Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser called for structural and systemic changes in politics and policy to combat the global food crisis in his keynote address at the opening of the ninth annual NU Conference on Human Rights (NUCHR).
“Eat, or send your child to school? Eat, or buy medicine for your sickness? Eat, or be able to afford a door or window for your home?” Offenheiser said. “Two billion people face these day-to-day decisions.”
Offenheiser addressed NU students, Evanston residents and 37 delegates selected from colleges and universities across the country, explaining that the food crisis is not about families and nations cannot afford the food that is available. To further engage in the ongoing food crisis discussion, NUCHR invites students and faculty to the conference’s panel events, “Defining the Right to Food” on Friday and “Modern Agriculture: Cause or Cure of the Food Crisis?” and “Food Aid: Feeding Today, Starving Tomorrow” on Saturday. Panelist members were selected by NUCHR and include lawyers, activists and academics from backgrounds in fields like anthropology, political science, environmental policy and biotechnology.
Highlighting modern day’s “perverse market incentives,” Offenheiser addressed the dangerous link between energy and food prices.
“The current economy puts pressure on countries to convert their agriculture into biofuel production, causing heavier reliance on imports and driving food prices up,” Offenheiser said.
Offenheiser acknowledged the United States’ financial investment in agriculture has somewhat alleviated the food crisis, but food prices remain volatile. As they struggle to fight debt, countries like Spain and Ireland are unable to join in aggressively contributing to the hunger cause.
High food prices will continue until other serious political steps are taken, Offenheiser said.
“The bottom line,” Offenheiser said, “is that the root causes have not been addressed. The principle drivers of the crisis are still in place.”
Food awareness efforts are not new at NU, indicating the magnitude of the global crisis and its importance to student groups campus-wide. The African Students Association began the NU Sounds the Horn campaign in the fall to raise money and awareness for the victims of the East African famine. Food Day at NU, hosted by NCDC in October, celebrated the international movement that advocates for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable and humane way. Oxfam America at NU’s main focus this year is the GROW campaign, which seeks to implement a sustainable food system that can feed the growing population.
“The food crisis is a multidisciplinary topic and we hope to draw all types of students – journalists, sociology majors, engineers,” said NUCHR co-director and Medill senior Christie Thompson. “We chose food because it’s an issue where you can have two well-intentioned people seeking solutions, but those solutions may be very different and generate debate. For this type of crisis, you realize good intentions aren’t enough, and you can’t be afraid to ask hard questions.”
Roger Thurow will deliver the closing keynote Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Alice Millar Chapel, which is free and open to the public. Thurow is the author of Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, and serves as senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Though NUCHR aims to focus on hunger as a global crisis, part of the conference will examine food issues closer to home. Conference delegates, six of whom are NU students, will spend a day observing local initiatives that combat unequal food distribution, including an urban farm and food pantry in Chicago.
“We want delegates to see interesting and innovative ways people are domestically fighting hunger,” Glenn said. “The problem is both global and domestic.”
In keeping with the theme of sustainability, NUCHR partnered with Engineers for a Sustainable World to make the entire conference environmentally “green.” NUCHR bought carbon offsets to compensate for all attendees’ air travel, and delegates will eat a locally-grown vegetarian meal served on biodegradable plates and utensils at the closing banquet.
“We want to make this sustainability model something easily reproducible for other conferences,” Glenn said.