Still Searching for Solutions to World Hunger

Economists, farmers, and activists have different ideas--who's right?

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The number of hungry people in the world may crack one billion this year, according to United Nations estimates. How does a planet struggling with famine, population growth, and ecological problems feed its hungry people? The New York Times recently convened a panel of experts to propose solutions, focusing particularly on the merits and flaws of using genetically modified crops. Other writers have proposed combating hunger by fighting poverty or by increasing agricultural investment in Africa.

  • Genetic Modification the Best Solution  "The debate over genetically modified crops and food," argues Oxford economist Paul Collier in the New York Times' Room for Debate, "has been contaminated by political and aesthetic prejudices: hostility to U.S. corporations, fear of big science and romanticism about local, organic production." But "[f]ood supply," he declares, "is too important to be the plaything of these prejudices. If there is not enough food we know who will go hungry." He compares genetic modification to nuclear power: "nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative."
  • But Genetic Modification Doesn't Solve the Real Problem--Poverty, argues Raj Patel in the New York Times. He points to a study lead by the World Bank's chief scientist, finding that "genetically modified crops had failed to show much promise in feeding the world." Vandana Shiva, founder of an organic farming movement, agrees, citing another study showing that genetic modification does not increase yields. Patel proposes the following case study:
The U.S. leads the world in genetically modified agricultural technology, yet one in eight Americans is hungry. Last year, with bumper harvests, more than a billion people ate less than 1,900 calories per day. The cause of hunger today isn't a shortage of food--it's poverty.
  • Small Farms Worked Before  In the Atlantic, Carol Ann Sayle, co-founder of a small organic farm in Texas, says people always ask her "whether or not 'organic' or 'sustainable' agriculture can feed the world." No one can answer that question, she responds, "as we don't live in the time when it's being done." That said, "we have come to have this massive amount of people in the world because throughout history, countries have successfully fed themselves"
  • A Middle Way on Genetic Engineering  Futurepundit blogger Randall Parker points to how the recent FDA approval of genetically-engineered soybeans can please both industrialists and ecologists alike. The soybeans, which have been modified to produce Omega 3 fatty acids, "could be used as part of the feed for salmon and other farmed fish. This would provide the farmed fish with a source of DHA and EPA without resorting to catching fish in the ocean to feed the farmed fish as is currently done."
  • Invest in Africa  Most of these debaters seem to realize the importance of increasing yields--as Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne explains in the Atlantic, there is very little room to increase the sheer amount of farm land. Luckily, she says, '[i]n many places, yields can increase--if prices rise high enough to make investment in more-intensive agriculture worthwhile ... Sub-Saharan Africa, despite its long history of food insecurity, is one place where yields could increase dramatically; agricultural basics such as good seed and fertilizer would go far in a region that the green revolution bypassed." A bonus:
Agricultural investment in Africa--and in a few other high-potential places such as Ukraine and Russia--may be the world's best bet for keeping food plentiful and cheap. This investment could bring other benefits too; the World Bank estimates that agricultural development is twice as effective at reducing poverty as other sources of growth. In Asia, as cereal yields rose, poverty rates plummeted.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.