Closing the Hunger Gap

September 8, 2010 11:18 AM

Innovation. It keeps agriculture moving forward in a world that also does not stand still. While advances from hybrid seeds to genetically modified crops have kept yields moving upward, the prospect of the world population doubling by 2050 and a finite supply of land to produce food and fiber present new obstacles for world agriculture.

The challenge has attracted the attention of a surprisingly diverse mix of U.S. and global companies, which in turn have formed the Global Harvest Initiative. The coalition includes: Archer Daniels Midland, John Deere, Conservation International, DuPont, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, Monsanto Company, TransFarm Africa Corridors Network and World Wildlife Fund.

The Global Harvest Initiative will focus on three key goals:

  • Increase the supply and improve the distribution of food to eliminate the productivity gap.


  • Prevent deforestation and the use of fragile lands for production to help ensure long-term sustainability.


  • Protect freshwater resources through improved plant technology and irrigation efficiency, as water supplies are predicted to tighten as population expands.

By addressing the humanitarian aspect of world hunger, the group hopes to promote political stability and a safer world. It also hopes to use technology to advance production agriculture around the globe, addressing infrastructure issues without doing environmental damage.

Boosting crop yields alone isn’t enough, noted Christopher Dowswell at a Washington, D.C., symposium held by the group. Dowswell worked for more than 30 years with the late Norman Borlaug to address the problem of world hunger.

“In attempting to bring the Green Revolution to Africa, for instance, agricultural experts developed impressive packages of technology during the 1980s that, on farmers’ demonstration plots, produced yields two to three times higher than average,” Dowswell said. “Yet a Green Revolution failed to take off because Africa, unlike Asia and parts of Latin America, lacked roads, railroads, power grids, irrigation systems, market institutions to deliver seed and fertilizer and to handle the increased harvests, and farmer incentives from governments to encourage modernization.”

From a farmer and policy perspective, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who serves on the Senate Ag Committee and as the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says: “World peace will not be built on empty stomachs or human misery; a world in which 40% of the total population is marginalized in the global economy is not one where peace or environmental stewardship will prosper.” He adds: “Modern agriculture is not the nemesis of the environment or socioeconomic development; rather, it is one of their greatest allies.”

Members of the group have developed and written several papers to address the issue of closing the hunger/productivity gap. Lugar co-authored a portion of a Global Harvest Initiative effort with Borlaug, but Borlaug passed away before a final text could be developed. Dowswell stepped in to help.

Ideas abound. Roughly two dozen agencies have a role in making decisions about U.S. foreign aid, Lugar notes, which has meant that the focus has often been on technical decisions “at the expense of a larger vision.”

What will the Global Harvest Initiative do with the input gathered from the companies involved? Bill Lesher, executive director of the group, says it will examine a number of options to help close the productivity/hunger gap, “probably 25 to 30 options.” He expects the group will pare that to 10 or 15 efforts and share those with nongovernmental organizations to determine which will be most effective. The group will then settle on two to four options to advocate. Lesher says these may not be “traditional” ideas, either.

Given the challenges that face the U.S. and the world from a hunger and stability perspective, it’s important to think outside the box.

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