Calling on Elon Musk to help end world hunger with his power to disrupt

Photo credit: Waterloo Region Record

Originally published in the Waterloo Region Record, available online here.

You may recall the Twitter spat between David Beasley of the United Nations World Food Program and Time magazine’s person-of-the-year, Elon Musk. If not, Beasley asked billionaires to give two per cent of net worth for food relief. Musk recoiled and called Beasley out, pledging to sell $6 billion of Tesla stock if Beasley could explain his plan, and then turned the tables by critiquing the food program’s historic failures.

Both men are wrong! Hunger isn’t a “spend money and it’s fixed” problem, just like building electric cars or reusable rockets. Hunger is a complex problem of food politics. It requires the right food at the right place at the right time.

Complex problems need multiple, sometimes competing perspectives and may have multiple solutions. I invite Musk, who has ties to South Africa and Canada, to join with the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) to end global hunger.

The Food and Agriculture Organization reported in “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021” that falling hunger and malnutrition rates since 2010 reversed during COVID-19. It found 768 million people faced hunger, up 120 million — 21 per cent in Africa alone.

Food insecurity is up too. Nearly one in three people lack adequate food. And it is everywhere: Asia, 1.85 billion; Africa, one billion; Latin America/Caribbean, 113 million; and North America/Europe, 17.3 million. The UN goal of zero hunger by 2030 is doubtful.

Self-sufficiency lies in small holder farmers leading as agri-preneurs to make stable market systems boosting incomes to afford healthy diets; and grow optimal volumes using sustainable practices. This is what MEDA has done for more than 70 years.

There are three important hurdles, with Musk’s help, we need to disrupt.

End farm subsidies

End unfair farm subsidies. The World Trade Organization “Agreement on Agriculture” protects developed nations’ subsidies, but countries without are shackled. Producers in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America are forced to favour the North producing staples rather than their agrifood self-sufficiency. Musk attacked U.S. President Joe Biden’s plans to subsidize the very electric vehicles he builds. The same fairness logic should apply to food systems. Free emerging nations to produce local cassava flour to make their own bread.

Prevent a seed oligopoly

The recent mergers of the largest seed producers stop innovation for small and medium enterprises. Bayer, Corteva, Syngenta and Limagrain together control half the world seed market. This undercuts small holder farmers from innovating. Musk faced similar market power battling auto giants on electric vehicles. But he transformed the auto sector by disrupting it, then released his patents. Agrifood needs a similar effort. Africa’s Songhai Lab is a great example. This agri-hub empowers farmers to innovate using sustainable techniques.

Respect One Health

The final hurdle to ending hunger is respecting the principles of One Health, which respects the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment. With zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, food safety and security, and other shared health threats, the One Health approach must be used sustaining viable food markets.

At MEDA, it’s a guiding principle. For example, our Maendeleo Sawa project in Kenya supports agrifood small and medium enterprises. By investing and partnering, we were able to improve yields for small holder farmers and increase both incomes and raise the quality of produce. We were also able to protect the environment, while producing decent incomes and jobs.

We support entrepreneurs with sustainable food, from farmers to seed entrepreneurs, logistics providers and even chefs. Small and medium enterprises create local jobs and make nutritious food more widely available. Innovation won’t come from a one-time stock sale. It requires a sustained, but thoughtful, commitment to what works.

Solving hunger requires a plan that invests in local agri-preneurs. Empower local farmers to thrive sustainably, grow incomes, stabilize food markets and spread prosperity.

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  • Dr. Dorothy Nyambi

    Chief Executive Officer and President, MEDA
    With over 25 years of experience in the non-profit world and applied governance experience, Dr. Nyambi's work is founded on and informed by unique life experience and a commitment to authentic leadership.

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