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

You Can't Eat Potential

The passing of Norman Borlaug last month closed the chapter on an exemplary life of service to humankind. Dr. Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and acknowledged "father" of the Asian Green Revolution, is credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives by breeding high yielding wheat varieties that spread throughout Asia during the 1960s and 70s. Inspired by Dr. Borlaug's successes, new rice types were also developed and widely adopted. As a result, food production in Asia doubled over the subsequent 25 years, outpacing population growth. The predicted famines were averted.
Dr. Borlaug was not content with the potential that his new varieties showed for increasing food supplies. "The potential is there, but you can't eat potential," was one of his most memorable lines. Dr. Borlaug was a passionate advocate of his new varieties with governments and aid agencies, urging them in the strongest terms to support smallholder farmers with credit, fertilizer, irrigation, roads, and a fair price for their produce. Only with these multiple, coordinated investments could the genetic potential of his new varieties be realized.

Less than three months ago in L'Aquila, Italy, the G8 declared to act "with the scale and urgency needed to achieve sustainable global food security", acknowledging that adequate food is not only necessary for economic growth and social progress but, more fundamentally, is the cornerstone of political stability and peace. In a rare departure from rhetoric of vague intent, the G8 and a posse of other like-minded governments and international agencies agreed to provide $20 billion over three years for sustainable agricultural development. Such a commitment, if realized, would sharply reverse a 30 year downward trend that has seen agriculture fall from the radar of most aid agencies and governments.

In Pittsburg last Friday, the G20, endorsed the L'Aquila initiative and called on the World Bank to establish a new global fund to scale up agricultural assistance in poor countries. In what the G20 communique called "this historic effort", the new fund would require country ownership, bring in the private sector and NGOs, and allow rapid disbursement of money, breaking through the bureaucracy that has plagued past efforts to deliver aid promises.

So why invest in agriculture? Why now? What happened to Dr. Borlaug's Green Revolution?
The answer is that we have been complacent, a condition that Dr. Borlaug warned us about in his Oslo acceptance address almost 30 years ago. In Asia, agricultural productivity has slowed, and in Africa, per capita food production has declined steadily for 40 years. As a result, one in every six people on earth is hungry. And malnutrition is implicated in about 40% of the 11 million deaths of children under five in developing countries.

For most, hunger and malnutrition are not the results of war or catastrophic events like droughts or floods. This is chronic hunger and malnutrition that perennially affects poor people, leaving them unable to produce or buy the food they need to stay healthy, go to school, undertake a day's work, or simply live with dignity. Global food shortages in 2007 and 2008 and, more recently, the global financial crisis, have plunged millions more into a state of extreme vulnerability and dependency on food aid and other forms of emergency assistance. The World Bank reported that despite sharp declines in commodity prices in the wake of the economic slowdown, food prices in August 2009 were almost 60 percent higher than in 2005. Thus, through a combination of benign neglect of agriculture and financial mismanagement, the planet is fast running out of food.

The global epicenter of chronic hunger is Africa. One in three Africans is undernourished. Most are not living in war zones or refugee camps. The bulk of Africa's hungry and malnourished live on farms of less than two hectares. Typically, these small farms have lost their soil fertility through years of cropping without the benefits of fertilizer, improved seed or irrigation. There has been no Green Revolution here. And there have been no surpluses to store or sell.

The good news for the G20 - and for humanity - is that chronic hunger in Africa and other hot-spots, like Haiti, Afghanistan and Timor Leste, can be ended within a few years with targeted investments based on our current knowledge. This was the unanimous conclusion of several recent expert reports, including those of the UN Millennium Project (2006), the Irish Hunger Task Force (2008), an independent Advisory Group to the Madrid Conference on Food Security (2009), and the UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis (2008/9). These reports, representing the analyses and conclusions of hundreds of scientists, practitioners and policy experts from international organizations, governments, civil society organizations and the private sector, concluded that small-scale farmers hold the key to ending hunger and malnutrition. The experts have done their work. We know what's needed. It's now time to put those recommendations into action.

Illustrating this point, the Government of Malawi, over the past four years, has demonstrated beyond any doubt that investing in small-scale farmers not only brings national food security but enhances economic growth. According to the IMF, Malawi's growth rate in 2008 was a remarkable 9.7%, with the maize crop acknowledged as an important contributor. This year throughout Malawi, men, women and children harvested the country's fourth successive bumper crop - a whopping 3.7 million tons of maize, enough to feed the country for a year and provide over a million tons to its neighbors.
After the disastrous harvest of 2005, the then newly elected (and to nobody's surprise, recently reelected) President Bingu wa Mutharika declared "enough is enough" to his nation's regular call for emergency food aid. For each of the past four seasons, around half of the country's 3.4 million small-scale farmers has received improved maize seed and fertilizer at sharply discounted prices through a national voucher program. Farmers responded to this programme by doubling their yields and exceeding the national maize requirements. In all likelihood, Malawi will be a food donor to the region this year, as it was two years ago in supplying impoverished Zimbabwe with 300,000 tons of grain.

Malawi's experience is inspiring similar efforts through the continent, including in neighboring Tanzania, which this year launched its own fertilizer voucher program reaching 700,000 farmers through a private sector agro-dealer network. The governments in both Malawi and Tanzania have taken bold steps to increase smallholder production in a time of reduced tax revenues, declining overseas remittances and faltering donor assistance. There are at least a dozen other countries across Africa that have plans to begin similar program with the potential to boost agriculture and reduce hunger sharply. Decades of agricultural research, means that the knowledge exists to produce, protect and market more food. But we should not ask governments to cut back on health, education and road-building programs in order to finance agriculture. We need to invest in all these areas simultaneously and without further delay.

The L'Aquila commitment of $20 billion over 3 years, if realized, represents less than one third of the unmet promise made at Gleneagles by the same G8 to double aid to Africa. A year from now, the world's leaders will gather in New York to reflect on progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. In terms of the hunger goal, we are actually in a worse state today than we were when the MDGs were agreed by 189 nations in 2000. We have to seize the moment and grasp the opportunity that L'Aquila and Pittsburg have provided.

The new agriculture fund - perhaps called the Borlaug Fund - could produce results within a year without the need to cut back investments in other crucial development areas. With the United States and a few committed partners showing the way with hard cash, early successes could inspire other aid agencies to step up and deliver on past promises. By tackling hunger at its roots, there would be no better way to continue the work and honor the life of the great Nobel laureate. If we get this right, food-insecure nations will at last have the resources they need to end hunger.