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Ambassador: Global hunger a continuing challenge

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Written Tuesday, April 22, 2003  

Iraqi citizens may be on the road to a healthier, higher quality of life without President Saddam Hussein and his government, inching the world closer to controlling needless illnesses, malnutrition and mass starvation, said a United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

"Saddam Hussein kept his people down and he kept them that way on purpose because it played to his political purposes. He could then blame everything on the West, on the United States," said Tony Hall, a U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

"Iraq is a rich country and Saddam is worth billions, but he didn't help his people at all in that way. Since 1992, 350,000 children have died in Iraq. It should have been only 10 percent of that and it's all due to lack of water quantity and quality, lack of food and immunizations, poor hospitals, no medicines to speak of. It was pure neglect."

Hall, a former congressman from Dayton, Ohio, is chief of the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He tirelessly advocates global hunger relief programs and works to improve human rights conditions.

The three-time nominated Nobel Peace Prize candidate visited the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences campus Thursday (4/17) to discuss his views on world hunger and what contributions people can make to help eliminate what he considers "the most pressing problem in the world today."

"When there are 815 million people in the world that are severely malnourished, 2 billion people that make less than $2 a day and 25,000 people that die every day from starvation, it's a big issue," Hall said. "The U.S. is the biggest contributor, by far, through the World Food Program, which feeds almost 50 percent of the people in the world. In 2001, we gave 67 percent of all food. The year before that it was 62 percent. Last year it was over 50 percent and this year it will be close to 60 percent. We are the big player, but we need to do more."

Hall said it is important to recognize that countries with the biggest humanitarian crises are those with the worst governments, and the United States and its allies need to do what they can to deliver food to its citizens, provide medicine for adults and children and educate individuals on such diseases as AIDS.

"Some of the areas that have the biggest catastrophes -- Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iraq -- have terrible leaders," he said. "What I think you do is feed them and try to get as much food in to them as possible, until their government is disposed of and people can take things into their own hands and produce a result that is much better than what it is."

Hall cited specific humanitarian examples from countries he's visited on countless occasions during his career.

"I've been to North Korea six times. People eat subsistence food -- bark and leaves -- and it just rips their stomachs out because there is no nutritional value. They are existing on 300 to 400 grams of food a day," Hall said.

In six African nations, nearly 15 million people are at risk of starvation, and governments in such countries as Zimbabwe and Malawi do little to control the problem.

"They use food as a weapon," Hall said. "They take food away from people that didn't vote for them and give it to people who did vote for them. They've kicked most of the farmers off the fields and seized farms illegally and put people in the farms that don't know a heck of a lot about farming. And they have an AIDS problem that is beyond belief. Almost 8 percent to10 percent of the people in Zimbabwe and Malawi are orphans and it's because of HIV, and 33 percent to 36 percent of adults are infected with the disease."

The need to fortify nutrition through proper agriculture and educate those waiting in line for food about a variety of health-related issues, such as HIV, breastfeeding and proper cooking techniques, exists, Hall said.

"Ethiopia has 70 million people. In their best year, people can't produce enough food to feed everyone," he said. "Thirteen to 15 million people are facing starvation right now. I spoke to one lady waiting in line for food and she said to me, 'Take a good look at us, we are not going to be around two months from now.'"

Hall and his colleagues currently are playing a big role in restoring humanitarian aid to Iraq, determining which citizens need aid the most and which regions of the country are in dire need of assistance. Though halfway across the globe, citizens right here in the United States can make a difference in world hunger by following the issue and becoming involved.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few," he said. "We don't have enough people going into this field and this is the future. The population will double in a few years and we will have a problem with food, and some of the answers are right here in this university and other universities like this."

One of those answers, Hall pointed out, is food produced through biotechnology.

"By 2050, our population will have increased by 50 percent and we are still going to have the same farmland," he said. "So we've got to find ways to produce food and produce it in large quantities. Biotechnology is one of the answers, and yet we have people all over the world fighting us."

Hall emphasized the importance of scientists from the United States, as well as those from other countries, to educate those who believe biotech foods are "poison" that the food is actually safe, that it represents hope and is an answer to feed a rapidly growing global population.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there. There are governments in Africa that deny people this food," Hall said. "It's that serious that their myths, lies and misinformation have caused people to lose their lives."

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