It truly was a family affair to kick off the Rural Futures Conference at Nebraska Innovation Campus. The Heuermann Lecture Series welcomed father and son Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett . Howard W. is currently on faculty at UNL as well as Columbia University while Howard G. is CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation as well as an active farmer, and both are global philanthropists. With a strong background in agriculture they have taken globally along with roots to rural life, the Buffetts bring to the discussion a very unique and relevant perspective.
During the introduction Howard G. referenced the book 40 chances: Finding hope in a hungry world as a call to action that if you have “any resources in the world how would you make a difference?” This he says, “is a mindset and not quite literal explanation that you have 40 chances throughout your life to make an impact. The origin of this idea though is meant to reinforce that life does have a certain amount of urgency.
With incredible means at their disposal the Buffets have traveled the world looking for opportunities to make great impacts. When asked why they choose agriculture and food supply to devote philanthropy to? They responded light-heartedly that you should “try to stay in your circle of competence”. Here they also saw an opportunity to use deepest broadest base of knowledge, to address one of the biggest problems in the world: people who can’t feed themselves. “No country in the world that is independent and feeds itself has done well without agriculture being strong!”
A common misconception is that the ultimate answer is to continue providing foreign food aid to these countries. While this is an easy short term solution, it in reality destroys local economies through dumping food aid. In countries rife with political conflict this aid often ends up in the hands of warlords who use it to exploit citizens. Another negative impact of when we take our commodities and dump them on a local market with farmers already struggling is it exacerbates the pinch they feel trying to compete with unfavorable resources. Instead, the best option is to teach and help farmers implement more efficient and sustainable practices and systems.
According to the Buffetts, “there are too many places in the world that haven’t improved.” Every country in the world’s focus must also include how water integrates with agriculture. The question was posed “Has what you’ve learned from farming helped you in other parts of the world?” The Buffetts outlined these 4 main points in response:
- All farmers face similar problems but have different resources to overcome them
- Approaches must be country specific and culture specific
- Diversity changes the risk profile for a farmer
- How do we solve those problems without thinking like U.S. Farmer?
These lessons translate into their belief to approach sustainable farming on a global level requires recognizing that “lots of different types of farming systems have a lot to offer, and it’s most successful to merge different types”. Based on the scarcity and differences of available resources we cannot do it globally with strictly organic methods. Producers “have to be willing to change, adopt and get better educated” in their methodology.
Referencing their own farming methods and the beliefs of Norman Borlaug, we need to start focusing on where solutions work and don’t work, a “Brown revolution instead of green revolution” starting with no-till methods. An unwillingness to change and adopt sustainable methods is an issue here in the U. S. as well not just globally. Despite this issue the Buffetts believe the biggest risk to American agriculture in the future, given global perspective, is the government. The current range of policy issues spanning from conservation and methodology to nutrition and an intense product labeling debate can seem daunting. The call to action to influence this policy is to bridge the disconnect between policymakers and rural communities. Starting conversations and promoting civic engagement within communities is key to influence policy.
Risk is always a valid concern when creating change especially globally, “don’t think twice about it.” Instead of allowing risk to avert them from their goals and impact they see it as an opportunity to see what they can and should do. Ultimately their message is you have to fail to learn how to succeed and risk will not stop them from doing things to learn.
Howard G. concluded the lecture by stating, “Our biggest success is going to be the students in this room.” This endorsement resounded the spirit of the Rural Futures to facilitate and educate students so they can influence and create impactful change in their communities and globally.
Which of your 40 chances will change the world?