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November 11, 2011

At Stanford, Kofi Annan warns of worldwide hunger, political unrest if climate change persists

The former United Nations secretary general and Nobel Peace Prize winner called a lack of food security for nearly 1 billion of the world's population "an unconscionable moral failing" that is also a stumbling block to a strong international economy.

By Adam Gorlick

"We need to make sure that promises of extra support from richer countries are kept and involve fresh funds rather than the repackaging of existing financial commitments," Kofi Annan told the Stanford audience. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

Blaming leaders in America and abroad for not doing enough to combat climate change, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said continued failure to tackle the problem will result in worldwide hunger, social unrest and political turmoil.

"Without action at the global level to address climate change, we will see farmers across Africa – and in many other parts of the world, including here in America – forced to leave their land," the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize winner told a crowd of about 1,400 people at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium on Thursday. "The result will be mass migration, growing food shortages, loss of social cohesion and even political instability."

Citing numbers from the World Bank, Annan said rapidly rising food prices since 2010 have "pushed an additional 70 million people into extreme poverty." He called a lack of food security for nearly 1 billion of the world's population "an unconscionable moral failing" that is also a stumbling block to a strong international economy.

"It affects everything from the health of an unborn child to economic growth," he said.

Annan's talk, "Food Security Is a Global Challenge," was delivered as part of a daylong conference on global underdevelopment sponsored by Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The event drew leading experts in the field and featured panel discussions that explored the connections between global security and food supplies, health care and governance. Keynote speeches were delivered by Annan and Jeff Raikes, chief executive officer of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also planned to deliver a talk to a private audience.

The conference marked the launch of the institute's Center on Food Security and the Environment.

"With this facility, and the creative thinkers and inquisitive minds for which Stanford is famous, you are well equipped to undertake research which advances our knowledge and helps to shape our response to the many global challenges we face," Annan said. "And with the resources at your disposal, you also have the capacity to actively engage to influence policy, implement solutions and thus improve the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet."

Annan also lauded government initiatives that focus on alleviating global hunger, such as America's Feed the Future program. He recently met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Raj Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to discuss ways to address food insecurity.

"If we pool our efforts and resources, we can finally break the back of this problem," he said.

But he challenged wealthier nations to do more than pay lip service to the problem.

"We need to make sure that promises of extra support from richer countries are kept and involve fresh funds rather than the repackaging of existing financial commitments," he said.

Annan, who is the chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation, the Africa Progress Panel and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, said Africa represents both the greatest problem and the greatest promise when it comes to food security.

The continent is home to 60 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land but cannot produce enough food to feed its own people, he said. But if Africa can grow just half the world's average yield of staple crops like wheat, corn and rice, it would end up with a food surplus.

Transforming Africa into one of the world's biggest crop producers will take more than supporting farmers, he said. It entails sound environmental stewardship.

"I hope this is an area where the Center on Food Security and the Environment can make a major contribution to finding solutions," Annan said.

Without those solutions, the future is bleak.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where global warming brings the threat of persistent drought, current crop production is expected to be cut in half by the end of the century and 8 percent of the region's fertile land is expected to dry up.

"Those arguing, here and elsewhere, for urgent action and a focus on opportunities to green our economies still find themselves drowned out by those with short-term and vested interests," Annan said. "This lack of long-term collective vision and leadership is inexcusable. It has global repercussions, and it will be those least responsible for climate change – the poorest and most vulnerable – that will pay the highest price."

Annan's speech was sponsored by FSI, Stanford in Government and the Stanford University Speakers Bureau.

Adam Gorlick is the communications manager for Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

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Contact

Adam Gorlick, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 724-9842, agorlick@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

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