Why Minnesota companies have a lot to say about addressing global food insecurity

REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
United Nations World Food Programme executive director David Beasley: “The world is never going to be at peace if we don’t have food security.”

A farmer in Kenya knows he’ll get paid for the grain he harvested and brought to the elevator owned by Cargill. A dairy cooperative in Rwanda purchased milk cooling equipment with some financial support from Land O’Lakes. And after learning from General Mills how to fortify flour, an African entrepreneur can start a mill that’ll mean more demand for local grain and more jobs.

These and other efforts on the international stage by Minnesota food and agriculture companies play an integral role in addressing food insecurity, said David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, who came to Minneapolis last week for a Food Security Summit with Jeff Harmening, CEO of General Mills, Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, and Joe Stone, head of animal nutrition at Cargill.

The summit was part of a series of lunchtime speaker events put on by the Economic Club of Minnesota, whose members and sponsors run the gamut of Minnesota industries, including many ag and food companies. Besides General Mills, Land O’Lakes, and Cargill, sponsors include Target, AgriBank, a farm credit bank, Bellisio Foods, and Ecolab. “There’s a reason we here in Minnesota are focused on food security,” Club Chairman Mark Kennedy said.

Here’s what the Minnesota executives said about what they’re doing to improve food security — and the ripple effect that can have in developing countries.

Influence around the world

Executives from each Minnesota food company recognize they not only have a stake in curbing hunger around the world, they also have the tools and resources to do it — that they can use their wealth and expertise to help make food production operations all over the world more efficient.

“It’s not enough to show up and provide food,” said Ford, who noted that Land O’Lakes has worked in international development for more than three decades.. “What is the structure you’re putting in place? What are the elements of success? … it really is about, what is the tech and knowledge we can convey from a farm-to-market platform that will allow countries to succeed?”

Their motives aren’t solely altruistic, of course. The help they offer often dovetails strategically with their corporate interests. General Mills has programs that help vanilla farmers in Madagascar, for example, because the company depends on a stable supply of vanilla.

Yet executives say their corporate and philanthropic work often share the same mission. It’s their business to feed the world, so it fits that they want to make agricultural land around the world as productive as possible. That includes sharing expertise of all kinds, from teaching food safety protocols and providing better tools for planting, harvesting, and storing crops to introducing high-tech alternatives that empower farmers and increase their profits.

“If it’s done well, I don’t think we even need to talk about philanthropy,” Stone said. Buying a grain elevator in Kenya isn’t a philanthropic choice, but it does give farmers access to a market for their crop. “People work for Cargill because they want to help.”

Food security is national security

For someone whose job is all about food, Beasley spends a lot of time talking about war. That’s because he sees an inextricable link between the two. The number of people in danger of starving to death increased over the last two years, reversing a global downward trend, and raising alarm among humanitarian organizations like the WFP. Why? “Man-made conflict,” said Beasley, adding that the WFP spends about 80 percent of its funds in war-torn countries, where groups like ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram “use food as a weapon.”

Families trying to feed their children may join ranks with terror groups. Or they’ll flee their country and join millions migrating to Europe or the U.S. He said feeding people is key to undermining terror groups bent on destabilizing the West. “The world is never going to be at peace if we don’t have food security.”

All of which means the work Minnesota companies have been doing around the globe for decades has taken on new urgency. General Mills has been helping address the issue for about 40 years, Harmening said, listing initiatives directed at reducing food waste, supporting food entrepreneurs, and feeding children. When it comes to the latter, an underlying reason is due to the assumption that conflict often arises first among poor, disenfranchised young people. “Riots aren’t started by old people,” Harmening said.

But whether it’s ideas, money, or training, “we need private sector engagement,” Beasley said. “Better yields, productivity, supply chain dynamics … all these issues combined are very important. We’re not going to solve the problem with just another billion dollars.”

It takes a coalition

The WFP’s approach to addressing food security issues is similar to its corporate counterparts, in that it encompasses more than air-dropping pallets of food, Beasley said. The WFP’s approach includes building food systems that help the local economy and restore dignity to residents. Through its “food for assets” initiative, the WFP buys food from farmers in-country, which they distribute to others in exchange for help improving infrastructure or rehabilitating land that will help make the community self-sustaining.

These kinds of approaches have been of particular important to Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina who joined the WFP in April 2017 amid global concerns that the Trump administration would reduce American support of global aid programs. Instead of decreased support, he said U.S. financial aid has increased from about $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion. Seeing that the U.S. isn’t backing away, Germany and the UK have followed suit.

Since joining the WFP, he’s pressed the organization about its “exit strategy” in each of the 80-plus countries where it’s present. Each one needs a self-sustaining food system that can withstand shocks brought on by conflict, climate change, and natural disasters.

It takes everyone playing their part to accomplish that, Harmening said. “It takes a coalition. The government can’t do it by itself. The military can’t do it by itself. It really takes a coalition of people coming together to reduce food insecurity and that’s what makes it so challenging,” he said. “As much as [General Mills has] done, there’s still a lot more to do.”

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