#47. A Summary of 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard G. Buffet


’40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World’ by Howard G. Buffet (Simon and Schuster; October 22, 2013)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


Section 1. Howard G. Buffet’s Background

1. Howard G. Buffet the Farmer

2. Howard G. Buffet the Philanthropist

Section 2. How Not to Fight Hunger

3. How Not to Fight Hunger: The Short-Term Approach

  • a. The Seed-and-Fertilizer Approach
  • b. Food Aid (and Emergency Aid)
  • c. Emergency Situations


4. An Introduction to the Development Approach

Section 3. Maximizing Agricultural Yields: Improving Seeds and Farming Techniques

5. The Seeds of Development

  • a. The Need for Seeds
  • b. The Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS)

6. The Green Revolution

  • a. The Positive Consequences of the Green Revolution
  • b. The Negative Consequences of the Green Revolution

i. Efforts to Recreate the Green Revolution
ii. The Reliance on Monoculture and Chemical Fertilizers

7. Plowing and Slash and Burn Agriculture

  • a. Plowing
  • b. Slash and Burn Agriculture

8. Conservation Farming: The No-Till Way

9. Conservation Farming Aid

Section 4. Connecting Subsistence Farmers to the Larger Economy

10. From Harvest to Market

  • a. Storage Systems
  • b. Transportation Links
  • c. Connecting Farmers to Markets

Section 5. Challenges to the Development Approach

11. Land Ownership

12. Dysfunctional and Corrupt Governments, and Armed Conflict

  • a. Dysfunctional and Corrupt Governments
  • b. Armed Conflict


13. The Future of Hunger

  • a. The Problem: A Booming Population
  • b. The Solution: Conservation Farming

14. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

In the developed world, the vast majority of us enjoy a standard of living unmatched in the history of humankind—and going hungry is the last thing on our minds. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that poverty and hunger have been eradicated in the developed world entirely (in the United States, for example, 1 in 6 are considered food insecure—including 16 million children).  Still, the greatest problems with poverty and hunger continue to exist in the developing world. Indeed, despite substantial improvements over the past 30 years, poverty remains a significant issue, and nearly a billion of the world’s 7 billion people still face chronic hunger (while about twice that number are malnourished in some way)—and millions starve to death every year.

It is not that many well intentioned people and organizations have not spent a great deal of time and money trying to solve the world’s poverty and hunger issues. Indeed, over the past half century the amount of resources that have been poured into these problems is staggering. So, just why do the problems of poverty and hunger stubbornly persist?

Well, at least part of it has to do with the fact that there are several significant obstacles standing in the way—everything from armed conflict, to corrupt governments, to particular cultural practices etc. The humanitarian Howard G. Buffet has been involved in fighting poverty and hunger for upwards of 30 years, and knows these obstacles all too well. However, Buffet insists that there is yet another reason why all of the well-intentioned efforts have fallen short of reaching their ultimate goal. And that is that many of the approaches have proven to be inadequate (if not downright counter-productive).

The fact is that most of the aid flowing to the poorest parts of the world has been (and continues to be) in the form of projects that are meant to help people in the short-term. For example, NGOs commonly enter an area, drop off bags of seed and fertilizer, and then turn around and leave. This approach may help the area for a season or two, but in the end the seed and fertilizer do run out, and the community is right back to square one. Thus the approach acts more as a band-aid, than a self-sustaining solution that addresses the root causes of poverty and hunger.

Thankfully, in Buffet’s 30 years of work as a philanthropist he has learned that there is indeed a better approach, and one that stands a much better chance of rooting out poverty and hunger for good. The more effective approach is much less about aid as development—less about helping people as enabling people to help themselves.

The development approach involves linking subsistence farmers up with the larger economy, and establishing a self-sustaining ecosystem that will allow this connection to be maintained into the future. It involves things like helping to establish agricultural schools and private seed companies; working with farmers to improve farming techniques and yields (and not in a way that assumes that what has worked well in one place—or one’s own backyard—will work everywhere); establishing grain storage systems; physically connecting farmers to markets; and working with governments to establish and maintain the infrastructure (especially roads) needed to make the system work smoothly.

The development approach may be more involved and take longer to get off the ground, but it pays off in the end, as when it is done well, it only has to be done once (Buffet speaks often about NGOs needing to take an approach that ultimately puts themselves out of business).

And helping impoverished farmers join the larger economy is not just a matter of helping them help themselves. The fact is that the world’s population is continuing to grow, while we are running out of good farmland to farm. The UN estimates that in order to feed the world’s projected 9 billion people by 2050, farmers everywhere will need to increase the planet’s food production by 70%. Part of the solution to this problem must involve helping the world’s subsistence farmers to produce a surplus to help everyone.

But the solution doesn’t end there. Farmers everywhere, including in the developed world, will need to increase their yields to meet the growing demand. However—and this is important—farmers will need to increase their yields in a sustainable way. That is, they will need to do so in a way that does not degrade the soil, or threaten the world’s fresh water or woodlands—as too often happens now.

Thankfully, Buffet’s experience as a farmer (which he has been practising even longer than philanthropy) has shown him that here too there is a solution. And a big part of this solution is a very straightforward approach known as no-till farming. No-till farming is an approach that eschews tilling the soil in favor of planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops. The approach not only increases water retention, saves soil, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, it also helps increase yields (and thus it’s a win-win solution). Now it’s just a matter of convincing other farmers of this—which is a big part of Buffet’s project.

Here is Howard G. Buffet introducing his new book:

What follows is a full executive summary of 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard G. Buffet.


Section 1. Howard G. Buffet’s Background

1. Howard G. Buffet the Farmer

It may seem odd that the son of Warren Buffet—one of the most successful (and wealthiest) stock-market investors in history—chose to be a farmer, but this is indeed the case with Howard G. Buffet. After an early start working with heavy machinery, a chance encounter with a farmer named Otto Wenz got Buffet hooked on agriculture (loc. 511-15; see also loc. 464, 535).

In 1982 (at the age of 27), Buffet moved to Omaha, Nebraska (where his family is originally from) and rented some land to farm (loc. 536). This was land that Buffet’s father had bought, and then rented back to his son—on the condition that Buffet senior be granted a healthy return. As the author explains, “when I realized in my twenties that I wanted to farm, [my father] purchased some land near Omaha—and I paid him a competitive rent that he insisted return 5 percent annually on his investment” (loc. 343).

(This little anecdote nicely captures Warren’s approach towards his son—and all of his children, really [Howard has two siblings, Peter and Susie]: support was given, but certainly not in the form of handouts. As Buffet explains, “my dad supported my education and my desire to travel. He encouraged all three of us to pursue our interests, and he gave us help and support, but few handouts” [loc. 341]. Elsewhere, Buffet touches on the reasoning behind his father’s approach to parenting. Specifically, Buffet senior did not want to raise spoiled children. As the author explains, “my dad said famously that he would never consider giving his children the bulk of his money, and people would sometimes talk about this statement as if it hinted at a rift between us. That was never the case. He had seen the children of other successful executives develop an attitude of entitlement that he did not want in his children” [loc. 951]).

In any event, by the time Buffet started farming in 1982 he already had a wife and 4 stepdaughters to support—and a son on the way (who was later named Howard Warren Buffet) (loc. 535). So it was the farming life for this young family.

Even today, while Buffet spends much of his time doing humanitarian work, he continues to farm, and feels that farming is his true calling. As the author explains, “I consider myself first and foremost a farmer. I am never happier than when I’m sitting in a tractor or a combine during planting or harvest season” (loc. 465).

2. Howard G. Buffet the Philanthropist

By the late 1980s, Buffet got his first taste of philanthropy. This came about through Buffet’s parents—and particularly Buffet’s mom (Susan Buffet). As the author explains, “in large part due to my mother’s interest and inspiration, my brother and sister and I began our first efforts in philanthropy in the late 1980s. My parents brought us together, and my dad said he was starting a family foundation. Each of us would get to determine where $100,000 a year should be donated. It was aimed primarily at giving opportunities locally: everything from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to the Chicano Awareness Head Start Program” (loc. 959).

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