This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between water, agriculture, and food security in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.
Like most farm kids, I spent much of my youth preoccupied with the weather. Everything we did on the farm depended on rain. Water proved the single greatest variable affecting my family’s livelihood and the course of our daily lives. How much rain fell determined not only whether we would finish the year with a profit, but also the work we would do each day.
While my friends spent summer breaks diving into swimming pools or lounging at the beach, I sloshed through ditches, cleaned acres of plugged drain tiles, raised and lowered makeshift dams and seared my fingers carrying 20-foot sections of sunbaked irrigation pipe. To my friends, water was something to play in. To me, it was something to pray about. My buddies could never understand why the thunderstorm that ruined their afternoon became pure joy for me.
It’s that gap in knowledge and experience that still confounds my work today. At Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, I consult with a range of food and agribusiness companies, as well as an array of farm and ranch organizations. We want to help consumers grasp where their food originates from and the enormous challenge farmers face as they seek to double production on a fast-growing, resource-constrained planet.
With less than two percent of the U.S. population involved in agriculture, the American consumer lacks a direct connection, understanding or emotional attachment to farmers and farming. This disconnect means that people who depend on agriculture for their food may no longer possess experience-based trust in the food supply. They may question agriculture’s ability to produce safe, abundant and affordable food.
Edelman’s annual Field to Fork research reveals that less than half of those surveyed (47%) believe farming is performed in a responsible way. Fifty-five percent think America is on the wrong track in its approach to food production; another 17 percent are unsure.
When farmers and food companies lost control of their value-creation story, competing voices filled the void. Intramural debates now dominate conversations about how food is produced, processed, shipped, marketed and regulated. And opinions grow increasingly entrenched. With so much “food noise,” it’s easier for people to tune-out than to tune-in.
Let’s face it. The greatest threat to the world’s hungry and starving – estimated at 870 million people– isn’t famine, war, drought or political regimes. It’s apathy.
Solving the problem requires a populist groundswell demanding an end to the scourge of hunger. But the groundswell never comes because people also have lost their emotional connection to hunger. Cancer, heart disease, and strokes impact our families directly. Not a single coroner in the U.S. wrote “starvation” on a death certificate last week.
The practical implications of these disconnects appear plainly in the news coverage of this year’s drought. The syllogism connecting rainfall to hunger should be apparent: drought causes food shortages; food shortages cause hunger; therefore, drought causes hunger. This summer’s headlines, however, followed a different kind of logic: drought causes slightly higher grocery bills next year and a potential Christmas tree shortage this December.
No wonder nearly three-in-five Americans (59%) favor cutting food aid to help reduce the budget deficit, reports the Gallup Organization. We’re so removed from our agrarian roots that we can’t connect the dots anymore.
The latest USDA report suggests just that. It notes the drought will trigger a drop in corn yields this year to the lowest levels since 1995-1996. Think about that. A massive drought will set U.S. production back to levels of just over a decade ago. In other parts of the world, drought sets nations back centuries. Yet we deny others access to the same tools and information that we possess and make it possible to weather, well, the weather.
A neighbor once contended that a farmer sitting on his tractor in central Illinois has a better view of the global economy than a dozen analysts in a Chicago office tower. It’s a fair point, because the farmer knows exactly where he fits in the picture.
We have all the scientific and economic tools needed to solve global hunger. What we lack is a story that, as Roger Thurow of The Chicago Council puts it, outrages and inspires. To do that, we’ll need to help the public see themselves in the picture.
 The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012, U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization