BOSTON — Leaders from 100 nations meet in Rome this week to pledge their nations' help to cut in half the number of undernourished people around the world in the next two decades.
The world's farmers are scurrying to keep pace with a growing number of mouths to feed. But the number of hungry is only slowly shrinking, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Without concerted action, the UN agency estimates that 680 million people will still be counted among the ranks of the malnourished in 2015 - only a 19 percent decline from today's 840 million.
The meeting comes at a time when research aimed at helping farmers in less-developed countries is shifting emphasis.
In the past, specialists say, research has focused on improving high-value foods such as wheat, corn, or rice. These crops favor large-scale growers who planted single crops. While research to improve these commodities will continue, more effort is being focused on the problems facing farmers with fewer acres.
In the past 30 years, "We've more than doubled the yield of major commodities by learning how to make plants more responsive to external inputs, such as fertilizer," says Alex McCalla, director of the World Bank's Agriculture and Natural Resources Department.
As if to underscore the point, the US Department of Agriculture Nov. 12 raised its forecast for the US corn and soybean crops. It estimates that this year's corn harvest will come in at 9.27 billion bushels, the third-largest on record, while soybeans, at 2.4 billion bushels, would be the second-largest harvest for that commodity ever.
"A significant increase in [world] output," Mr. McCalla continues, "also came from expanding the number of irrigated acres. But there aren't many places left to expand into. So the problem becomes: How can you double yields again on the same area of land" and in a more environmentally benign way?
This question is prompting researchers to pay closer attention to finding ways to help farmers get the most out of local resources. "This is a real change in research philosophy," Mr. McCalla says. "Most of the developing world's agriculture is in complex farming systems [where] in a 2-hectare [5 acre] plot you may see sweet potatoes, yams, cassavas, and bananas."
Referring to the success of the Green Revolution, "now we have to figure out the more difficult problems of dry-land production," says Peter McPherson, the president of Michigan State University, who served as administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from 1981 to 1987.
Some approaches using local resources, such as finding the most effective way to recycle nutrients into the soil, may be simple. "I've just come back from Malawi," McCalla says, "where farmers have a heavy investment in livestock. But they don't compost or use the manure as fertilizer."
Other approaches are more complex. Scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have crossed an Ethiopian breed of cow with breeds from Europe. The result: a heftier cow that can pull plows and perform other heavy tasks without reducing its ability to calve and give milk.
Biotechnology holds the potential to speed the development of crops more forgiving of pests and harsh conditions. For example, a plant geneticist at the US Department of Agriculture's Plant Genetics Research Unit in Columbia, Mo., last month reported finding a gene in rye that carries the code for a protein that prevents the plant's roots from absorbing aluminum, a toxin in acidic soil.
Acidic soil is widespread in the tropics, accounting for 51 percent of the land in Latin America, 38 percent in Africa, and 27 percent in Asia, according to the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a 52-nation consortium sponsored by the World Bank and three UN agencies. Incorporating rye's anti-aluminum gene into wheat could extend its range into now unusable tropical grasslands.
Scientists at CGIAR's 16 agricultural research centers worldwide have produced higher yields in a variety of crops, underscoring the way research has helped feed the hungry during the past two decades. For example:
*Rice. Yields have grown from 2.3 million metric tons per hectare to 3.6 million metric tons, a 56 percent increase.
Now scientists at the group's International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are working on a new strain of "super rice" that at a projected 13 tons per hectare could nearly double the yield of current varieties.
*Wheat. This vital cereal grain bloomed from 1.2 million metric tons per hectare to 2.6 million metric tons, increasing by 116.6 percent. Now researchers are looking for genes in wild grasses that when "spliced" into wheat's genetic structure will help it defend itself against pests and tough growing conditions.
*Corn. From 1.5 million metric tons per hectare in 1970, corn yields have risen by 80 percent to 2.7 million metric tons per hectare. And scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside Mexico City have developed a drought-resistant variety that researchers estimate could boost yields by another 30 percent.
Not all new approaches are warmly embraced. For all of its promise, biotechnology attracts regular protests. In Europe, Greenpeace demonstrators recently protested in Belgium over imports of genetically engineered soybeans from the United States.
Still, specialists say that the research orchard is not fully harvested. "The scientific community is fairly optimistic that science will pay off and the technology will be developed" to further improve yields, says Kenneth Frey, a professor emeritus of agronomy at Iowa State University in Ames.
Yet "increased yields alone will not be enough to feed everyone 30 years from now," warns Ismail Serageldin, CGIAR's chairman and the World Bank's vice president for environmentally sustainable development. The danger, several agricultural economists say, is that in the face of cheap food, at least for the developed world, complacency may set in. Countries may continue to stick to policies that remove incentives for farmers to invest and produce.
"There's good evidence that in countries that directly or indirectly discriminate against agriculture, you won't get much of a response" to new research, the World Bank's McCalla says.
Such antifarming policies include direct taxes on agriculture or high tariffs on products farmers need. "We've seen significant reforms in Uganda," he continues, "and there's a real chance that it could take off." The country's leaders stopped taxing agricultural products, encouraged private markets, and lowered tariffs, he says.
Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, argues that social policy also comes into play. Based on his organization's forecasts of dwindling resources such as land, irrigation water, and fisheries, he sees education of women in less-developed countries and family planning as the key to reducing birthrates to enable the world to feed its people in the next 30 years.
To several economists, however, declining investment in agriculture research is particularly troubling. "Spending for agriculture research saw rapid growth in the 1960s," says Philip Pardey, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "In the late '70s, it began to stagnate in real terms. And the '80s and '90s have seen actual declines."
The situation is particularly acute in Africa, the continent with the greatest needs. Mr. Pardey points out that in 1961, 19 African nations surveyed spent $260 million, in 1991 dollars. That peaked in 1981 at $701 million. By 1991, spending on agricultural R&D in Africa had slipped back to $680 million, he says.
Nor did the decline reflect more efficient spending. "The 1980s was a period ... when countries cut public spending to qualify for international loans," Pardey says. "These countries made very few attempts to distinguish between what government ought to do and what it shouldn't do. They just cut across the board."
Government research money also is drying up in the developed world, including the US. In an age of national-budget angst, McCalla notes, research is a tough sell, in part because it takes so long to see a return on investment. For example, at the CGIAR meeting in Washington in late October, "we gave a prize to one of the centers for developing mildew-resistant millet," McCalla says. "That was a 21-year program. It takes 10 to 20 years for a new variety to go from research to the field."
Private research plays a role
Businesses are picking up some of the slack. "There are areas where the private sector will do the [research] work," Dr. McPherson says. "Monsanto's stock is up this year; the market is saying it's the result of the company's biotechnology work. On cash crops, you'll find companies doing a substantial amount of research work. But where there is no private capital, where farmers do not grow things to sell to anyone else, we need to focus on this."
Ironically, McPherson notes, research is being cut at a time when information technologies are making research within developing countries easier and potentially cheaper. The World Bank, the US National Science Foundation, USAID, and other agencies are spending money to bring the information superhighway to less-developed nations. Access to information, combined with biotechnology, he says, will be a powerful tool in helping scientists in these countries feed the hungry.