Global Family Day: Focusing on World Hunger

World hunger is the focus on Global Family Day. Solutions come from Howard Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway's new steward of corporate culture.
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World hunger is the focus on Global Family Day. Solutions come from Howard Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway's new steward of corporate culture.

As we ring in a new year, and resolve to lose the extra pounds we packed on over the holidays, it's all too easy to forget the millions of people around the world who couldn't afford holiday repasts and are undernourished. To them, extra pounds are a pipe dream.

There are no hard and fast numbers, but the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated their numbers to be 950 million in 2010 (figures for 2011 are still pending). That was over 13 percent of the world's population at the time, a figure that is sure to rise.

This is especially poignant now because January 1 is Global Family Day, a holiday dedicated to celebrating the reality that we're all one family and must strive together for a better world. And paramount in that quest is the charge to ease world hunger. No one can celebrate if they don't have anything to eat, so we must do all we can to make sure everyone has food for the New Year, notes the NGO Global Family.

We're a very long way from that goal, as Warren Buffett's son, Howard Buffett, acknowledged in an interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago after his father -- in a move that astonished many -- appointed him next in line to the Berkshire Hathaway chairmanship when he retires.

Unlike his market savvy father, Howard left college to pursue his dream to farm, and currently grows corn and soybeans in Illinois and Nebraska. But he also runs an eponymous foundation he established in 1999, which promotes sustainable farming, agricultural education and feeding programs globally; travels the world documenting food and conservation challenges; and is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Against Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme.

The younger Buffett, who visits up to 20 countries yearly on behalf of his foundation, said astutely to Stahl in his typically unassuming manner, "you all of a sudden begin to kinda look around. And you notice, "There's a lotta people around that don't look too good." And, you know, they're hungry. And they don't have great living quarters, they may not have access to water, they don't have good sanitation."

In essence, as Stahl noted, they're farmers who can't feed or take care of themselves. Howard concurred, replying, "I looked at that and I thought, you know, this -- this is wrong. I understand agriculture. I should be able to do something about this."

And it may be precisely for this reason why Warren Buffett, his savvy, market-making yet pragmatic and humble father, chose Howard to lead Berkshire Hathaway -- not as its day-to-day decision-maker but rather as steward of the company's culture. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Here's why.

High and volatile food prices are likely to continue this year, and far beyond, for many reasons. FAO's 2011 report on food insecurity cites three reasons for the explosive nature of the world's food supply: consumer demand in rapidly growing economies is increasing; population is growing; and the expanding biofuels market is placing additional demands on the food system. And at Tetra Pak, our own research substantiates these findings. Among the changes we foresee will be a surge in global population and an economic shift from the West to the BRICs, Middle East and Africa. And big issues on the horizon are raw materials constraint; secure supplies of sustainable energy; environmental performance; and food safety.

Here in the United States, CNN Money noted on November 28 that more than one in five Americans are economically insecure and at risk, and the New York Times noted a day later that 17 percent more schoolchildren since 2006-7 are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time as their solidly middle class parents have recently lost their jobs or homes. That brings the numbers from 17 to 21 million, and they're increasing.

But the vast majority of the undernourished live in developing countries, where a much more basic and pressing issue is also at play. According to the World Hunger Education Service, the neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people is ignored and unmanageable by home governments and international agencies. And here's where Howard concurs, a point driven home by the fact that his biggest project is to help teach poor farmers in developing countries methods that they can afford to implement after his Foundation Programs end, including basic accounting.

There's some irony here. Warren Buffett pledged the bulk of his fortune -- well over $30 billion -- to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Warren considers Gates his third son, and Howard calls him 'brother Bill.' Yet Gates and Howard have employed different tactics to ameliorate world hunger.

The Gates Foundation believes in introducing the modern technologies we use in the first world into third world farming, from hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers to state-of-the-art machinery. Howard Buffett says "we have to stop doing it like we did." He believes the approach is doomed to fail, and notes "at some point those guys are going to go home and the money's gonna not be there." Like Gates, he started out giving farmers the best of modern agricultural technology. But now, after his forays in the field, he only teaches methods that are affordable and sustainable when his project ends.

Still, the two men remain close as colleagues and 'family;' on 60 Minutes, Gates tells Stahl, "Howie's the farmer here. So he can speak with knowledge. I'm the city boy on the panel." Perhaps we can imply that Gates is open to Howard's strategies.

At my own Tetra Pak, a global food processing and packaging solutions company, we align with Howard Buffett, and employ models that are applicable to all types of agricultural production as it relates to the dairy industry. But we innovate based on the existing culture in a locale to create sustainable value chains. Our methodologies can include training and educating farmers, financing equipment, market development activities and disseminating consumer information -- depending on the technological maturity of the milieu.

In keeping with this ideology, we address the requirements of each participant in the value chain to create an integrated base for sustainable social and economic development. So we may help train farmers in proper feeding, milk handling and cooling; strengthen the link between milk farmers and dairy processors; or help develop a country's entire dairy sector. But we always aim for sustainable social and economic development and job creation along the value chain.

For now, with food prices rising, we have a strong incentive to increase our efforts in the agriculture sector. It is the most effective way to improve food security and combat hunger in the longer term. So we applaud Howard Buffett, and hope his new role as Berkshire Hathaway's philosophical leader will lead to sustainable solutions for the world's hungry.

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