By Jo Luck

With the annual World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue this week, I’m not only reminded only of Dr. Borlaug’s commitment to ending hunger, but also of his ability to deliver a profound message with simple words.

One such phrase that has stuck with me - “take it to the farmers.” An important reminder that all the amazing research, scientific discoveries, and development assistance in the world is meaningless unless it reaches the lives of those who need it most.

And with great respect, I hope Dr.Borlaug wouldn't mind if I add to his sage advice..."and listen to the farmers.”

As we consider the fundamentals of global food security during this year’s conference, I think about the valuable lessons I’ve learned about sustainable development from farmers around the world. The exchange of knowledge goes both ways.  And those of us seeking to be catalyst for hope can serve more effectively if we listen to the farmers.

I was privileged to work with the team at Heifer International for two decades, and I learned two basic principles from farmers that must be in play in order for positive change to produce lasting results. All decisions must be locally driven, owned, implemented, and monitored. In addition, every beneficiary must pass on the gift to someone else in need. It may be a healthy female animal offspring, or knowledge of the appropriate seeds to plant and when, or how to terrace a slash and burn hillside to stop erosion.

We all have gifts to share with others, and the act of "passing on the gift" turns a recipient into a donor. He or she can then experience the dignity they so richly deserve.

Another pillar of sustainable global food security lies in the critical role of smallholder farmers. In the past, decisionmakers and humanitarians have believed that when farmers moved out of dire hunger into subsistence farming they had reached their potential. However, there are a myriad of success stories available that contradict that theory. Smallholder farmers remind me of the pioneers that built our country, but without the luxury of available land and freshwater.

When given the opportunity it becomes evident they posses the same driving spirit and deep commitment to achieve a better life as did our ancestors. More often than not, both women and men farmers move from subsistence to aiding their neighbors, training others, and eventually becoming community leaders, improving production, selling surplus products, and often becoming successful entrepreneurs.

Sustainable developmentis about enabling farmers in need to be able to take charge of their lives. It is not about "making a farmer," it is providing hope, dignity and opportunity to individuals and their entire communities. In my mind I see the image of tossing a pebble into the lake and watching the expanding ripple effect. Provide the necessary resources then stand back and witness the amazing transformation that occurs.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to pass on the lessons I’ve learned from farmers through my work with agri-business leaders, scientists, academia, NGOs, government specialists, small- to large-scale farmers, and conventional to organic farmers. In doing so, I’m reminded everyday of another tenet of global food security – collaboration.

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In order to achieve global food security we must ALL WORK TOGETHER. No group or individual plays a greater role than any other. If you eat, you are a stakeholder. If you are a stakeholder, you are accountable for your role in how we will collectively meet the food demand of over 9 billion people by the year 2050. And, not just any food will suffice. It must be safe, nutritious, affordable, accessible and culturally appropriate.

Our global food security challenge is only magnified by rapid population growth, dwindling natural resources, political unrest, climate change, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, a lack of a unified commitment, and the absence of meaningful dialogue between the conflicting views. However, we can make significant progress simply by providing safe opportunities for transparent, honest and constructive dialogue for those with opposing opinions. Regardless of your personal belief, it could be eye-opening to sit with those of opposing views and not only listen to each other, but truly hear each other’s perspective. 

This week, I encourage all of us to be part of this transformation by drawing upon our experiences and sharing our lessons learned. With the farmer always in mind, each of us has a part to play in realizing Dr. Borlaug’s vision of global food security and a better world.   

Jo Luck is a 2010 World Food Prize Laureate and former president of Heifer International.  She is a member of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity and regularly consults and speaks on global food security issues and the empowerment of smallholder farmers in developing countries.


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