The Gourmet Q + A: George McGovern

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GM: We’re the biggest food distribution agency in the history of the world. And we give away millions of tons of food to schoolchildren, to pregnant and nursing women and their infants; we give away money to people who have been hit by a hurricane, or a flood, or a war, or some other tragedy. I helped start the World Food Program when I was heading Food for Peace. I made the first offer of funds and commodities that got the World Food Program launched. I persuaded President Kennedy to authorize me to do that. I did that in 1962, at a meeting in Rome.

The United States, even if it wanted to, couldn’t feed the whole world, so we need to help Africa, and Latin America, and Asia, and parts of the Middle East, to produce their own food, and that’s what the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) does—they help farmers use more efficiently what available water there is; they help them develop or purchase quality seeds; they help them with crops that will resist drought, or wind storms, and so on. It’s the biggest and oldest of all the UN agencies. So they had committed themselves to reduce the 800 million people chronically hungry in the world down to 400 million. But they were making no progress at it until I arrived in Rome. My wife and I went for about an hour-long walk around Rome, and I’m thinking all the time about this problem, and when I got back to my office, I said, what about the U.S.-style school lunch program? So I did some research, or my staff did, and we discovered that there were 300 million hungry kids who got nothing to eat during the school day. Why not an American-style school lunch run by the United Nations, with the U.S. in the lead? I called Bob Dole and said, “I need some bipartisan sponsorship of this, will you join with me? You’re out of the Senate, I’m out of the Senate, but we’re both still alive, so why don’t we do this together?” It became the McGovern-Dole Program. We’re now reaching about 25 million kids, but that means we’ve got somewhere between 90 and 100 million still to go.

JZ: Can you talk a little bit about the impact it has on girls?

GM: Its most valuable component is what it does for girls, and I’ll tell you why. Of these 300 million school-age kids in the world, 100 million are not in school, and most of those are girls, because of the favoritism toward us males in most societies. When you start a school-lunch program, both the boys and the girls come. And the parents discover that their kids can get a free meal every day, just by turning up at the village school. So they get both the boys and girls out of bed in the morning and shoo them off to school. It leaves more food for the people at home—mom, dad—and it pulls these girls into school, as well as the boys.

JZ: What are some of the long-term impacts of getting the girls into school?

GM: Once they go to school, even if it’s just for six years, they marry four, five, six years later in life; they have a better sense of what life is about, and its opportunities for a girl who can read and write and do simple arithmetic. They’re not as easy to push around by boys and men as are the illiterate girls. And whereas the illiterate girls have an average of six children before they’re 20 years old, the ones who go to school have an average of three. So you cut the birth rate in half. That’s true in any society. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s New York, or Singapore, or Kenya—you give a girl six years or more of education, and you’re going to cut the birth rate in half.

JZ: Can you talk about the current global food crisis and what you see as its main causes?

GM: Well, the current world food crisis is very complicated; it’s based on a number of things. One is that Australia has always been one of the great food producers in the world, and they’ve had 15 years of drought. So they now have to import, instead of exporting millions of tons of food grain to other countries. That’s one thing. Second, we have an increase in armed conflict in the world, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Africa, including the tragedy in Rwanda, and Latin America, where governments are beset with conflict and upheaval. In addition to that, in some of the Western countries, most notably the United States, we’ve been converting corn into ethanol.

JZ: I’m curious to hear what you, as somebody from South Dakota, think about that.

GM: If you’re running for office in South Dakota, you try to make sure everybody knows that you’ve played a major part in producing ethanol. And that’s fine, but I think we need a little more research to see, what seems to be the case, that we can produce ethanol from cornstalks; we can produce ethanol from switchgrass; we can produce it from other growing things that are not food for humans. I think there’s a moral equation of using food for fuel to run our automobiles at a time when people are hungry. So, if I had been in Congress, I would have voted for the ethanol program. At that time, farm prices were low; we had surpluses of corn. But now, we’ve got this new problem of food shortages in some parts of the world, and we Americans, I think, have got to conserve what we have. I drive a big Buick Fifth Avenue, and I rationalize not replacing it on the grounds that it would take more energy to duplicate that car than to keep driving it. So when it wears out, I’m going to buy a small car. Not that I like it; I’m a big-car person. I was a bomber pilot in World War II, so I like big things. But we just can’t afford these gas guzzlers anymore.

JZ: What do you think is the role of the agricultural subsidies in the States? Because I think a lot of people put a large part of the blame on that.

GM: The [subsidies] that are spent on conservation of soil are worth it. Farmers are paid to let some of their land lie fallow, and I think that’s good. Farm price subsidies, which make it difficult for other countries, especially the developing countries, to compete with us: I think we have to look at some alternative possibilities there. Because these farm subsidies do take away markets from African countries. When farmers are paid a cash subsidy for their crops, then they can undersell countries that can’t afford such subsidies. And I think that American farmers themselves probably would like to take another look at that, to see if there are other ways that we can sustain farm income that doesn’t undercut farmers in other countries.

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