One in nine people in the world still goes to bed hungry, but we become numb to that kind of statistic from the United Nations.
Farmers not so much.
This dates back to my days as a farm reporter, but I remember if you wanted to get a discussion going at a table full of farmers, just mention global hunger. It was like squirting lighter fluid and dropping a match.
The problem isn’t production, farmers will explain. They can produce enough to feed the world. The problems are transportation, war, corrupt governments and infrastructure, when they’re not a regional disaster such as drought or flooding.
That same farmer frustration flared up in 1976 with reports of famine in Bangladesh.
Palliser Furniture CEO Art DeFehr had visited Bangladesh on a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tour. Upon returning, he strategized with three other men: MCC’s John Wieler; Len Siemens, University of Manitoba associate dean of agriculture; and Federal Grain Company executive David Durksen.
MCC put out the call for help through various churches. Farmers organized into local groups and donated acreages off their fields. Ottawa agreed to match any donations three to one. Ben Friesen of Friesen Seeds in Rosenthal volunteered to clean, blend and bag the wheat.
In 1977, the first shipload of donated grain set sail for famine relief in territories of India that share a border with Bangladesh.
Within seven years, the MCC Food Bank morphed into a non-denominational aid program, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, comprised of 30 denominations and 15 church-based agencies. Since that first shipment, more than $800 million in food aid and agricultural training has been delivered to 70 countries, and the bank is zeroing in on $1 billion. More than 3,000 farmers across the country donate part of their harvest each year.
Imagine that. A little Manitoba project, celebrating its 40th anniversary, has grown into one of the great grassroots humanitarian aid programs in the world. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr recently handed over a cheque for $125 million over five years to support the bank, one of only two non-governmental organizations Ottawa trusts with block funding.
"Farmers know how to grow food, and it just doesn’t seem right that anyone in this world wouldn’t have food to eat with all that we have available," said Harold Penner, of Arnaud, south of Winnipeg. Penner, 70, is one of the original donating farmers and the bank’s current resource co-ordinator for Manitoba and northwestern Ontario.
Much has changed over the years. The program has spread to all 10 provinces, but Manitoba still leads the way with $2 million raised last year by farmers, followed by $1.74 million by Alberta farmers. Including non-crop donations, Manitoba totalled nearly $3.1 million in donations, followed by Ontario with $2.8 million. Winnipeg remains the bank’s headquarters, with its office downtown in Portage Place.
Farmers raise funds from Abbotsford, B.C., where dairy producers hold an annual auction that raises more than $100,000 a year; to potato farmers donating parts of their fields in Prince Edward Island. Last summer, 139 vintage threshing machines separated wheat at the Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede in Austin, just west of Portage la Prairie, with proceeds going to the bank.
Proceeds? What about the grain?
It’s a bit disappointing to learn ships no longer leave Canadian ports with their hulls stuffed with the bank’s grain. It’s more romantic to think of Canada riding to the rescue and unloading precious foodstuffs at ports of developing countries.
There are two reasons for that, explained Jim Cornelius, the bank’s executive director. One, the logistics of shipping grain are difficult. As the program grew, so did the variety of crops donated. The bank had to take care of the gathering, cleaning, separating, loading, unloading and shipping.
As well, the diets of people in many of the countries is rice, not wheat. "We’d often have to ship the wheat somewhere else and swap for another commodity," said Cornelius.
The second reason is free grain was depressing the markets for local farmers in the countries the bank was trying to help. The last thing the bank wanted to do was weaken local economies that are the key to making nations self-sufficient.
It took years to convince Ottawa to support the switch. Ottawa always saw the program as partly taking grain off the market to improve prices. The amounts donated, however, aren’t large enough to do that, said Cornelius.
So the bank has been monetizing crop donations since 2008 and buying all its foodstuffs in developing countries, thereby circulating money in those countries and supporting their economies.
The United Kingdom and Australia don’t have similar grassroots food-aid programs. The United States has one called the Foods Resource Bank, patterned after the Canadian bank, but it’s smaller and not supported by its federal government, Cornelius said. Of course, the U.S. has the largest food-aid program in the world, but it is tied to geopolitical strategies such as increasing sales of American food production.
Corny Petkau of Lowe Farm has been delivering grain to the bank every year for the past 40 years. He remembers going around his area the first year and filling his tandem truck with his own grain and that of four neighbours. "It comes at a price, but I feel we can more than make that sacrifice," he said.
He agreed world hunger may bother farmers more than others because food is their business. "If we always have a full stomach, and other people don’t, I think we feel we can respond and do something about it," he said.
Lorne Floyd of Arborg has been growing crops for the bank for 35 years. He sets aside a portion of his fields each summer, and whatever he harvests off that portion is donated. Last summer he set aside 10 acres of oats that turned into a $3,000 donation.
Floyd travelled to India and Bangladesh in 2011 to see his donation at work, in a tour sponsored by the bank. Seeing is believing, for donors.
The foodgrains bank offers several food tours every year for longtime donors. One tour left for Rwanda the first week of January. In March, a tour will fly to Lebanon. Some church leaders are going to Kenya next summer.
In addition to food grains, the bank received donations from individuals and member church organizations. For example, MCC donated $2.8 million last year; the United Church of Canada $1.06 million; World Renew, an arm of the Christian Reformed Church, $1 million. Smaller groups such as the Nazarene Compassionate Ministries donated $64,000.
The bank is currently in Lebanon providing assistance to Syrian refugees. The refugees receive food vouchers to buy food at Lebanese supermarkets. It’s also engaged in Sudan and Ethiopia and is providing a three-month emergency food supply for 8,000 Haitians left destitute after hurricane Matthew and a three-month food supply for 5,000 people in Malawi who experienced crop failure.
Historically, the bank has been heavily involved in sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nepal, Cornelius said.
It may seem like grain donations are just a drop in the bucket but, in fact, tremendous progress has been made against famine in the last 25 years, says the 2015 UN hunger report.
While about 800 million people still don’t have enough to eat, that’s 220 million fewer than in 1990. And that’s with the global population having risen from 5.3 billion in 1990, to about 7.5 billion today. Undernourishment has declined to 12.9 per cent of the population from 23.3 per cent in a quarter of a century.
"We are so blessed, and these people need help, and we can provide it," said Harold Penner, one of the founding farmers quoted earlier.
Our blessings were on display again at Christmas. It was a time to bow our heads and give thanks for our extraordinary bounty. Or at least bow our heads and briefly wonder why it is someone else’s children on the other side of the world are swatting away flies from their distended bellies and not our own.
"We’re all about food, right?" said Penner. "Farmers grow food, and if you stop and imagine not being able to feed your children, and think of people unable to feed their children, that just isn’t right."