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World Food Prize Laureate: Empowering women key to feeding world

Empowering women and girls in the developing world is one key step to feeding the world's growing population, the 2003 World Food Prize Laureate said Nov. 15.

Catherine Bertini spoke as part of the Heuermann Lectures in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Bertini, who spent a decade as chief executive of the U.N.'s World Food Programme, outlined the well-known challenge facing the world--how to feed a population expected to increase from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, with Africa's population projected to double in that time. Already, she noted, 870 million people go hungry every day, with 1.3 billion living in poverty, existing on $1.25 or less per day.

Incomes are rising in India and China and as that happens people want better food, including more protein. Obesity, meantime, is a global issue, so increased food supplies must be coupled with attention to health issues.

In the developing world, agricultural development is critical, Bertini said. That requires research, engagement and empowerment of women and girls, who comprise about 43 percent of the agricultural work force but have little authority in decision making. One estimate is that closing that gender gap could reduce the number of impoverished people by up to 150 million.

"We have to find different ways to reach women," Bertini said. Education is one way, she added. Also, women are eager to learn from the examples set by other women.

The title of Bertini's talk was "Where America Must Lead: Ensuring the World Can Feed its People." She said American commitment to feeding the developing world historically has been exemplary and supported by both political parties, and she cited a number of recently established programs that continue that important work.

But she warned that the growth of public funding of agricultural research at land-grant universities such as UNL has slowed since the 1980s. Meantime, China's funding of such research doubled from 2000-2008, and Brazil's is up 20 percent over the last decade.

"We have so many opportunities to extend U.S. good will and extend our influence through soft power," Bertini said. It is a commercial, political, moral and security issue, she added.

"Any one of these reasons are enough to invest in agricultural development."

While the United States never fails to step up and provide humanitarian aid in crisis situations, it needs to recommit to helping nations strengthen their food security so crises can be averted.

Bertini encouraged Congress to make this issue a priority again. There's a rich history on Capitol Hill of bipartisan cooperation from which to draw. She noted that Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole were key leaders of a previous generation, and she cited current Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, a former USDA secretary, as an important player in this generation of leaders.

"We need to increase food production, but we also need to be sure that people have access" to the food, Bertini said.

Bertini closed by noting John F. Kennedy's challenge 40 years ago to put a man on the moon.

"Our vision now: End hunger in our lifetime," she said.

Heuermann (pronounced Hugh-er-man) Lectures in IANR focus on providing and sustaining enough food, natural resources and renewable energy for the world's people, and on securing the sustainability of rural communities where the vital work of producing food and renewable energy occurs. They're made possible by a gift from B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, long-time university supporters with a strong commitment to Nebraska's production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas and people.

Bertini's lecture will be archived at; previous lectures also can be found there.

Date: 12/10/2012


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