Global food prices have roughly doubled in three years. At the World Food Summit in Rome in early June, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recalled that on a trip to Liberia he encountered people who had once bought rice by the bag and whose cash now suffices for a meager cupful. The current crisis means that another 100 million hungry may join the 854 million who already lack sufficient daily nourishment.
An immediate response should include policies that discourage grain hoarding, that reapportion the way food aid is delivered and that ensure that subsidies for food purchases are carefully targeted to reach the truly poor. Just shipping more grain to Africa, by far the most vulnerable region, will not suffice. Over the long haul, science and technology have a big role to play. Finding nonfood substitutes for ethanol produced from corn or sugarcane would help. But the only lasting solution to hunger in Africa and elsewhere must focus on poor agricultural productivity.
U.S. secretary of agriculture Ed Schafer called on participants at the summit to consider the use of biotechnology to grow crops with higher yields that are capable of resisting assaults from inclement weather, disease or pests. Some activists, invoking fears about genetic manipulation of food crops, have jumped on the administration’s stance as pandering to agribusiness and overhyping benefits from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
That criticism is unfounded. Nongovernmental organizations that advocate exporting the organic food movement to Africa are at best misguided. Much of Africa practices what political scientist Robert Paarlberg calls “de facto organic farming,” and overall productivity has plummeted. African small farmers achieve crop yields only one third of those obtained by farmers in developing countries in Asia. GMOs have the potential to increase productivity by incorporating beneficial traits that would, for one, allow crops to thrive even when rain is a rare event.
The Bush administration, never a beacon of enlightened social policymaking, would have come across more convincingly if it had incorporated biotechnology into a well-defined framework of research and development assistance. At the moment, genetically modifying cassava or cowpeas against viruses or insects is akin to producing hydrogen fuel cells in the energy arena. Both hold tremendous promise, and both are not ready for wide commercial dissemination.
The best hope for improving African crop yields today would be to borrow technology from the decades-old green revolution that transformed agriculture in Asia and Latin America. Using conventionally bred hybrid seeds, farmers in certain fertile areas of Ethiopia have witnessed their fields turn into a breadbasket that is rivaled in the sub-Saharan region of the continent only by South Africa. Eventually these same farmers will likely demand still better yields that will leave an opening for acceptance of genetically modified crops.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (a partnership of the Rockefeller and Gates foundations) signed an agreement with three U.N. food agencies at the June summit meeting to bolster the lot of African small farmers. The Bush administration had asked in May that part of a recent aid package to address the food crisis go to agricultural development, including the planting of GMOs. More is needed, though. As the world’s largest food aid donor, the U.S. channels most of its dollars to pay for acute emergencies, a response that, by law, requires shipping crops grown in Iowa or Kansas to needy countries—largely on U.S. ships. Meanwhile the U.S. Agency for International Development’s funding for agricultural science in Africa dropped by 75 percent after inflation from the mid-1980s to 2004.
To avoid a crisis without end, we should back a program that not only delivers better seeds to African farmers but also devotes still more assistance to support improvements in soil, irrigation, roads and farmer education. Then, when necessary, we should use remaining aid money to buy either hybrid or genetically modified crops grown in African soil for local distribution. The U.S. farm lobby will howl in protest, but this action will be the best way to work toward putting African bread on African tables.