09/22/2011 03:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

Hope In The Face Of Hunger: Women, Micronutrients, Conservation Could Fend Off Food Insecurity

In the coming months, an estimated 750,000 Somalian people face starvation due to severe drought and famine.

"The Horn of Africa is huge wake up call," Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a room full of world leaders convening in New York City this week for activities around the United Nations General Assembly session, including the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting. One of the major topics of conversation: how to strengthen global agriculture to fend off future food crises.

Agricultural yields must increase 70 percent by 2050 in order to meet the global demand for food, the United Nations estimates. "This is a very serious challenge," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a panel discussion tied to the assembly session on Monday.

But she and other speakers also expressed their hope in a range of solutions, from a greater focus on women, micro-nutrients and environmental sustainability, to creating less waste.

The first step is to start investing. "We've spent decades saying that agriculture is not important," Shah said. After the success of the Green Revolution, investments in African agriculture dropped sharply during the 1970s. And by and large, the investments that were made "didn't work," said Shah, noting that the U.S. simply sent over the tools, such as tractors, that now sit unused atop cinder blocks.

The $3 billion Feed the Future Initiative, launched in 2009 by the USAID, intends to reestablish that investment, while also listening and responding to the needs of local farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

"Up until now, many of us have been making the case on moral, cultural, social and political grounds," said Secretary Clinton. "We've seen progress, but making the case on economic grounds is what finally begins to open minds and change policies."

Secretary Clinton called women -- who it turns out make up the majority of these farmers in many developing countries -- a "major untapped resource," and noted that the U.S. is allocating $5 million this year for a new gender program within the Feed The Future campaign.

"It comes down to a simple matter of numbers," she said. Women are involved in every aspect of agriculture production -- from planting seeds to weeding fields to harvesting crops. Yet, on average, they are 30 percent less productive than men. The disadvantage results from less access to training, fertilizer, tools and quality seeds, she noted. Further, men are almost always the landowners.

"It's a vicious cycle," added Secretary Clinton. "If all farmers, men and women, had access to the same resources, we could increase agricultural output by 20 to 30 percent. That would feed an additional 150 million people every year."

Further, if women are involved in designing new agricultural technologies, according to several studies, they would be more apt to adopt them and overall productivity would increase faster. And this investment in women farmers could pay off for generations, as women and their children would enjoy better nutrition and financial security, said Secretary Clinton. At the same time, more money would be fed into the local economy.

Jakaya Kikwete, President of the United Republic of Tanzania and fellow panelist, agreed. "The crux of matter is that women are the major labor force for agriculture in Tanzania," he said. "But men will take the crops to the market and take the money and decide how to spend that money."

Kathy Spawn, President and CEO of Helen Keller International, added that women are more likely to use the funds to purchase nutritious foods for her children. Of course, women may not always have enough money or knowledge to fulfill that goal. To save money, they may purchase cheaper staple foods that deprive their families of the nutrients essential to children's growth and health.

"Calories are important, but they are not enough," Spawn said. "People need foods that have vitamins and nutrients in them."

"A lot of the statistics that countries publish have to do with calories," Vinita Ball, managing director and CEO of Britannia Industries, said during a Wednesday panel at CGI. She noted that 70 percent of school children in India are malnourished or undernourished.

Micro-nutrients such as iron and vitamin A are particularly crucial for young children and women of reproductive age. "We're missing the boat on the importance of micro-nutrients," added Monday's moderator and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "We should be building statues to zinc."

Or, perhaps, at least building micro-nutrients into foods, hinted other speakers. "Food fortification is a very, very sound way to actually start addressing part of micro-nutrient deficiencies," said Ball. "Fortifying flour doesn't cost a lot."

Meanwhile, decisions about what crops to plant goes beyond nutrition, and can significantly impact the land and natural environment. Trade-offs are often at play.

In a separate talk on Tuesday, former president Bill Clinton highlighted the example of sugarcane production in Brazil. While the plant can provide one of the most efficient biofuels in the world, it also monopolizes a lot of deep top soil. As a result, sugarcane can push the farming of soy beans and cattle into the rainforests.

"It's a tale of dueling environmentalism," he said.

Yolanda Kakabadse, president of World Wildlife Fund International, underscored the importance of preserving tropical rainforests from over-expansion of the "agricultural frontier," as well as warned of the need to think about water use in agriculture.

"In 90 percent of cases, we find, we are depleting water unnecessarily," she said on Wednesday's panel. We're not looking after our main resource for future production. It should be at the top of the list."

Another key to a sustainable food system, according to Kakabadse, is eliminating waste. More than 40 percent of packaged food that we purchase in supermarkets is tossed out, she said. Often, the food is still in perfect condition.

"There are regulations that set the expiration dates with the most silly criteria," added Kakabadse. "The consumer culture has led all of us not to look at product, but at the label. And so we throw it away. That's crazy."

"It might be good for some businesses," she said, "but it's a terrible business for humanity."