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.

By and + More

"Do with ethanol distillers what we've done with grain producers for decades," says Brown. "If we want them to produce less grain, we would say that in order to be eligible for support price, you should have to cut back your acreage 15 percent this year, and farmers did that. They understood the USDA was trying to balance world supply and demand. You could do the same thing with ethanol distilleries." Brown says the government could modify policy so that the blenders of ethanol collect the subsidy only if they reduce production. He says, "We're the only country who can now do something in the short term to restore some semblance of stability to the world food economy."

Corn growers vigorously dispute that ethanol has been more than a minor factor in the food price rise. Indeed, they have been producing plenty more corn—enough to devote 44 percent more bushels to ethanol while increasing corn exports 11 percent and keeping bushels devoted to feed and food about level in 2007. But many economists say that with so much of the corn crop now devoted to ethanol—23 percent, compared with 7 percent in 2001—the price of corn is following the price of oil upward. Since grains are substituted all over the world, they say corn's rise has indirectly contributed to the rise of other grains.

But the corn ethanol lobby makes a key point: "The crises the world is facing today—food, economic, or environmental—all have a common denominator: the ever tightening world oil market," says Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. That's why some are calling for greater investment in the next generation of biofuels—those made from nonedible sources such as grass, timber waste, and even algae. The U.S. Department of Energy, cofunding several plants that aim to produce this "cellulosic ethanol," predicts commercial production in 2012.

Improve Food Aid

wrenching photographs of emaciated children. Money to help them. Most Americans, if they think at all about food aid, know the basics but probably don't ever consider the logistics of how aid is collected, transported, and distributed. Nearly all foreignbound food aid given out by the United States—some $2 billion annually—comes from the surpluses of American crops; that's what Congress requires. Typically, the surplus commodities are purchased by the U.S. government, loaded onto U.S. carriers, and shipped to an intermediate destination, often thousands of miles away. There the food is handed over to a humanitarian agency, which transports it to its final location and sells it at a greatly reduced price or gives it away.

Many aid organizations, however, have begun to view this process as inefficient or counterproductive. Shipping Texas-grown sorghum to an African refugee camp can take five to six months and can incur substantial fuel costs. Says the charity Oxfam America: "While America provides half of the world's food aid, this generosity is undermined by legal restrictions and bureaucracy, as food aid must be purchased in the U.S. and transported on U.S.-flagged ships." And because of budget rules, even if Congress authorizes the $770 million of emergency food aid just requested by President Bush, the money won't be available until October, when the new fiscal year begins.

Worse, some agencies fear that developing economies are being hurt long term by the unintended consequences of U.S. aid policy. The prolonged presence of American commodities in struggling countries, they argue, overwhelms local markets and drives down prices, making local farmers less likely to expand production and improve yields. In part for that reason, care, one of the world's largest charities, announced it would begin phasing out U.S. government financing.

A better form of aid, some experts say, would be not food but money to buy it. Cash, says World Food Program spokesperson Jennifer Parmelee, "enables us to purchase closer to the area in which we want to deliver the food, which means it will be at a lower price, it will cost less to transport it, and it gets there faster."