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5 Questions for...Pierre Ferrari, CEO, Heifer International

October 24, 2013

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, severe malnutrition affects one out of every four children under the age of 5 -- 165 million children worldwide -- even as unsustainable farming practices exacerbate climate change and environmental degradation. “Addressing malnutrition, therefore, requires integrated action and complementary interventions in agriculture and the food system, in natural resource management, in public health and education, and in broader policy domains,” the FAO argues in a report issued to mark this year's celebration of World Food Day. Last week, PND checked in with Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International, about the organization’s efforts to support sustainable agriculture and help end hunger in developing countries and here in the U.S.

Headshot_pierre_ferrariPhilanthropy News Digest: Describe how the Heifer International model works, and how it has evolved over the years?

Pierre Ferrari: Our development model begins at the community level when members reach out to local Heifer International offices. We provide training in topics ranging from improved livestock management to gender equality and small business skills. When participants have completed training and prepared their farms to receive livestock, we distribute these living gifts. Every family that receives an animal is contractually bound to pass on the first female offspring -- or the equivalent in value -- as well as the accompanying training, to another family in need.

There are two billion people on the planet living on less than $2 per day. We at Heifer International recognize that to make a meaningful dent in this horrific situation, we must work faster and at a greater scale than ever before. To that end, we are currently evolving our approach from project-based to program-based. We will, of course, continue working with farmers, but we are beginning to more strategically engage a wide range of carefully selected partners to connect our values-based community development model to emerging and growing agricultural markets.

To that end, in the U.S., through our Seeds of Change Initiative, we are bringing farmers together in both Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta together to create programs that address entrenched poverty and a lack of sustainable food systems in both regions. We are also working to recruit and support small farmers to help increase their production so they can meet regional demand for locally grown food. And we are connecting small, low-income farmers to larger regional economies and profitable markets. In both Appalachia and the Arkansas Delta, many farmers lack access to resources and capital. The initiative provides technical support, grants, loans, and direct investments for farmers and food entrepreneurs.

PND: The theme for this year’s World Food Day was “Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition.” How does Heifer International’s work contribute to the building of sustainable food systems?

PF: Our work is the very definition of building sustainable food systems. We work with small farmers by providing livestock and training in environmentally friendly agriculture. Our aim is for small farmers to have the ability to feed their own families, their communities and, ultimately, the growing world population. In helping the extremely poor and malnourished, the inclusion of animal-based foods like eggs, milk, and meat is key to ending the destructive cycle of micronutrient malnutrition. Well-nourished mothers give birth to healthier babies, who can go on to become healthy children and productive adults.

PND: While Heifer International has always worked to empower smallholder farmers, it now seems to be something of a global trend. To what do you attribute the growing interest in and support for small-scale agriculture in the developing world?

PF: I am thrilled to see the growing support for small farmers in the developing world. Our founder, Dan West, knew all along that farmers should be able to first feed their own families. In the almost seventy years since Heifer International’s inception, both we and others have come to see -- not only with our own eyes, but with empirical findings such as those by Olivier DeSchutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food -- that sustainable, agroecological farming will be the answer to feeding the projected global population of nine billion people in 2050. The growing understanding of the role of humans in global warming also has sparked interest in small-scale agriculture, as the methods used by small farmers have the power to reverse some of the negative effects of climate change.

PND: Many of the smallholder families that benefit from Heifer International’s programs are headed by women. Are women the key to advancing sustainable food systems and improving food security in the developing world?

PF: Absolutely. Nearly half of the world’s six hundred million small farmers are women, and they produce up to 80 percent of the developing world’s food. If we fail to invest in women farmers, we will fail to feed the world’s booming population. Unfortunately, they face significant disparities in the resources and support they can access, including land, credit, and education. Studies have shown that, if women farmers had equal access to those things, there would be a hundred million to a hundred and fifty million fewer hungry people. By challenging societal barriers to gender equality and equity and empowering women farmers to reach their full potential, we will succeed in ending hunger and poverty in our lifetime.

PND: How has funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and other private foundations changed the international development landscape?

PF: In several recent interviews, Howard Buffett has discussed the importance of risk-taking in philanthropy. Private foundations are uniquely situated to take bigger risks and invest in new and innovative solutions to international development issues. Buffett’s call for foundations to be entrepreneurial is something we support, because it’s what we ask of small farmers every day. These foundations are also pressing NGOs -- and rightly so -- to provide better evidence of impact and change. Rather than operating as passive actors, they are actively engaged in the programs they fund and are passionate about producing results. They have an expectation of rigorous evaluation. Constant learning through evaluation is what keeps our programs agile and effective. With their help, Heifer International and other NGOs can creatively enact potential solutions to difficult problems.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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