On a joyous occasion like one’s college graduation, few of us want to think about hunger and deprivation.
But Ertharin Cousin, head of the U.N.’s World Food Programme, is focused on those issues and shared her vision with Mississippi State University 2,800 graduates this weekend. She also received an honorary doctorate from MSU on Saturday in recognition of her service to mankind.
Cousin leads the world’s largest humanitarian organization. The WFP feeds more than 100 million people around the world each year. Within the last month, Cousin was named to Time Magazine’s current list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People.
This wasn’t Cousin’s first trip to Mississippi. As executive vice president and chief operating officer for Feeding America, formerly America’s Second Harvest, Cousin led that organization’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The facts on world hunger are stark, disturbing and hard to fathom in a country where we can eat 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and where the health manifestations of plenty to eat are as obvious as the rates of heart disease, diabetes and circulatory issues caused by obesity.
Yet the numbers are the numbers. According to the United Nations, 1.1 billion people on the planet live on less than a U.S. dollar a day – one of every six people in the world. Almost half the world’s population (some 2.8 billion people) lives on less than $2 a day.
Some 800 million people are undernourished. And 16,000 children daily die from hunger-related issues – that’s one child every five seconds. That’s the horrendous fact of the matter.
But the really bad news is that the world’s population is increasing. By 2050, the global population is forecast to rise to some 9 billion people. And where is the global population increasing? The growth is happening in parts of the world where people are already least able to effectively feed themselves.
Over the 20th century, the world’s population grew some 4.3 billion according to the U.N. In 1970, there were roughly half as many people in the world as there are now.
As a land grant university, MSU has longstanding track record in teaching people to produce more and better food even in less than favorable climates and conditions. That traditional mission coupled with a crossing of professional paths between MSU President Mark Keenum and Cousin has evolved into an important challenge for university.
Prior to leading his alma mater as president, Keenum served as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. In that role, he led USDA’s Farm Service and Risk Management agencies, along with the Foreign Agricultural Service.
Cousin served for three years prior to joining WFP in 2012 as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and head of the U.S. Mission to the three U.N. food and agriculture agencies based in Rome, WFP, FAO and the International Fund for Agriculture.
MSU is now a global leader in the effort to bring solutions to the scourge of world hunger and is forging a growing and evolving partnership with WFP and FAO in those efforts. As a food and fiber producing state, engaging in that otherwise noble fight makes economic sense as well.
The implication is clear: more people are coming to the global dinner table at a time when hunger is already an issue for a large segment of the existing global population.
The broader message is also clear – what Americans consider poverty and deprivation is for the most part far different than the definition of those terms in large portions of the rest of the planet. On our worst day in America, most of us remain richly blessed.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.