8 Ways to Fix the Global Food Crisis

Ideas range from improving aid programs to taking a break on biofuels.

Corn used for ethanol.

Corn used for ethanol.

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Many agencies feel that such a change would best serve the hungry. Congress, however, has preferred aid policies that help constituents in the Farm Belt states sell off their surpluses. The Bush administration has proposed that American aid agencies buy up to a quarter of their food from regions located closer to areas of need, but lawmakers would most likely approve only a fraction of that amount.

Produce Higher Yields

The average African farmer uses one tenth as much fertilizer as her westernized counterpart. She—most are female—applies little or no pesticide or fungicide to her crops, and her soil has been so overtilled that her annual yields are woefully puny.

History repeatedly has shown that better farming techniques can help alleviate shortages. But development programs of the 1960s and 1970s flopped at boosting African production, and interest cooled in the 1980s during the Reagan years. Now a group of philanthropists led by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, along with the World Bank, begun investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing countries, particularly Africa. Their focus: training and empowering poor farmers and native researchers. Vouchers help local farmers buy fertilizer, which has risen in price along with its petroleum feedstock. "In Kenya, a bag of fertilizer may cost 2,000 shillings, and the voucher provides 1,500," says Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation. In Malawi in 2006 and 2007, he says, vouchers for fertilizer helped increase production 50 percent.

The Gates Foundation recently announced $306 million in grants to boost agricultural yields in the developing world, with nearly $165 million to replenish depleted soils in Africa. Says Rajiv Shah, director for agricultural development at the Gates Foundation: "There is so much [untapped] potential, and that could go a long way toward helping address the price issue around the world."

These efforts are not without controversy: Critics charge that western philanthropists are violating African "food sovereignty" and promoting American agribusiness—Monsanto, DuPont, and the like—at the expense of peasant farmers knowledgeable about local practices. But local practices have yielded scarcity. A farmer in India grows three to four times as much food on the same amount of land as a farmer in Africa; a farmer in China, roughly seven times as much.

Grow Better Crops

Can genetically modified plants cure the food crisis? Proponents say that environmentalists and Europeans should quit their opposition to this technology if they want to accelerate global food production. Producing more hardy varieties than those found in nature, by inserting genes into crops in the laboratory, would be a benefit to all, they say. But it's not that simple. There's another factor that may trump enviros' worry about health risks and damage to native species that grow near the altered crops. Expensive gm crops simply haven't had much impact in boosting global food supply.

It makes sense to consider improved crops because conventional breeding has produced so much success. More productive strains of rice and wheat accounted for 21 percent of the growth in crop yields in developing countries from 1961 to 1980 and an astonishing 50 percent increase in yield from 1981 to 2000. "We need another breakthrough," says Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for launching this so-called green revolution.

Genetically modified plants, which first hit the market in the mid-1990s, are widely used today for corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. Just two engineered traits are sold: resistance to glyphosate, a herbicide used to kill weeds around crops, and the insect-killing powers of BT, a microorganism that produces chemicals toxic to bugs, not humans. gm crops have been embraced in the United States and in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Canada. But those crops have so far had little appeal in the developing world, where most farmers can't afford the herbicides or the high-priced gm seeds.