World Hunger Requires Research, Not Rancor

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While many Americans are worrying about not gaining weight during the holiday season, one-sixth of our planet's population is in danger of malnutrition, not obesity. As the U.N. World Food Program recently reported, more than a billion people do not get enough food to be healthy. Even more alarmingly, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared, some six million children die of hunger every year. Even here in the United States, in the midst of the recession, almost 50 million Americans are having a hard time feeding themselves and their children.

A half-century ago, when similar problems loomed, the Green Revolution -- and the worldwide network of research agencies that grew out of it -- created new higher-yielding, disease-resistant food crops for the areas of the world that most needed them.

But today, rather than uniting in a global effort to end hunger, we're settling into the same old "I'm right, you're wrong" camps. Environmentalists see only the negatives from the first Green Revolution: heavy use of environmentally unfriendly pesticides and fertilizers, and fewer options for small farmers in poor countries. Agriculture advocates point out that hunger and starvation would be even more widespread today without the advances from the 1960s and '70s and call for more of the same.

As with most other controversial issues, the debate is not so much about the final goal but about how to get there. Global food issues, however, are so urgent that we cannot afford the luxury of lengthy ideological arguments. With so much starvation and an ever increasing world population, we simply need more nutritious food, especially in developing countries, plus a viable distribution network. At the same time, the amount of land devoted to agriculture worldwide is decreasing for a variety of reasons, and climate changes could create droughts or floods in some now-arable land.

The answer, it seems obvious, is to produce more and better food from the available land, or in economic terminology, to increase agricultural productivity. One of the keys to solving the hunger problem over the last 40 years has been agricultural productivity growth, or the rate at which productivity increases each year. It has slowed dramatically from the glory days of the mid-20th century. Innovation and research back then enabled farmers around the world to grow enough food for an expanding population. Much of that research was funded by the U.S. government as well as other nations, NGOs and private foundations, and history shows that such investments do pay off in new crops and higher productivity.

Since then, in the U.S. and other developed-world countries, the burden for funding agricultural research has largely shifted to the private, for-profit sector. While such funded research can make important discoveries, those discoveries tend not to be shared with others, for competitive or profit-based reasons. That's understandable, but unfortunate for the parts of the world that have unique or persistent problems feeding their citizens and that can't afford to conduct their own research.

Economists who study food issues say the worldwide drop in productivity is a red flag: potential shortages of soybeans, rice, wheat and maize, the world's primary grains, are a real possibility. Add in ballooning populations in poor countries, and you have the potential for a global disaster.

Philanthropists are making positive change. At the recent World Food Prize symposium, for example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke eloquently about making small-holder farming more productive and profitable, and about finding ways to make the next Green Revolution truly sustainable and environmentally sound. He and his wife, Melinda, have made agricultural development a key initiative in their Gates Foundation, which is funding hundreds of innovative new ideas. The work of the Gates Foundation and other philanthropists can help make progress, but as a nation, we also must contribute for this greater global good.

Federal investment in agricultural research for the 21st century is critical. Research funding must be targeted specifically for food productivity research, and it must also take into account environmental concerns about the use of pesticides and fertilizers as well as how water supplies can most wisely be used. And the investment must come soon; new agricultural innovations can take years, even decades, to be widely adopted.

If, for once, Americans can avoid the usual bickering and personal attacks, we won't be too late.

Allen S. Levine is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Director of the Minnesota Obesity Center at the University of Minnesota. J. Brian Atwood is dean of the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota and a former Administrator of USAID. The views the authors express are their own and do not reflect an official position of the University of Minnesota.