My friendship with Warren Buffett's son Howard G. Buffett goes back to 1991, when I met him through philanthropist Ray Chambers at a youth mentoring meeting in DC. During my talk on youth entrepreneurship, I put on a hair piece that one of NFTE's Newark students had made. Everyone laughed, and Howie--who was involved in local Omaha politics at that time--came up afterwards to talk to me about a letter I had once sent his father.
Howie and I started a best friendship that has lasted twenty-two years and will last forever. We talked regularly on the phone, and his love of farming was so contagious that I began to learn about tractors. Howie gave me a twenty-question tractor quiz. After a month or so, I was able to pass it, to both of our delights.
I visited him several times in Decatur, Illinois, where his six-hundred-acre farm is located. As we rode through the fields on his tractor, I discovered he had two passions: farming and photography. At home in Decatur, he showed me thousands of slides. Since then, this Midwestern farmer has become one of the most powerful photographers of his generation, traveling to conflict-ridden, danger zones around the world.
As he traveled, Howie found himself training his camera increasingly on people as well as animals. "In so many endangered habitats," he writes in his new book 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World "people would be visibly poor and hungry." Photography became, he says, "a quiet muse nagging at my conscience."
This game-changing books documents Howie's life mission: He has set out to help the most vulnerable people on earth - nearly a billion individuals who lack basic food security. And he has has given himself a deadline: 40 years to put more than $3 billion to work on this challenge.
Each of us has about 40 chances to accomplish our goals in life. This is a lesson Howard learned through his passion for farming. All farmers can expect to have about 40 growing seasons, giving them just 40 chances to improve on every harvest. We all have about 40 productive years to do the best job we can, whatever our passions or goals may be.
Howie's father, Warren, has never believed in giving his children handouts from his immense fortune to fritter away. In the late 1980s, he brought his three kids together and explained that he was starting a family foundation and they would each get to determine where $100,000 per year would be donated. Warren was providing philanthropic training wheels, preparing his children for the immense wealth they would need to be prepared to steward wisely in the future.
In 1999, they each received $26.5 million to launch their individual foundations. Howie used his to set up a cheetah habitat and research center in South Africa. When their mother Susan died unexpectedly in 2004, the children received another $51.6 million each for their foundations. Soon after, their dad committed over $1 billion to each child's foundation to be distributed over many years, and expressed his desire that they tackle the world's hardest problems. He doubled his commitment when he turned eighty-two in 2012.
For Howie, what he'd seen through his lens brought home to him that close to a billion people worldwide are food insecure, meaning they live with hunger or fear of starvation, dealing with a long-term, persistent lack of food. Howie realized that wherever people are hungry, environmentalism seems like a luxury.
As Howie writes, "I was never going to make a significant difference in wildlife conservation if I wasn't willing to make a difference in the lives of people who were starving." He realized that solving world hunger and saving the environment are intrinsically linked--and both are linked to his other great passion: farming.
40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, written with his son, Howard W. Buffett, makes this compassionately clear. I never understood before that teaching farmers to use topsoil conservation methods could discourage slash-and-burn farming and deforestation, while also increasing a farmer's harvest. A small increase in the productivity of a poor farmer's land can make the difference between whether the family eats or starves.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also identified agricultural development as critical to fighting poverty. The key is finding what Howie calls "market-based solutions with a social conscience." These must be sustainable, not dependent on constant flows of NGO aid from overseas.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation conducted an analysis that found that almost 90 percent of African farmers (more in some regions) are "fragile." They are farming overworked, tired soil. They use old seeds with poor productivity. Their families eat two or fewer meals a day and are chronically malnourished and vulnerable to disease. If they do have surplus to sell, they have nowhere to store it and no way to get it to a market. Starkly, Howie writes "millions of [these] farmers are starving to death right now."
The book took me around the globe, with fascinating, colorful chapters describing how his foundation has both stumbled and succeeded with different initiatives around the globe. Three clear lessons emerged:
1) Listen to the locals and help them devise methods to conserve soil and farm more effectively
2) Encourage governments to provide clear land ownership titles and invest in agricultural science
3) Connect small famers to markets.
Howie notes that American farmers have benefitted not only from the great soils in our "fertility belt" regions, but also "incredibly solid infrastructure, waterways and access to vast information resources and research data" provided by our investment in agriculture since the 1700s. American farmers also benefited early in our nation's history from a land tenure system that enabled individual farmers to feel secure in ownership of their land and able to use it as credit to develop their farms.
In contrast, subsistence farmers Howie met in Honduras and Nicauragua lived in constant fear that their land would be taken from them, and were afraid to invest in its future. He movingly describes their pride when they received land title documents, due to a program he works with called Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. Once farmers know their land can't be taken away, they can work with A4NH to plant fruit trees and cover crops and develop better watering and farming systems.
In 2003, Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto wrote a groundbreaking book, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, which made just this point. DeSoto noted that more than a decade after the fall of Marxism, the expected capitalist revolution had not occurred. He became conviced that the problem was "lack of well-defined property rights." De Soto noted that poor people in under-developed countries have assets, but that their real property is often owned informally, and thus cannot be used to generate capital. How exciting to read in 40 Chances of initiatives to solve this problem!
In Africa, meanwhile, vital state-run seed production facilities collapsed when countries were pressured by the World Bank to get their fiscal houses in order. In 40 Chances, Howie tells the story of Joe DeVries, a crop breeder he calls "a modern-day hero...who has made bigger impact on improving the food security of the people of Africa than just about anybody I know" by nurturing a private seed industry.
Joe saw the vacuum African farmers were facing when it came to seeds because their governments had retreated from seed research and development and the private market wasn't interested. He's at the center now of the Gates Foundation's Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), giving fellowships to African Agricultural scientists and research grants to fledgling seed companies.
This effort has created a private seed industry in Africa that is sustainable and locally appropriate. Millions of Africa's small farmers are getting productive seeds helping them feed their families better through Joe's programs, which have launched homegrown private seed companies in 16 African countries. Joe estimates this effort has fed twenty-five million people.
Howie writes, "Joe maintains that governments and NGOs shouldn't give away seed because the competition discourages local seed companies from taking root (literally). Thus, it dooms the effort to the failing temporary aid cycle from which Africa must emerge.
"We need major initiatives in agriculture," he adds, "But they need to be designed around simple, basic technologies and inputs for subsistence farmers, not large-scale farms." This requires listening to local farmers and devising inexpensive soil conservation and management techniques that work in their environments.
Howie calls building soil health to heal hunger the "Brown Revolution." Brazil's leaders, he notes, "have put together smart and motivated agricultural research that is paying off," adding, "leaders of countries grappling with food insecurity in some of the most difficult farming regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, should find reason to hope in what has worked in Brazil." By introducing soil conservation and improvement methods to farmers working the dry acidic soil of Brazil's cerrado region, the population of undernourished people in Brazil has dropped from 11% to 6%.
Soil, Howie explains, "is the most important tool we have to feed a fast-growing world in coming decades," and soil degradation is one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The Mayans, the Aztecs, the Vikings and other dead civilizations all depleted their soils through over-farming and deforestation. This is happening in the U.S. right now, too, when farmers fail to practice no-till conservation farming by planting cover crops to help them hang on to fertile topsoil during the winter rains and snows. Howie argues that Washington "should end nearly eight decades of subsidizing crop production and instead subsidize and incentivize highly productive farming techniques that conserve limited natural resources--namely, soil and water."
The rate of deforestation is often highest in the world's hungriest countries. And when the government owns all the land, as in Ethiopia, it's very challenging to get farmers to change their methods, because the land the farm isn't theirs to nourish for future generations. Why shouldn't they focus on short-term yields and disregard the damage they are doing to the soil?
Howie notes "you can make the case that development of America's incredibly productive agricultural system came about in part because of our rules of private landownership." In addition, he says, "government leaders must come to value connecting their country's agriculture to their farmers' ownership of their own land. These decisions will shape the future of hunger in these countries."
Linking hunger and education is another strategy that Howie says "works just about everywhere in the world." In 40 Chances, he describes traveling through Colombia with singer Shakira, whose foundation supports schools in her home country that feed over five thousand children. When school-feeding programs are supplied by small, local farmers, it's a win-win. The World Food Programme's Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative helps create stable, reliable markets for small farmers' surplus output. It uses donors' money not to buy and ship staples from the developed to the developing world, but rather to purchase aid locally from struggling small farmers. As Howie points out, this is "not necessarily easier, but it is simpler and a stronger model" that connects farmers to markets.
Although there are grim stories of human suffering in 40 Chances, the book is also alive with hope for our hungry world. I encourage anyone interested in solving the problem of world hunger to read it so you really understand what works, what doesn't, and how to help
Stay tuned for The Mariotti Interview with Howard G. Buffett and his son Howard W. coming soon!
The Buffetts - Live from New York Public Library