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George Stroumboulopoulos interviews local woman, Rukhsana, amongst the rubble of homes destroyed by the 2010 floods, on 21 February, 2011, in Umid Ali Junejo, Pakistan. (Warrick Page for CBC/Warrick Page for CBC)
George Stroumboulopoulos interviews local woman, Rukhsana, amongst the rubble of homes destroyed by the 2010 floods, on 21 February, 2011, in Umid Ali Junejo, Pakistan. (Warrick Page for CBC/Warrick Page for CBC)

Celebrities recruited to raise awareness of world agriculture crisis Add to ...

The spiralling food security crisis puzzling everyone from policymakers to researchers and governments in developing countries is attracting a new class of champions: celebrities.

Hollywood stars, pop icons and television personalities entering the complicated realm of global food politics are not merely being welcomed with open arms by some of the world's most respected - and increasingly overstretched - food aid organizations, they're being recruited to help build awareness at a critical juncture.

Commodity prices are at their highest real-term levels in decades, food riots are erupting regularly around the world; markets are ever-volatile as is the climate, which has been hammering agriculture yields and drying up the water supply. Those forces continue to inflate the question of how there will ever be enough food to feed the people already on this planet and the nine billion who are forecast to populate it by mid-decade.

What can big-name personalities do about all of that?

"My job is essentially to be a flashlight: shine a light on what's happening and then help mobilize Canadians - the ones who want to participate," said George Stroumboulopoulos, the CBC radio and television host. On his namesake late-night current events show on Tuesday, Mr. Stroumboulopoulos revealed that he has become Canada's first ambassador to the United Nations' World Food Program, which is the largest provider of food aid in the world.

Just back from a recent tour of the WFP's operations in flood-stricken Pakistan, Mr. Stroumboulopoulos said in a pretaping interview that he envisions the role he'll carve out as a "nation-building" opportunity - and a responsibility given the platforms he has access to.

"We don't need policymakers and corporations to carry the brunt of this alone," he said.

Some food security theorists argue policymakers and corporations alone aren't capable of catalyzing the masses of people needed to restructure the global food juggernaut.

"We have to change the eating habits of 10 or 11 billion human beings by the mid-century. We need to double food production, but there are going to be less resources to do so," said Julian Cribb, an Australian science writer and author of The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do To Avoid It. "That means every single person is going to feel the consequences of that, either in massive increases in food prices, conflict, government failure or refugee crises if we don't solve the problem," he said, adding: "Prominent people can show leadership … they can actually make what needs to be done fashionable."

The WFP, which counts Canada as its second largest donor, is increasingly drawing on celebrities around the world to help its cause. The actress Drew Barrymore was one of the first to start promoting WFP's work, in 2007, and has taken her advocacy to Oprah Winfrey's show, where she pledged $1-million of her own money to fight hunger. She has also travelled extensively to developing nations and made appearances at policy tables in Washington. The pop singer Christina Aguilera travelled to Haiti earlier this year for the WFP. National ambassadors have been appointed in Switzerland, South Korea and the Philippines.

"We don't have an advertising budget," said Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the WFP. "We're the guys with the dirty fingernails who really work deep in the field in the most dangerous and difficult places on Earth. In the last couple of years we've branched out more … to find ambassadors who can shine the spotlight on our work," she said.

Mr. Stroumboulopoulos caught the WFP's attention by urging viewers to take part in Freerice.com, an online word game. For each right answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the WFP. The organization approached him about a partnership about a year ago; the host took his time, he said, deciding if it was a good match.

The trip to Pakistan, which Mr. Stroumboulopoulos's crew filmed for a documentary special set to air April 1, affirmed that it was. Philanthropy experts predict a positive return for the WFP.

"When used effectively, celebrities can be catalytic to an issue. they can take an issue that is otherwise ignored and neglected and put it front and centre in the public eye," said Trevor Neilson, co-founder of the U.S.-based Global Philanthropy Group, which is a sort of matchmaking consultancy that connects famous and non-famous philanthropists with worthy causes. Although most of his clients are non-celebrities, the roster includes Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Ben Stiller and, at one point, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

"If they are deeply committed and if they're engaged on an ongoing basis, they can make a real impact," Mr. Nielson said.

Donations can be made by going to www.wefeedback.org/strombo, or text WFP to 45678 (Canada only). A $5 contribution is enough to feed a child in school for a month. Or you can try your chances at a free WFP donation at www.freerice.com.

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