Friday, 18 April 2014

Howard Buffett's Forty Chances

I am reading an interesting book right now, Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard Buffett, son of Warren Buffett. It's about his philanthropic efforts to address long-term food insecurity by addressing the whole value chain and not just providing temporary emergency relief or short-term benefit.

A few things jump out at me in this book. One is that we all only have about forty productive years in which to make an impact. One is that we have to give very careful thought to how we act, because something that seems right or generous on the surface can actually have unintended terrible consequences. For example, I have always admired Rick Mercer's "Spread the Net" initiative to send mosquito nets to the developing world. But Buffett points out (not naming Rick Mercer specifically) that it would have been better to invest the money into a local business that provides the nets, because then there would have been a sustainable and long-term benefit to the area. Instead, the market floods with donated nets, the local small net-maker goes out of business because he can't compete, and then when the nets wear out in five years and the charity has moved on to other projects, there is no local manufacturer left to fill the gap. Anyway, not that I'm saying we should stop humanitarian efforts -- far from it! But we need to think about long-term impact. As he points out, it's no good helping a farmer increase his yield if he has no way to store the surplus or get it to market.

But there's something else I'm learning from this book, which surprises me. It's causing me to rethink some of my views and prejudices. For example, I have had a negative view for decades regarding the big agro corporations, and Monsanto in particular. I've read a lot of negative things about them. And I still think much of what they do is wrong-headed and harmful. But this book pointed out a different side to them that I wasn't aware of before, about the initiatives they have undertaken to address world hunger. The reasoning behind the research. Do I think they've always taken the best route? No. Do I admit, grudgingly, that I have maybe jumped to conclusions without knowing all facets of the story? Yes. Do I admit that maybe even evil can do good once in a while? Maybe. And that perhaps the motive for action isn't entirely about money? Mmm...maybe. If nothing else, I think I have become aware of a need to let both sides tell their stories before making up my own mind about something. I have always read heavily just one side of the story and haven't given the big corporations a chance to put forth their perspectives. It's only fair to do so.

I do agree -- based on lots of things I've read and my own personal gardening experience -- that "eat local" and "go organic" is not enough to address the magnitude of the problem of world hunger. It can help with local efforts to address hunger in my own community (which is there, in every community, if you look for it, even the most "wealthy" ones). But while eating local is great in Ontario, it doesn't compute so well for someone living in Sudan. And organic small-scale farming can certainly make a big difference to people around the world. But we don't all live in areas where farming is possible or where we're allowed to own land or where food can be safely stored or where there is water for farming. To feed daily the upcoming 9 billion people on the planet, we have to increase all agricultural output by something like 70%, and that just isn't do-able with our current methods and mindset. (If at all, quite frankly.) And what happens when that 9 billion turns into 10 or 12 or 15 billion?

A lot of -- pardon me -- food for thought in this book. No doubt I will have more to say on it after I've finished reading.

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