U.S. government seeks new solutions to combat global hunger crisis

Proposals include improved seed types, better roads, and more-efficient irrigation systems.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Relief: Carlos Gutierrez, US Commerce secretary, addressed the media in Miami last month, and discussed the United States' attempt to provide food and aid to Cuba after hurricane Ike.
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Insufficient food production is one factor in the food crisis hitting much of the developing world – yet it is also true that some African farmers see 70 percent of their production lost before it reaches the market.

And irrigation will be part of the answer to feeding hungry populations – even though in much of Africa 90 percent of freshwater already goes to agriculture.

Solving such conundrums will be the key to meeting the world's food needs, says Henrietta Fore, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, or USAID.

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The world faces a food security crisis that this year spawned riots in parts of the developing world, and is expected to challenge the world's poor with high prices for at least the next half-decade, she says.

"Food production is one challenge, but many of the problems are not actually the production of food but things like transportation, storage, and efficient use of resources," says Ms. Fore, who took the US effort in the food crisis to the United Nations to coincide with a global summit last week on ending global poverty by 2015. "In many ways it's a matter of getting the solutions that exist out there."

But the overseer of the US government's $5.5 billion program for fighting global hunger also says the world has something of a road map for the challenge in the first Green Revolution of the 1960s. The difference this time, she and others involved in the US effort add, will be the participation of the private companies with the know-how for meeting many of the specific problems.

"The first [Green Revolution] was all the public sector," says Elsa Murano, president of Texas A&M University, one of the universities that spawned the first revolution in food production that transformed parts of Asia in particular. "The second has to add the private sector to it."

Part of the $1.8 billion increase in food security aid President Bush announced this year targets emergency needs in places like Haiti, Egypt, and sub-Saharan Africa.

Some countries, like Haiti, were hit by devastating storms, while others were hit by suddenly sharper food prices. The US has offered aid to Cuba in response to recent storms there, but so far the government has refused it.

But another part, Fore says, will go toward addressing the problem with solutions such as improved seed types, better roads, more efficient irrigation systems, and technology transfers involving things like cold-storage facilities.

"All these areas are where our private partners come in," says Fore, who held a series of discussions on "agriculture partnerships" in New York.

One participant was Monsanto chairman Hugh Grant, who speaks enthusiastically of new corn varieties that will “sip water instead of gulping it,” and of a “technology skip” that will allow African countries to benefit from the next generation of high-yield seeds and other agricultural technologies.

Discussing world hunger is often “a depressing conversation, but I don’t think it should be,” says Mr. Grant. Recalling a time when the world wondered “if India would ever be able to feed itself,” he adds, “Now we almost take for granted an expansion in India’s economy that’s happened in a generation.”

The companies like Monsanto, John Deere and Cargill participating in USAID’s partnerships are not acting on “pure philanthropy,” Grant says. In a similar way, the US is not simply acting out of compassion when it spends billions on world hunger.

In response to concerns about American food assistance in the midst of a deep financial crisis, Fore says "Our aid will continue to move because it's a reflection of the compassion of the American people."

Others note that America's national interests are also served when global hunger and poverty fall.

"We want to lift all the boats," says Texas A&M's President Murano, "because it's in our national security interest to do so."

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