mostly stemming from a desire to increase the amount of money available to spend on food. Affordable housing and health care are big; between them, they cover a good chunk of the outlay of the poor. Public transportation is huge in this country; we do so love our cars and our sprawl, so only big cities and progressive (mostly liberal) towns (usually with a college) will have public transport systems. If your town has no bus system and few sidewalks and the places you work, live, and shop are miles apart, you're forced to spend large amounts of money on gas and car payments. Bus and train systems are anti-hunger measures. Finally, the best way to fight hunger is to cause economic growth leading to available jobs paying a living wage. Easier said than done, I know, but it works better than anything else.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hunger: community involvement

It's time I start talking about solutions to the hunger problem that are applicable by people who might be reading this blog (I have no illusions about great and mighty political figures reading my little comments). This week I'll focus on community-level involvement in the hunger crusade; what can local governments do? Churches? Businesses? Social groups?

There really is a lot we can do if we act in concert. At the moment, though, what I need to do is sleep -- I'll get into concerted efforts with a bit more energy tomorrow.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Hunger: what to look for in an organization

I've been throwing words and phrases around all week, talking about different hunger organizations, so maybe I should explain what I care about in any organization that purports to deal with hunger issues.
  • Accountability: there should be a way to judge how well a group is doing what they say they do. That could be (preferably) with metrics that show hunger levels decreasing, but it could be even with freely given anecdotes from the beneficiaries. The important thing is that the work of the organization be measured by the impact on hunger, not by how much they necessarily did.
  • Sustainability: the project should be moving towards self-sustaining, native-run maintenance. If an organization runs projects to build things, then has to raise money to maintain them, that's bad. If they don't even address maintenance, that's worse. The true job of any development professional should be to put him- or herself out of work; that means setting things up to run by themselves or with the help of the beneficiaries.
  • Participatory: you may see a theme here; I really think that development shouldn't happen without the beneficiaries being involved. They should help identify the needs, help guide the interventions, help implement the solutions, and help measure the results. Any good organization will strive towards local ownership.
  • Focused: if you get too distracted, you won't be as efficient. I really think organizations should pick one area in which they excel. If they see a crossover with another area, they should cooperate with whatever organization excels there.
There are other things that individual organizations should have in order to do their work, but these 4 are pretty much universal. If you find an organization that you're interested in supporting, first ask yourself where they stand on these. Any group that does well on all four probably will do good things with your time and money.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hunger: Bread for the World

Of faith-based organizations, none really does the job fighting hunger that Bread for the World does. These guys are so good, they were recommended by the very secular professor of my Econ and Hunger course -- that's got to mean something.

BftW works on a number of levels, local to international, primarily on food policy. What I really like about them is their focus on policy change at the national level. You can read here their policy statements on the different hunger-related issues the US government works on, both domestically and internationally. They work on lobbying legislators and organize letter writing campaigns, including letters to editors of various media outlets. Really, their goal is to educate and inform, in hopes that that will lead to change in our society. It's a worthy goal, and a good group.

You mean that resistance might just be in the population?

Granted, this is from a meat industry website, so they're not going to be too critical:
Study finds antibiotic resistance in poultry even when antibiotics were not used
By Alicia Karapetian on 3/8/2007 for
A surprising finding by a team of University of Georgia scientists suggests that curbing the use of antibiotics on poultry farms will do little, if anything, to reduce rates of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have the potential to threaten human health.

Dr. Margie Lee, professor in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine, and her colleagues have found that chickens raised on antibiotic-free farms, and even those raised under pristine laboratory conditions, have high levels of bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics. Her findings, published in the March issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, suggest that poultry come to the farm harboring resistant bacteria, possibly acquired as they were developing in their eggs.

"The resistances don't necessarily come from antibiotic use in the birds that we eat," Lee said, "so banning antibiotic use on the farm isn't going to help. You have to put in some work before that."

Lee and her team sampled droppings from more than 140,000 birds under four different conditions:
  • 1. commercial flocks that had been given antibiotics;
  • 2. commercial flocks that had not been given antibiotics;
  • 3. flocks raised in a lab that had been given antibiotics;
  • 4. flocks raised in a lab that had not been given antibiotics.
The researchers examined levels of antibiotic resistance in normal intestinal bacteria that do not cause human illness and, in a companion study published in May in the same journal, also examined levels of drug-resistant campylobacter bacteria, a common foodborne cause of diarrhea, cramping and abdominal pain.

The meat industry is often blamed for all antibiotic resistance, but that really is rather unfair; it's possible that animals are picking up resistant strains from people who don't think it's necessary to finish their course of antibiotics when their infection clears up. But that's just my bias.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Hunger: USAID

There are a lot of governmental agencies that deal with hunger issues (at least one for every high-income country), so I'll look at what my own government is doing; specifically, what USAID is doing, specifically in Africa.

The US government works domestically and internationally on hunger issues, but only USAID is dedicated specifically to development. (If you were wondering how to pronounce it, you're supposed to spell it out: U-S-A-I-D.) In Africa, USAID is working on a presidential initiative to end hunger, partnering with the African Union (AU) and individual countries, as well as with other development institutions.

First, USAID is encouraging US scientists, universities, and companies to provide technical expertise. While this has been known to be badly planned (large dams with no maintenance plans, anyone?), the premise is good; the important thing is to be sure that the "experts" are listening to the people they're helping. It's not a good idea to provide something that people don't want and expect them to care for it and pay for upkeep, especially people on the edge.

Second, USAID is trying to build the private sector in many countries, arguing that ending rural poverty will end much of the hunger problems in Africa. While it is true that these programs are much needed (roads and transport for agricultural goods are essential), my cynical side says the US will benefit from more markets being opened. Still, better infrastructure is a good thing.

Last, USAID talks of trying to break the poverty cycle that keeps people in food insecurity, throwing around words like "sustainable" and "integrated". Laudable goals, all, but I'd need to get into specifics to judge how well they're doing, and, frankly, I have enough research to do right now, between class and writing a thesis.

I'm sorry if this seems a little more judgemental than my previous organizational posts. I do tend to be harsher towards government programs because they so often have an agenda beyond ending hunger. Morality and politics don't really seem to intersect often enough for me to trust organizations that claim to marry them . . .

Subsidies, revisited

Yes, they're still in the farm bill:

India, E.U. urge U.S. to cut farm subsidies for Doha Round success
By John Gregerson on 3/7/2007 for
India and the European Union want the United States to cut its farm subsidies to ensure success for the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks, according to Indian news wires.

"I am a bit disappointed to see the new U.S. farm bill. There is no change in treatment of two important sectors, sugar and dairying," European Commissioner for Agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel told reporters. "These sectors need to be reformed."

Boel warned that the subsidies are stumbling blocks to the successful conclusion of the Doha round — meaning negotiations to hammer out a multilateral free-trade agreement among World Trade Organization member countries.

Boel, who is on an official visit to India, said, "The current draft of the new U.S. farm bill pushes in the right direction, but not far enough."

She added that the European Union is committed to the multilateral trade talks, but cuts in trade-distorting subsidies have to be reciprocal, indicating the European Union has proposed a cut of 70 percent in its ceiling on trade-distorting subsidies. She said it also has offered to phase out export refunds by 2013 and roughly halve the agricultural import tariff to 12 percent from 23 percent.

"The next 60 days are extremely critical for WTO negotiations," said G.K. Pillai, India's commerce secretary. "The situation requires extremely delicate handling."

Talk about cutting subsidies continues, but I'm being cynical today: I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. Doha has collapsed. (We're not the only ones to blame, but we should . . . consider our role.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hunger: FAO

My favorite UN agency has to be the FAO. For a livestock veterinarian, it doesn't get any better than the Food and Agriculture Organization. And they do crops, too!

The FAO has as it's mandate
to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy.
They aim to help people help themselves (sensing a theme in the organizations I like yet?), by providing technical advice in any area of agriculture. That means teaching new farming techniques, yes, but it also means teaching policy techniques to governments, setting up disease surveillance systems, and alerting the rest of the world to situations that need relief.

The FAO is not a funding agency, but a technical agency. It has limited funds to supply, but large amounts of expertise. That expertise is available to all, in every form from rural extension seminars to Internet databases. People working for the FAO may be in an office in Rome, doing basic research, or out in the bush, putting the research into practice.

Yes, I sound like a cheesy public service announcement. What can I say, I want to work for them!

There is even peacemaking potential at the FAO, as it provides neutral ground for dispute resolution. The directors aim to decentralize, bringing the resources closer to the people who need it, but the central office is still a meeting place for all agriculturalists who need to interact on a global scale.

The FAO is commited to the Millenium Development Goal of cutting hunger in half by 2015. At this point, frankly, it would take a miracle. Still, trying for a major miracle can cause minor miracles to happen.

Book Review: Contagion

Contagion by Robin Cook (this review was written for my class on zoonoses)

Robin Cook’s novel, Contagion, is supposed to be a plausible example of domestic bioterrorism. Published in 1995, before the current fears and instability had a chance to take hold, many of the suggested possibilities may be a bit unrealistic for the modern health industry. Otherwise, the situation described is a fairly accurate portrait of the risks posed by modern health care.

Cook opens the novel with a quote about the dangers of market-driven health care, and that appears to be his agenda for the plot. The protagonist, Jack Stapleton, was driven out of private ophthalmology practice and into a pathology residency by a large hospital administration company, Americare; because of the relocation, his wife and children are forced to take a commuter flight to visit him and are killed when it crashes. He develops an antipathy for all managed care, especially Americare. Taking a job as a medical examiner, he flirts with danger and avoids personal connections until forced into a relationship with an advertising executive, Terese, who is in charge of another managed care company’s advertising account. At the same time, he is investigating several succeeding cases of plague, tularemia, meningitis, and finally influenza at an Americare-run hospital, which is not happy to have him ‘poking his nose in’. Despite his bosses’ resistance, he persists in sneaking around to probe the outbreaks, convinced that no one else is taking it seriously. Over time, he is threatened by a gang, which eventually attempts to kill him and does kill a girl who helped him. He is saved by another gang from his neighborhood, only to be captured by the bioterrorists and transported into the Catskills for disposal. On the way, the influenza virus with which he had been infected in the course of his investigations infects the terrorists, who die without killing him. He escapes with the help of the friendly gang and lives through an effective quarantine that ends the influenza outbreak.

While the novel points out quite rightly that zoonotics can be extremely dangerous in hospital outbreaks, the route of infection portrayed (purposefully contaminated humidifiers) may make it seem as if they are not likely to happen to healthy people. In an obviously pre-9/11 book, the cause of bioterrorism is simply greed on behalf of an advertising executive and morbid curiosity by her brother, a lab tech. The samples were produced in a private lab simply for collecting purposes, so they were not weaponized in any way. History of contact with animals was only seen as a distraction in the search for the cause. In all, I find the premise quite unlikely in today’s society; hospital outbreaks of zoonotic disease, I believe, are more likely to be either purposeful to cause harm to people and society or completely accidental and due to ignorance on behalf of the medical community.

My biggest complaint about this book is the way certain classes of medical fields were associated with moral judgements. Of course, with the protagonist being a pathologist, pathology was seen to be generally good, medical examiners were simply hard-working public citizens doing their best to save the city from itself. In contrast, the city epidemiologist was portrayed as somewhat lazy, self-centered, ignorant, and obstructive to a proper investigation. Being an epidemiologist myself, I resent that portrayal. In my experience, the pathologists are less likely to be interested in outbreaks unless they provide good samples, while it is left to the epidemiologist to draw the necessary links and find the cause. Also, the CDC was mentioned briefly, but only in its role as a diagnostic lab and quarantining authority; in actuality, a medical situation like the one in this book would be controlled completely by the CDC as soon as they knew about it. Also of importance, in the case of zoonotic pathogens, veterinarians were only mentioned in passing, as a source of diagnostics for the pets of the infected; veterinarians were never consulted, the pets were never sampled, and the possibility of a zoonotic source was practically ignored.

Finally, while they make for good fiction, the actions of the various medical authorities in this book are utterly unrealistic. I cannot imagine an American hospital forcibly removing a medical examiner from their grounds during the course of an investigation into dangerous outbreaks on their property. I cannot imagine a medical examiner breaking and entering to find the source of these outbreaks. The role of law enforcement was relegated to deus ex machina, rather than a vital resource in an outbreak investigation.

In conclusion, this book may present a good thriller for those who enjoy the genre, but it is almost dangerously inaccurate as far as zoonotic risks and the proper way to investigate a nosocomial outbreak.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Buying gas by the cob

Speaking of Heifer, I've been predicting this ever since they mentioned the possibility in their magazine:
USDA: ethanol could increase food prices
By Tom Johnston on 3/5/2007 for
USDA projects that ethanol production will consume 50 percent more corn this year, taking a big bite out of the food industry's share of the crop and possibly forcing food prices to rise.

Keith Collins, the department's chief economist, said farmers are expected to grow a record 12.2 billion bushels of corn in 2007, with 3.2 billion bushels going into ethanol production. In 2006, 2.15 billion bushels of corn were used to make the biofuel.

"Even with that increase, we think production will fall short of demand," Collins said during USDA's annual Agriculture Outlook Forum.

Cellular medicine?

This is a great idea: using cell phones to report disease in Africa. Everyone (practically) has a cell phone, and text messages are free. Way to come up with a workaround!

Hunger: Heifer Project

Of all the NGO's dealing with hunger issues, Heifer International is my favorite. The premise is helping people to help each other, which, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, few of us are talented enough to do.

Heifer works primarily by taking donations from rich people (us) and using them to buy animals for poor people. The animals are not simply given away; the receiving families must train to care for them, prepare a place and food for them, and promise to give the first offspring to another poor family in the program. Thus, we help them help them help them . . .

Some might class Heifer as a faith-based organization, and, indeed, it was begun as one. Now, however, it has moved away from its Christian roots. It is still a great organization doing powerful development work. In the field, however, its focus is becoming more and more development for the sake of warm fuzzies for liberals. Still, it has my firm endorsement for major NGO's ending hunger.

If you're looking for a gift for someone who has everything, buy them a llama. Or some bees. If nothing else, it's a conversation starter. You could tell somebody else about hunger issues! There are domestic as well as international programs, including a Katrina recovery program. There are programs to promote women, education, sustainable agriculture, even urban renewal. If you have time to explore issues in depth, there are camps in the US and international trips that look at what hunger is doing in the world and how Heifer (and you) can help.

In conclusion, Heifer is an example of an NGO that really works well to combat hunger. I advise checking out the website, requesting their magazine, and/or donating.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hunger: organizing

In the next week, I think I'll discuss some of the organizations that work on hunger issues. There are many, so I'll just mention the ones that I know and care about. Today, then, I'll give a little background on the types of organizations:
  • NGO -- non-governmental organization, existing in a wide variety of forms and purposes
  • UN agency -- a branch of the United Nations, funded by governmental members of the UN
  • Governmental aid programs -- run and funded by the individual governments
  • Faith-based organizations -- usually NGO's, not always associated with a particular church or denomination, but usually involved with a particular religion
This is a quick and dirty explanation, but I'm a little tired today. Tomorrow I'll get into specifics.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hunger: Bill Clinton's Landon Lecture

I was lucky enough to listen to (though not attend) Bill Clinton's Landon Lecture this afternoon, and he discussed the issues of hunger, so I'd like to share his main points with you.

The main questions he thinks everyone should have answers to (with a summary of his answers in parentheses):
  1. What one word sums up the world today? (interconnectedness)
  2. If the world is interconnected, is that a good thing or a bad thing? (both)
  3. What needs to be done? (end inequality)
  4. How would you do it? (focus on diplomatic, non-military solutions)
  5. Who is responsible to do these things? (everyone)
Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? We are all responsible for ending inequality, primarily through development programs and public advocacy. We are all responsible because we are all interconnected, and the interconnectedness has benefitted many of us in the West while harming most of the rest of the world. Therefore, we can use our benefits to benefit those who need it most. Or, in the words of Christian Vet Missions, we are blessed to be a blessing.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Hunger: the politics of food supply

Why do we subsidize farmers?

Before any farmers find this and throw a fit, I'd like to say that I'm not really sure and I would like an answer. Is it because we want to hang on to our history by keeping people on the farm? Or is it because, in our history, we've 'always' done it. Or is it not historical at all?

The reason I ask is that our subsidies are a major driving force in world hunger. Not just our subsidies, but all subsidies. Remember how the best way to prevent or end hunger is to increase incomes? Well, it's kind of hard to do when our government keeps farm incomes above what the market will sustain. Yes, I know that US farmers are struggling to make ends meet, but even that income level is higher than can really be supported by global trade. We're pricing the low-income countries out of business.

Some might say, hey, our surplus grain is donated to those hungry people! Why should they complain if they're still getting fed? Yes, we send surplus grain grown by US farmers as part of our official hunger relief packages. We send it in ships owned by US companies. We distribute it from warehouses owned and operated by US citizens. We are very generous. Meanwhile, that free grain drives down the price of local grain even more, putting more farmers out of business, increasing poverty and hunger, and kickstarting another vicious cycle.

I'm not saying that all food aid is bad, but it's not quite as altruistic as one might think. When you hear that we're helping the hungry by sending them our surplus, ask why we have a surplus. It could be that we helped create the hunger situation we're now helping to solve.