Norway’s leader: More investment needed to help modernize farming systems, diversify crops in developing countries

The government must do more to de-risk the private sector from investing in developing countries to reduce world hunger, said Anne Beate Tvinerheim, Norway’s minister of international development, during this year’s Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines.

Anne Beathe Twine strap

Tvinnereim, who also serves as vice president of the Center Party in the country’s coalition government, was among world leaders who gathered in Des Moines this year for the foundation’s World Food Prize event to discuss the challenges and solutions to global food insecurity.

The Business Record spoke to Tvinnereim about Norway’s efforts to combat food insecurity and its role in efforts to fight world hunger.

According to the Economic Impact think tank, 2.5 percent of Norway’s population of 5.4 million is considered food insecure, compared with about 13 percent in the U.S.

Data from Feeding America shows that there are about 44 million people in the US who are food insecure. In Iowa, about 7% of the population [one in 13 people] — or about 238,000 people — are facing starvation. That includes nearly 69,000 children, or about one in 11 children in Iowa.

Tvinnereim spoke about the need to invest in developing countries, supporting private sector investment in technology and innovation, and her country’s ties with Norman Borlaug, who is of Norwegian descent.

Borlaug founded the World Food Prize in 1986. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to improve the world’s food supply. A native of Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug is known as the father of the Green Revolution. Died in 2009.

Here is some of what Tvinnereim had to say. Her comments have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What motivated you to get involved in the fight against food insecurity?
I really believe in the agricultural sector as an engine of growth for countries in transition. 150 years ago, a third of the Norwegian population immigrated to the United States, most of them to the Midwest, and the reason was food insecurity. Most African countries are still at the beginning of this transition of modernizing their agricultural sector. In my country there are value chains from the producer to the local and regional markets with all the jobs created along the value chain, which happened 100 to 150 years ago in my country, and still the system, the structure gives my country the main resilience in terms of of food security. Africa does not have it, and I believe that this is one of the keys to the sustainable development of many African countries. The African continent imports [about $75 billion in food] per year and these are countries with very little foreign aid, they are poor countries. There are approximately 30 million smallholder farmers in Africa… producing for themselves and their families if they are lucky. They don’t sell to a local or regional market, and all the people who move to cities bring in food from far away. This is a missed development opportunity.

How does Norway deal with food insecurity among its residents?
We are a rich country so we have the purchasing power to buy in the international market. As food prices rise, certain social segments in Norway are struggling because prices are higher, but access to food is there. Some groups are struggling because they are low-income, but my government has approached this situation with targeted social assistance for low-income groups and especially families. So this is a remedy: targeted welfare for those who struggle. I think the American and Norwegian systems are quite different. I am very pleased that Norway has a welfare system that makes it easier to target vulnerable groups with the way we have structured it. What we also see is that when low-income families struggle economically, that inequality affects not only food insecurity, but excludes children from the usual arenas of participation in society, so we also try to invest in helping so that low-income families can access these activities and protect them as much as possible.

What are some of the lessons that countries like Norway and the US have learned when it comes to dealing with food insecurity?
What you see during an economic crisis is that it fuels inequality. The geographic inequality and the social inequality and the long-term effects are quite devastating. We know that if families can’t afford to buy nutritious food, they buy cheap, bad food and this has long-term health consequences. And children who don’t eat well will have the consequences throughout their lives. So it’s a long-term investment to make sure kids get the right food in their stomachs.

What have you learned about efforts to reduce food insecurity that you think people should know?
For me, this conference is inspiring and special for me, as a Norwegian. We like to say that we own a small part of Norman Borlaug’s property. He’s a superstar. No one has saved as many lives as him. Norman Borlaug saved perhaps a billion lives thanks to plant technology and innovation. Today, the Green Revolution is somewhat controversial because it also started a period in our history with a lot of monoculture [planting a single crop in an area], which we now see has some environmental implications that we need to address. Climate change does not allow us to continue with monoculture and we need much more diversification of our crops to be resilient to climate change and other plagues and things that we know will come with climate change. So just as Norman Borlaug revolutionized plant technology in his time, we now need a new revolution to diversify crops suitable for every continent. Big changes are coming, and urgently.

How difficult is it to garner support from the general public to support investments to combat food insecurity in other countries when there are so many at home who are at risk?
There are so many crises in the world and I feel a certain fatigue from the countries because we feel that there is no end and the crises and catastrophes are growing and growing. I think the solution to this is investing in sustainability. We know that migration and migration pressures are just going to increase as we see increasing climate change, more hunger, more poverty, so I believe it’s in the interest of all Western countries to invest in resilience because we can’t just keep going provide humanitarian aid to people in need, saving lives. We need to attack the root of the problem, and food insecurity is the root of the problem. We have to invest in it. But it’s also a business opportunity for the private sector because people will always need food. And we need to transform our food systems. Fertilizer companies, seed companies, technology companies in the agricultural sector, this is a business opportunity because we have to change. It’s a win-win situation because we need technology, know-how and innovation from the private sector to solve these problems. I sense that there is a great desire and eagerness in the private sector to participate in this transformation. It’s a business opportunity, but it will also save the world.

What is your main takeaway from the Borlaug Dialogue at the World Food Prize this year?
We have the solutions. These rooms are full of solutions. It’s just getting it to the ground, to the field, to the farmer, and we have to do that together. But the solutions are there and the private sector has solutions ready to be implemented. If we help each other, maybe as a government we can take some of the risk from the private sector so that it can invest in marginal markets and difficult markets. There are other mechanisms where I can use aid money to remove some of the additional risk for private equity so that they take the chance to take their know-how to markets. We just have to do it.

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