Feeding the world - Bangladesh famine of 1976 spurred farmers to create Canadian Foodgrains Bank


One in nine people in the world still goes to bed hungry, but we become numb to that kind of statistic from the United Nations.

Farmers not so much.

This dates back to my days as a farm reporter, but I remember if you wanted to get a discussion going at a table full of farmers, just mention global hunger. It was like squirting lighter fluid and dropping a match.

The problem isn’t production, farmers will explain. They can produce enough to feed the world. The problems are transportation, war, corrupt governments and infrastructure, when they’re not a regional disaster such as drought or flooding.

That same farmer frustration flared up in 1976 with reports of famine in Bangladesh.

Palliser Furniture CEO Art DeFehr had visited Bangladesh on a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tour. Upon returning, he strategized with three other men: MCC’s John Wieler; Len Siemens, University of Manitoba associate dean of agriculture; and Federal Grain Company executive David Durksen.

MCC put out the call for help through various churches. Farmers organized into local groups and donated acreages off their fields. Ottawa agreed to match any donations three to one. Ben Friesen of Friesen Seeds in Rosenthal volunteered to clean, blend and bag the wheat.

In 1977, the first shipload of donated grain set sail for famine relief in territories of India that share a border with Bangladesh.

Within seven years, the MCC Food Bank morphed into a non-denominational aid program, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, comprised of 30 denominations and 15 church-based agencies. Since that first shipment, more than $800 million in food aid and agricultural training has been delivered to 70 countries, and the bank is zeroing in on $1 billion. More than 3,000 farmers across the country donate part of their harvest each year.

Imagine that. A little Manitoba project, celebrating its 40th anniversary, has grown into one of the great grassroots humanitarian aid programs in the world. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr recently handed over a cheque for $125 million over five years to support the bank, one of only two non-governmental organizations Ottawa trusts with block funding.

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