The Path to Global Food Security: An Interview with Jim Morris

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Jim Morris, former Executive Director of the UN World Food Program.

The United Nations (UN) has said that the World Food Program faces today its worst challenge since WWII, with five top-level humanitarian crises to attempt to address. Jim Morris served as Executive Director of the UN World Food Program from 2002 to 2007, the largest humanitarian agency in the world, and had the rank of Under Secretary General within the UN. He also served as the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Southern Africa.
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You have done quite a bit of work to end child hunger. Of your work, what’s been the most successful strategy that you’ve found?

It seemed to me that if we were going to work on cutting hunger in half in the world, the best investment we could make would be to cut child hunger in half or try to eliminate it. There were 400 to 500 million hungry kids in the world that didn’t have 2,300 nutritious calories every day. I became consumed with this notion of so many hungry kids in the world, understanding that hunger is the most serious health issue in the world, and investment in the nutrition and well-being of a pregnant mother or a child the first two years of his or her life. That’s the most powerful economic investment any country in the world can make in its future.

The understanding was that you would provide a meal at school, usually lunch, which would become a tremendous incentive for the child to come to school and to learn and to be successful in school. The hungry child has no chance. We had special incentives in that program to encourage parents to send their girls to school. And, you send that little girl to school, and she stays for even five years, everything about her life will change.

Are we becoming a more food-insecure world? And, if so, why?

I actually think we’re becoming more food secure. There’s a lot more productivity. There’s a lot more agricultural engineering. Products are stronger and safer. We’re better equipped for storing food for longer periods of time all the time. And I think farmers are doing a better job. Now, with the growth of the population in the world over the next 10, 20, 30 years, we’re dramatically going to have to improve with supply, and improve productivity.

What role is technology playing in alleviating food insecurity?

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Gates Foundation
: Students eat a provided lunch at a primary school in Osun, Nigeria. Providing a meal for students at school increases child enrollment, retention, and completion rates, and is crucial to both child nutrition and education.

Technology, I think, is the key. I think to the degree that we can improve our seeds to be drought-resistant, to be resistant to weeds, and to have a stronger genetic make-up, have more nutritional value, and a greater yield per acre, that will make all the difference in the world. Oftentimes, very simple technology is available in the West that we’ve taken for granted for years. That simple technology being available in Southeast Asia or in much of Sub-Saharan Africa makes all the difference in the world.

Are political problems at the root of most food insecurity?

I think it’s a huge problem. When leaders are corrupt, it tends to pervade the system. It decreases the amount of capital available for research, for re-investment in improving the land and conservation, for protecting the water supply and investment in dams and reservoirs, and for irrigation equipment. When a leader steals money that ought to be spent on research and infrastructure, that holds the whole thing back. So, it’s a serious problem.

What’s the connection between the environmentalist movement and food security? Do you think that the two groups work together enough?

Well, I don’t know. But, I do know that protecting the environment is really important to protecting the greatest asset in terms of food production, and that’s the land. As the quality of the soil decreases, the quality of the agricultural opportunity and productivity decreases. So, clearly, taking care of the environment and being good stewards of the land is very important.

How have the ways we address food insecurity changed since the 1980s when starvation in Ethiopia really captured the world’s attention? Have we made gains since then?

I think, generally, there are more resources around the world committed to this issue. I think some of the terrible famines and examples of starvation sort of got the world’s attention. When the world is made aware of a dilemma, a need, the money just keeps rolling in. But, you know, the vast majority of hungry, starving people are not in that kind of daily crisis, and the world’s probably not aware of that as much.

As I began to ask my final question, looking forward with a sense of hope, Jim Morris pointed out the call to prayer underlining our conversation.

If you can picture a world in which everyone is food secure, what would that look like, and how could we get there?

I would say that we would live in a world without a hungry child. There are places in the world where people spend 80 percent of their income feeding their children. And, when you do that, you have to make all these hard choices about going to school, about buying books, about your housing. You can look at it from a moral perspective, an economic perspective, or a peace and security perspective. Addressing this issue calms people down. It gives them a chance to think about bigger issues, about the future of their children. It’s a powerful discussion, and a powerful issue.