I can’t believe that in 2020 it will be 10 years since The Globe and Mail made the questionable decision of letting me and my enthusiastic young sidekick Bono edit this wonderful paper for a day. That decade has gone and much was achieved. As for the next 10 years, the world and Canada still have a job to do.
By 2030, we must meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and finally destroy poverty and care for our poor planet, which pretty much every political leader on the planet has signed up to (except for you know who and one or other more of the deluded). There will be much talk of the SDGs at the coming World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But, equally, everybody knows the time for talk is now well over.
The fires raging in Australia and those that raged before them in Brazil and the United States are the visceral visible signs for the intellectual bankruptcy of a whole generation of politicians. Politicians who irresponsibly pretended that putting their own country first and simply closing their eyes to global challenges would make them go away. I hope they are haunted by their fecklessness and intellectual bankruptcy. Probably not, though. The world needs leadership from decision makers who are younger, less cynical or stupid and more enlightened. Who get things done.
Meanwhile, more quietly but equally repellent, the hidden fires of chronic hunger burn in the stomachs of more and more people across the globe. There were more hungry people in the world this year than last year, and more last year than the year before that. Today, 820 million people face chronic hunger. More than 20 times the entire population of Canada.
I know you’re not surprised by these statistics. We’ve grown all too immune to the images of poverty and famine flashing past on our TV screens. We are numb to the numbers. I know what you are thinking. It’s Geldof banging on about hunger again. Yawn. It doesn’t feel like increasing hunger is anything new. It’s not shocking. But it should be. This is new. It is news.
It’s news because, until very recently, hunger had actually been in decline. In fact, it’s now been in decline for several decades. This is mostly thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the 500 million smallholder farmers, the majority of them women, who produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in the developing world. It is also thanks to the work of exceptional NGOs, to economic growth and to the innovation of business all along the supply chain. It’s thanks, too, to the support of governments and international organizations.
But that progress has been halted in its tracks. Something has changed. And that thing is climate change. There have been more floods, more droughts, and more frequent and more fierce storms. In fact, the frequency of these extreme events has doubled since the 1990s and small farmers are being hit first and hardest.
At the same time, food production is of course itself a major cause of climate change. Whether it be the famous methane-gas production of cows or the tearing down of forests to grow crops, agriculture contributes about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. As we stumble into the third decade of the 21st century, the world faces huge challenges. Feeding the world without destroying the planet is one of the most acute.
The solutions are not rocket science if only we could find the political will. We need to transform underperforming agricultural development and address the weaknesses of the international system.
That means getting hard cash to the smallholder farmers who are too often bypassed by funding that goes either to governments or big business. It means leveraging government and private investment all along the supply chain from farm to table. It means building the resilience of farmers in the face of climate change and supporting agricultural techniques that are more sustainable. It means proper serious comparable evaluation and learning from what works and what doesn’t. And it means streamlining, co-ordination and cutting out waste.
As always, women are the key. Agriculture is the largest employer of women in Africa. Farming is a feminist issue. If women globally had the same access to productive resources and information as men do, they could increase the yields on their farms by 20 per cent or 30 per cent, raising incomes and dramatically reducing the number of people facing hunger.
If the SDGs are to be more than bureaucratic niceties and pointless political platitudes, they must immediately spark powerful combined action to tackle climate and hunger. This requires leadership. But looking around the world, there aren’t many obvious candidates for global leadership at the moment on any issue. That puts a burden on your shoulders, I’m afraid, Canada. Even at this awful time of national mourning.
The world needs more of you. More of your common sense. More of your pragmatism. More of that big unafraid Canadian stomach for the fight. Before we all go up in flames.