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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But another major goal of Doha remains elusive—reducing the massive subsidies for domestic agriculture in the United States and Europe. Third World farmers can't compete with the artificially low prices of the subsidized crops from wealthy countries. It's a burden that, according to the World Bank's development report, amounts to $17 billion a year, or five times the level of foreign development aid going to those countries. "The U.S. and E.U. have been unfair competitors in agricultural markets," says Gawain Kripke, policy director at Oxfam America.

Another issue: Numerous countries, from Argentina to Russia, have erected export barriers to try to shore up domestic food supply. India, for example, in March slapped minimum price levels on exports of nonbasmati rice, ramping up rice prices in neighboring Bangladesh. One ray of hope: Ukraine lifted its export ban on grain at the end of last month. That may become a trend, predicts Dani Rodrik of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "I think exporters will manage to bring those down."

Eat Less Meat

Cutting down on carnivorism is a message that the world does not want to hear. Meat consumption is soaring globally, with newly affluent families from Beijing to São Paulo feasting on succulent pork and beef. Since much of that meat is grown by feeding animals corn, the higher the corn price, the more expensive the meat.

Since 1980, Brazil's meat consumption has more than doubled to 197 pounds a year. China's intake of meat has quadrupled to 109 pounds per person, with the bulk being pork, the traditional food of abundance and celebration. This trend has not gone unnoticed in the United States where Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa suggested that the Chinese "go back and eat rice" if they don't like the fact that American corn is being used for producing ethanol.

It takes about 7 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of beef, 6.5 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of pork, and 2.6 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of chicken, according to the USDA. Although corn grown in the United States is used for livestock feed, annual fluctuations in commodity costs historically have had little influence on meat prices. But with corn futures for 2008 pushing $6 a bushel—compared with an average of $3.40 in 2007—and energy costs for transport a huge factor, the era of cheap meat may be over.

Animal scientists are already working on ways to produce meat with less feed. One possible solution: DDGS, or dried distillers grain solubles. That is what's left over after corn is turned into ethanol. But it can be eaten only by cattle. "We need to be able to figure out how to be more feed-efficient," says Maynard Hogberg, animal science chair at Iowa State University.

Until now, Americans have shown little interest in forgoing meat, despite much talk about healthful eating and vegetarian fare. Per capita consumption in the United States rose from 234 pounds a year in 1980 to 273 pounds in 2007, according to the USDA. The only good news there, healthwise, is that beef and pork consumption declined and poultry consumption rose.

Environmentalists and nutritionists say plant-based protein is more healthful and environmentally friendly than livestock raised on factory farms. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, not surprisingly, says that the field corn it takes to grow a strip steak would make a rather unappetizing meal for humans. But unless bioengineered meat becomes a reality, plants will no doubt remain the cheapest source of protein, a fact well known to poor families worldwide.

Share the Crowded Planet

The food crisis is, above all, a warning sign of the strains that face a planet of 6.6 billion people. While much of Asia grows in wealth, many in Africa remain in poverty. Population is on track to rise to 9.1 billion by 2050, with all of that increase in the developing world. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser to U. N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, says that the wealthy nations need to take steps to address poverty by honoring the commitment they made in 2002 to devote 0.7 percent of their national incomes to international aid. Instead, these 22 nations provide just 0.45 percent of their income to development assistance. And for the United States, the level is 0.16 percent. "We are not talking about unachievable financial goals," Sachs says. To double aid to Africa from the 2004 level to $65 billion by 2010, as the world's eight most industrialized nations pledged, would roughly equal the Wall Street bonuses paid last Christmas—about $33 billion.