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The fuel of civilization

Chancellor Brady J. Deaton works to feed the hungry.

Brady Deaton

Chancellor Brady J. Deaton, chair of the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, sees hunger from a global perspective.

Hunger is a thread running through Brady Deaton’s life. He grew up in a poor area of eastern Kentucky where he saw neighbors struggle to feed their families. As a young faculty member in Knoxville, Tenn., he carried food to people in need. And as a volunteer in South America, he says, “I met families that had had seven children but only one was still alive, and that child had a protruding stomach, totally malnourished. It’s a heartrending thing to witness. I know that I saw many children who are not alive today, children who starved.”

Deaton, now MU’s chancellor, spent two summers in the mid-1960s in Colombia and Ecuador helping communities provide for themselves. “If you are starving, you don’t do anything else, you don’t think of anything greater than getting food. But when you improve people’s lives so they need not spend every moment just trying to survive, you build the potential of human beings to interact at a higher level.”

Deaton has performed at ever higher levels himself, earning a doctorate in agricultural economics in 1972 and working on food aid programs for the Carter administration (Deaton still has a policy memo marked by the President’s hand). Now, Deaton has been appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD), a group of seven distinguished food experts that advises the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on how best to use university research to feed hungry people around the world. Using members’ experience and connections to MU and other universities like it, the group marshals evidence and analyzes issues such as developing the most efficient foods for humans and their animals, the hardiest and most nutritious crops for each region, the safest transportation methods, the best economic systems, and so on.

Through BIFAD, universities extend their reach. For instance, if the group needs to know which pest-resistant soybeans grow best in a particular part of the world, Deaton can call upon MU’s researchers to contribute their expertise. He also could work with the board to compile and analyze research and draw on the experience of business, governmental and non-governmental organizations. BIFAD also helps set priorities regarding which food problems to tackle and how to do so. To continue the example of soybeans, BIFAD could recommend more funding for research on pest-resistant beans, and USAID could then set in motion public research funding and private support to come up with the better bean or identify the best alternative among existing varieties.

“We’re part of a whole-government approach to achieving policy objectives,” Deaton says. It’s fundamental to democracy, he says, when the government asks citizens for ideas on how to get things done. As chair of BIFAD, Deaton works with USAID’s top administrator, Raj Shah, who confers directly with the President and Hillary Rodham Clinton, secretary of state.

Governments get involved in feeding the hungry for various reasons, Deaton says. On a geopolitical level, well-fed people are less likely to fight and more likely to trade. “So we’re concerned from the standpoints not only of political peace and stability but also of better trade relations, which in turn improve business. Data clearly show that boosting economies in other parts of the world helps the United Sates and our quality of living.” Also, he says, the more countries do business internationally, the lower the likelihood of trade disruptions and the starvation that sometimes ensues.

Beyond the importance Deaton places on geopolitics are his humanitarian concerns. “Our nation’s people always have wanted to help those in need learn to provide for themselves — we address issues of starvation and poverty that plague us as a human condition.” About one in seven of the world’s 7 billion people is hungry or starving, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

“If we can solve these problems of food, maybe people can get along better. Maybe we’ll stop killing each other over oil. And if we can do that, then eventually maybe we’ll stop killing each other over religion,” Deaton says. He imagines a world in which a poor child could, as he has done, earn a university degree, travel and perhaps someday sit, comfortable and well fed, in a Moscow theater to watch a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet. “That would be a great world to live in. That’s the dream.”

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