Bringing electricity to millions in the poorest parts of the world is the best way to help them.
“Does anything gross you out?” It’s a question I get at least a dozen times a day. Millions of people have seen me on television eating outrageous things, perhaps thinking I was born without a gag reflex. But you’d be wrong. I’ve been to 126 countries and the most revolting thing I’ve found is extreme poverty. The gap between those who have and those who don’t is abhorrent, and the most repulsive part is that it’s unnecessary.
It’s staggering the amount of vegetables and meat I’ve seen rotting on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s countryside has vast tracts of arable land, but, like many places around the world, the issue is collection, storage and distribution of the foods. That can’t happen without reliable electric systems. The United Nations estimates that $48 billion worth of cereals, roots, tubers, fruits and vegetables, meat, milk, and fish is wasted in sub-Saharan Africa alone each year. That’s a tragedy when there are more than 800 million people worldwide going to bed hungry every night and more than 3 million children dying every year from malnutrition.
Energy is the first step to bridging this enormous gap between the farm and table. More than a billion people don’t have electricity, something we take for granted. Agriculture depends on reliable energy for irrigation, refrigeration, food processing, and transportation.
A few years ago, I was at a beach barbecue just outside of Swakopmund, Namibia and my hosts had an ice chest filled with hundreds of horse mackerel. At sushi bars in Tokyo, New York, or Paris, they cost about $25 a piece. In Southern Namibia, they’re so abundant that the locals use them as bait. Reflecting on the massive poverty in that part of the country, I asked one of my hosts, “Why aren’t you selling these?” The guy said, “There’s no electricity, no airfield here. How are we supposed to take this fish out of the water, store it, freeze it, ship it, bus it, truck it, or fly it?” Point taken.
Much of the food I eat on assignment is cooked over open fires because of the lack of household electricity. Many of those fires are indoors. Not only is this a fire hazard — I once saw a fire take out a three-story residential building in a Bolivian slum in about 20 minutes — it’s also a medical catastrophe. Exposure to this kind of toxic smoke causes more than 3 million premature respiratory deaths worldwide. That’s more deaths than those caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.
Energy access is the foundation for development and it alleviates poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and disease. The people I’ve met living in energy poverty are not looking for handouts. They aren’t necessarily food poor, cash poor or asset poor. They want to support their families and communities by working hard.
Fortunately, as Americans, we can help them get there. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the bipartisan Electrify Africa Act and the Senate is considering the Energize Africa Act. Both aim to boost energy generation capacity by 20,000 MW before 2020, which would help 50 million people living in extreme poverty get basic electricity for the first time. And by leveraging the private sector and using existing tools like loan guarantees and expanded insurance for American companies, the legislation won’t cost U.S. taxpayers a dime.
As a global citizen and a chef, I have a deep connection to the earth and wonder what kind of environmental impact these plans would have. Fortunately, a major priority is a rapid expansion of investments in renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal technology. But African countries are looking at a range of solutions for their energy needs that also include natural gas. I don’t believe we can dictate to some of the poorest countries in the world what kind of electricity they can have, while our own countries invest heavily in natural gas and produce the lion’s share of global carbon emissions. This is a matter of justice.
To move the Senate bill forward, I’m working with the ONE Campaign — a global anti-poverty group cofounded by Bono — on a digital campaign called the Power Project. Our goal is to generate 50,000 letters from constituents to their senators.
As an American, I’m proud that my country is stepping up with a smart policy solution that will save lives, put millions of kids in school and give countless people the chance to live with dignity and respect.
That’s a delicious recipe for the global change we all need.
This article originally appeared on USAToday.com.