WASHINGTON — GIVE Susan McCouch a mere $200,000 and there's a good chance she and her colleagues can help save a sizeable slice of humanity from hunger.
Working with agronomists from half a dozen developing nations, Dr. McCouch and a team of plant breeders at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have discovered a process for increasing yields of rice, the world's most important and widely consumed food crop, by transferring genes from wild species to domesticated strains already in use.
By the most conservative estimates, McCouch's complicated genetic tinkering could help feed millions more people over the next quarter century. The problem is that the relatively modest amount of money needed each year to refine the technique and to adapt it for use in low-income, food-deficient countries is nowhere in sight.
McCouch's financial fix epitomizes a worrisome paradox that underlies the world's problematical food future: Even as experts are perfecting the ways, governments are failing to provide the means to keep food production apace with population growth.
"I'm very optimistic about the feasibility of eliminating food insecurity, malnutrition among children, and further degradation of natural resources by the year 2020," says Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). "But will it be done? Probably not."
The effort to keep the world fed took a giant leap forward during the 1970s and '80s, when the "Green Revolution" - a package of technologies including high-yielding crop strains, expanded irrigation, and the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides - sent grain harvests soaring.
But as 500 of the world's leading agricultural experts gathered in Washington June 13 to 15 to size up prospects for feeding the world in the year 2020, cautious optimism was tempered by stubborn facts.
Even though the world as a whole now grows more food than it eats, 800 million people - 1 in 6 worldwide - are "food insecure," meaning they do not have access to the food they need to live healthy and productive lives.
One-third of all preschool children in developing countries are malnourished.
By 2020, meanwhile, there will be 2.5 billion more people to feed than today. The population of sub-Saharan Africa, where food shortages are most acute, will double by then.
Keeping up with the fast-growing demand for food without destroying the environment will be difficult.
The Green Revolution has largely run its course. Nearly all the land that can be irrigated already is. There is little new land that can be brought under the plow. Ireland-sized chunks of farmland, meanwhile, are being lost to cultivation each year because of soil erosion.
Even so, the prospect of significantly increasing food production, without destroying the environment, is reasonably bright.
The potential to boost food output exists at both ends of the technology scale, according to the experts attending last week's conference, sponsored by IFPRI and the National Geographic Society.
Big productivity potential
At the low end are smallhold farmers who are key to food self-sufficiency in many poor nations. Their productive potential has been bottled up by pricing and monetary policies that have favored urban dwellers and exporters.
To bolster the productivity of these farmers, governments in low-income countries will have to make market reforms to encourage higher production.
They will also have to provide farmers with secure land tenure, access to credit, decent roads to get crops to market on time, and legal and economic rights for women, who now do most of the farming in Africa.
At the high end of the technology scale is molecular biology, which is where plant breeders like McCouch come in.
Other researchers are bioengineering crops to develop varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases, cold, and salt. These diminish the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
"From the point of view of the biological sciences, the possibilities for feeding the planet are quite considerable," says Hubert Zandstra, director general of the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.
The rub is that agricultural research - like building roads and providing irrigation for poor smallhold farmers - requires money. But in this era of fiscal austerity, not just in the United States but worldwide, money is in short supply.
According to IFPRI, aid for agricultural development in poor nations dropped from $12 billion to $10 billion during the 1980s. During the same period, aid to agriculture shrank from 20 to 14 percent of total overseas development assistance.
Japan alone has bucked the trend among major donors by increasing support for agriculture.
Lending by commercial banks for agriculture was cut in half in the 1980s, from $2 billion to $1 billion.
"What this means is less irrigation, less access to technology, less money for trade financing, and, even worse, less money for long-term activities like agricultural research, training, and education," says Joachim Von Braun, professor of food policy at the University of Kiel in Germany.
The implications are especially severe for biotechnology, since research on the commercially unprofitable food crops grown and consumed in developing nations relies heavily on public funding.
Contributing to the funding decreases is a widespread misimpression that the world food crisis has passed.
Surplus food stocks in Europe and North America, dramatic decreases in agricultural prices during the 1980s and early '90s, and the huge successes scored by the Green Revolution in Asia have persuaded many donors to shift funding priorities away from agriculture, often toward projects designed to alleviate poverty and preserve the environment.
The problem is that agriculture is crucial to both, experts say. A vibrant agricultural sector is a powerful engine of economic growth in developing countries, as booming East Asian nations like Taiwan and South Korea attest. And unless there is economic growth, natural resources will be at the mercy of farmers who are so desperate that they will deplete soil resources and level forests to survive.
"If farmers are poor, they will degrade the environment to survive," says Mr. Pinstrup-Andersen. "If agriculture is vibrant, they will protect the environment."
Besides shoring up small farmers and prodding agricultural research, other things will be required to keep food production apace with population growth for the next quarter century, according to recommendations issued at last week's "2020 Vision" conference.
One essential to sustained agricultural output will be governments in low-income countries that are strong and stable enough to preserve law and order and enforce property rights.
Another will be continued emphasis on programs to lower population growth and thus the number of people who will need to be fed in the future.
"The responsibility for keeping the world fed now rests more with family planners than with farmers and fishermen," says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, a private research group in Washington.
In the final analysis, experts say the world's future will be determined only partly by what can be done to expand agricultural output. It will also be determined by what is likely to be done. And at a time when rich nations have grown complacent on the subject of the world's food supply, notes Pinstrup-Andersen, what is likely to be done may not be enough.
"We've got to raise the sense of urgency," he says. "If we don't believe it's urgent, we're not going to do enough. Every day we wait means death for 40,000 children. That ought to be urgent enough."