Lately, he’s put his energy behind the World Food Program (WFP) and a plan to eradicate world hunger. His message doesn’t focus on emaciated children fighting off flies and disease in broken-down villages. Not that there’s anything inappropriate with tugging at American hearts that way, although the starvation scenes we see on television, regrettably, have perhaps become too familiar.

Rather, the former senator understands that American compassion is strongest when we see people trying to help themselves. Americans love fighters.

McGovern, interviewed at a meeting of the American Agricultural Editors Association in Reno, Nev., knows this all too well. During his run for office in 1972, his handlers suggested not publicizing his experiences in World War II, where he flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, saying it might hurt his campaign because of American hostility toward the Vietnam War.

It didn’t work. McGovern lost the election in a landslide, perhaps because he wasn’t perceived as a strong-enough leader.

McGovern remained a senator for eight more years, spearheading government nutrition programs. He left the Senate in 1980 and spent much of the decade speaking at universities both home and abroad.

Today, he’s taking his nutrition plan worldwide with a groundbreaking bill written in his name and currently pending approval by Congress: George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Act of 2001.

The legislation builds on McGovern’s work with the WFP, which fed over 12 million school children in 54 countries in 2000. McGovern was named U.S. ambassador to the WFP in 1998.

In this quest, he is a man on a mission again, sans handlers, explaining that eradicating world hunger is both a moral obligation for America and other developed countries and a potential boon to U.S. farmers.

Today, there are approximately 800 million people suffering from chronic hunger in the world, including 300 million children. A great deal of the problem is due not to food shortages, but to corrupt governments and inadequate infrastructure. But the WFP has “some tough-minded individuals” intent on solving those problems, according to McGovern.

The program also goes a long way toward building U.S. markets. In 2001 alone, the United States donated almost 2 million metric tons of foodstuffs to hungry people around the world, including 55,000 metric tons of rice, a million metric tons of wheat and 470,000 metric tons of corn.

Pending legislation would commit the U.S. government to spend an additional $750 million to provide school meals for the world’s poor children. Rice, milk and corn and wheat products would be on the menu. U.S. producers would supply a large portion of it. And of course, we would also be reducing any oversupply of agricultural commodities.

McGovern stresses that the effort “is not a permanent gift from the outside world. “It’s to show these poor countries how they can set up and effectively operate a child-feeding program, school lunch or whatever.

“If they’ll set up a good nutritious school lunch program, these kids will come to school if for no other reason than the parents making sure they do because it takes some pressure off the food budget at home.”

McGovern stresses that one good turn should deserve another.

“Every country that has elevated its development and improved its productivity becomes better commercial customers of the United States,” McGovern said. “Japan comes to mind as a classic example of that. Americans probably aren’t aware that right after the war, we shipped a lot of food to Japan, to their schools.

“We did a lot to get the Japanese back into the global economy. It may have cost us our automobile market. At the same time, Americans benefited enormously. I suspect that one reason why the economy is as sluggish as it is right now is because Japan and the Asian countries haven’t been doing well the past 10 years.

“It’s easy to demonstrate that we build markets for the future when we help increase health of another country,” McGovern said. “However, at the same time that we are pressing for more market opportunities for ourselves, we make it difficult for these developing countries to sell into our markets. We have to change that.”

McGovern also stresses that food distribution to underdeveloped countries could perhaps even stave off terrorism.

“All of us were shocked by the attack on the World Trade Center. Why is it that a wealthy zealot like Osama bin Laden can go through the back country of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the slums of Cairo and recruit tens of thousands of young men who hate us so fervently that they are willing to give their lives to take a swing at us. I don’t think our national policy makers are asking that question with enough intensity.”

“I don’t know if killing Osama bin Laden is the answer to the hopelessness that seems to have taken over in parts of the world. That’s another reason why I’m for a universal school lunch program to help relieve some of the fury and the hopelessness.”

When asked about the cost of feeding the world versus letting poor countries fend for themselves, McGovern took a different approach. “Hungry people are a drag on the economy. They have less production of their own, less income to spend on what other producing countries have to sell and it has the effect of taking $16 billion (annually according to recent research) out of our pockets.

“On the other hand, the highest estimates for feeding all of the world’s hungry is around $10 billion a year.”

Other comments by McGovern:

“USDA, FDA and EPA have not found the dangers that Europeans see from genetically grown crops. I wonder if one factor at work here is fear that always accompanies new, scientific breakthroughs. I’m not saying that Europeans are unscientific. Some of the greatest breakthroughs, like golden rice, came out of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

“But Europeans should be assured that these products are not going on the market without evaluation. I don’t understand the extent of the European opposition. I don’t want to think that this is simply a way to block American farm produce going into the EU markets. But that is a suspicion that some American farmers have.

“I’ve enjoyed my travels to the south. That part of the country is pretty conservative, but I found farmers in Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama to be well-informed. I enjoyed my contact with them.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com