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Originally published November 6, 2013 at 6:52 PM | Page modified November 7, 2013 at 12:06 AM

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Father-son team rich in ideas to help

Two Buffetts feel urgency to make the world fairer for people who weren’t born with their advantages.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Two farmers talking about global hunger can draw a good crowd, if they’re the right two farmers, and they were this week at Town Hall in Seattle — Howard G. Buffett and his son, Howard W. Buffett.

They’re the son and grandson of multibillionaire Warren Buffett, who often speaks of the “ovarian lottery” — the circumstances into which a person is born make all the difference. The Buffets taught their children to use their good fortune to help others.

The two Howards naturally draw attention, but their ideas about helping people free themselves from poverty, hunger and conflict stand on their own. They’ve written a book about their philanthropy, “40 Chances.” They spoke about it Tuesday (joined on stage by Seattle’s Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolate).

Howard G. wrote most of the book, which is part adventure tale, part memoir and part prescription for ending hunger. He saw hunger when he visited Czechoslovakia just after Soviet troops stormed in to put down the 1968 revolt. Howard was a young teenager, but his parents let him go, alone.

He still seeks out adventure — his father calls him the Indiana Jones of philanthropy.

Howard G. spends about half the year farming his land in Illinois and much of the rest traveling.

He once made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a warlord captured by Ugandan troops to trick him into smiling for photos, which were put on posters airdropped over a large region of East Central Africa. Hundreds of the warlord’s troops, persuaded he was happy after his capture, surrendered.

Adventure is important to Buffett, but not what drives his work. He’s met boys who saw their families slaughtered, and who then were conscripted into the armies that killed them.

Buffett writes about a woman whose leg was blown off by a land mine. Her husband was killed at war, so she worked her farm on crutches to feed her children. He was moved by her dignity, grace and lack of self-pity. He’s found people everywhere who are captives of circumstances that can be changed, with help — not gifts so much, but empowerment.

Howard G. and Howard W. stopped by The Seattle Times on their way to Town Hall, and Howard G. emphasized the urgency of his mission. “People are dying right now,” he said.

He’s set a time limit for his foundation, which will spend all of its assets by the end of 2045.

Warren and the late Susie Buffett, instead of leaving billions for their three children to play with, set up a foundation for each, so they could choose how to improve the world.

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation focuses on three areas: food security; water security; and conflict mitigation, resolution and post-conflict development.

At first, his philanthropic interest was saving nature. He’s an avid wildlife photographer, but as he focused on saving animals, he began to notice how the people nearby lived, sometimes barely surviving, often seeing their crops destroyed by animals or family members killed by animals.

A friend said something that stuck with Buffett — no one will starve to save a tree. Buffet realized that to save wildlife and forests, you have to help people around them become self-sufficient, so both can flourish.

His foundation works around the globe, but with a particular emphasis on Africa.

He’s traveled to 51 of the 54 countries on the continent, listened to local farmers, learned about the soil and the cultures.

Few places in Africa can support large-scale American-style farming, Buffett writes. Most of the continent lacks the fertile soil and temperate climate that some places, including much of the U.S., enjoy. Most African agriculture will have to be done on a smaller scale.

The U.S., by using more of its rich land for agriculture, could provide food that would save forests and endangered species around the world, taking pressure off other countries to turn habitat in to farmland.

Paying farmers here to let land sit idle is not helping, he said.

Africa is short on infrastructure and good government. Conflicts put farmers at risk, and there is no system of supportive land-grant colleges. Aid programs can help address those issues.

Howard said that if his father, one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, had been born in Bangladesh, he would be begging for spare change, but because he was born here, he could amass a fortune.

The Buffetts believe more people should have choices.

Howard said he heard a talk for Illinois planters once, and the speaker said that between the time a farmer plants his first crop and the time he turns the farm over to the next generation, he has 40 chances to do it well.

Buffett said he brought that view from farming to his philanthropy. There’s no time to waste.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

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