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James C. Borel

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To Feed the World, Think Locally -- and Act Locally

Posted: 10/14/10 06:04 PM ET

In a rare instance of good news from the front lines of world hunger, the United Nations announced last month that the number of hungry people across the globe is expected to shrink by 9.6% this year, the biggest drop in 15 years. While the trend line is heartening, most of the decline comes from the rising fortunes of millions in China. Much work remains to lift others around the world out of poverty and want.

As the global community observes World Food Day on Oct. 16, commemorating the founding of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945, the poor still face a sobering outlook. Demographers say that the planet's population will swell from six billion today to nine billion by 2050. Food production must nearly double over that time to feed the growing human family.

Advances in agricultural science can play a critical role as part of the solution. The best minds and money are funding everything from next-generation seeds to better fertilizer and weed control to close the food gap. But that's not enough. We won't solve the problem until we pay sufficient attention to a quieter, often overlooked dilemma: the potential mismatch between the location of production and the location of consumers.

It may come as a surprise, but the solution to the sweeping global problem of the food gap is not necessarily global in scope, but local. After all, record-breaking bumper crops in Iowa won't necessarily help Africans and Asians, who will account for almost all of the world's population growth in the years ahead. But boosting local food productivity will help close the gap between the haves and have-nots -- and keep food more affordable for those who need it most.

Therefore, we must find the most effective ways of moving food from farms to forks -- in other words, help people grow the food they need close to home. Right now, 85 percent of all food never leaves the country where it's produced. Countries that can't produce enough at home are at risk. Mozambique, for example, faces challenges controlling food prices because it relies heavily on food imports -- growing only 30% of the wheat it needs. Yet, elsewhere there is evidence that investment in local agriculture can pay big dividends. In Malawi, using modern breeding, molecular markers, and biotechnology, a public-private consortium helped develop high-producing maize hybrids with improved nitrogen use for degraded local soils. In 2007, Malawi increased maize production by 65 percent to a record 2.44 million metric tons.

Indeed, countries that enjoy food security share several important traits, such as high levels of investment in all aspects of agriculture -- everything from the science of research and development to the infrastructure of roads, railways, and ports. They also provide private companies with incentives to invent and to share their inventions with others through open markets. Intellectual property rights are critical, too: Innovators need the assurance that they can share the benefits of their ideas without simultaneously losing their economic rights to them.

By increasing supply, local productivity helps keep food affordable for consumers. Higher local yields also fatten the pocketbooks of local farmers and the per-capita income of the entire local economy, which can then afford to buy imports to cover any remaining food gap. After all, with growing populations, it becomes more difficult for any locale in the world to rely entirely upon local production for all its food needs.

The good news is that we're already taking great strides. Every year, science helps farmers do more with less. Cutting-edge seed companies continue to make advances in genetics and biotechnology, allowing us to increase the robustness of staple crops. Researchers are also finding ways to make crops more nutritious and environmentally sustainable. For example, Pioneer is partnering with Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International to develop new varieties of African staple crop sorghum, enriched with essential nutrients, such as lysine, vitamins A and E, iron and zinc - using technology to fight hunger, malnutrition, and poverty in Africa.

By investing in local agriculture, we can help close the twin gaps in food productivity and between the geographies of production and consumption. By doing so, there will be economic opportunities. As the demand for food grows, we'll be there to meet it.

James C. Borel is executive vice president of DuPont.