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How science could spark a second Green Revolution

To fight poverty and overpopulation, crops need coaxing. Advances in deep-root food plants may trigger a new Green Revolution.

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An important test case may come in the form of a new GM crop, a drought-tolerant corn variety being developed by the Monsanto Company for use in the US. But while Mr. Rosegrant sees GM crops as an "important" part of the solution, he adds, "there has to be a lot of mainstream crop breeding as well, not just one or the other."

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GM or not, new crop varieties are just one part of the equation in Africa, Dr. Juma says. Also important are factors like developing road networks so that farmers have a faster way to bring crops to market. Farmers equipped with cellphones can check on market prices, receive weather forecasts, or even learn about new seeds or farming techniques.

For models of self-sufficiency, Juma points to Malawi and China. Malawi, a small landlocked country in Africa and one of the continent's poorest nations, has helped its farmers become more productive by building roads and introducing new farming techniques. The president, Bingu wa Mutharika, appointed himself minister of agriculture in order to ensure that food production would be a top government priority and that government ministries would work in concert, Juma says.

"There's absolutely no reason why other African countries can't do it" too, he says. In January, Mr. Mutharika was appointed chairman of the African Union, representing 53 countries. His slogan: "Feeding Africa through new technologies."

China's dramatic turnaround from being a food importer to having the ability to essentially feed itself is also "going to continue to be very instructive for African countries," Juma says.

The key to China's dramatic improvement has been investment in research and training, says Mark Alley, a professor of agriculture at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and past president of the American Society of Agronomy. But in their all-out drive to increase production, the Chinese have also "created some problems," he says. "They've pumped some aquifers dry in the north China plain, for example."

As the world steps up production, "We have to protect the water and air quality. And we have to produce safe and nutritious food," Dr. Alley says. Keeping a large portion of the Earth's surface under cultivation is not an option. "The alternative is that we starve. And that's not an alternative," he says. So better yields and sustainable practices must go hand in hand.

Alley remains optimistic that new technologies and techniques will meet the situation. In the US in the early 1900s, he points out, an acre of corn yielded about 25 bushels. Last year, an acre of corn produced an average of 162 bushels.

But sending surplus US grain to places like Africa, while an immediate help, does nothing to make Africans more self-sufficient. As the Chinese proverb puts it, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

The nice thing about improving seeds: They can be sent to a place like Africa and "nothing else has to happen," Lynch says. Farmers don't need specialized training in how to use them or need to apply more water or fertilizer to get better results.

"In Mozambique, where we work, 70 percent of the population are subsistence farmers" earning less than $1 a day, Lynch says. "They live in mud huts. They don't have shoes. They don't know how to read and write. They rarely see outsiders or get help from their own government. Many don't even live near a road. They live on what they plant in the ground and eat.

"So if we can improve their yield 10 or 20 percent with better seed," he says, "maybe they can feed their kids more, maybe they can even sell some of their crop and begin to climb out of this poverty trap."