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September 22, 2008

Food security hopes built on GM crops are misplaced

by Jeneen Interlandi

This year some 900 million people—including 178 million children under 5—are suffering from malnutrition, estimates the United Nations; every day 50,000 starve to death. As the world community scans the horizon for solutions to world hunger, it is seeing visions of amber fields of genetically modified grain. Just as the development of high-yielding rice and other crops created the green revolution of the 1960s and saved tens of millions of people from starvation, so genetically modified crops are the great hope of the 21st century.

GM crops, however, are likely to feed about as many people as Miss America. A new report by agriculture experts from 60 nations foresees "a limited role for biotech crops" in reducing world hunger. (Biotech companies withdrew from the project in protest.)

The problems? Yields for GM varieties, in which genes for desirable traits are spliced into a plant's DNA, are unpredictable and often lower than high-yield varieties bred without genetic engineering. GM seeds, which are patent-protected, cost more than the poor can afford (high-yielding varieties of the 1960s green revolution are not patented). The know-how and conditions required to cultivate GM crops hardly exist in Africa or South Asia, the world's hunger hot spots, where farmers can't even eke out subsistence yields of ordinary crops.

Low-tech aid, not cutting-edge science, therefore has the best chance of both feeding the malnourished today and setting farmers on a path to growing enough to eat (and perhaps sell) tomorrow. The adage says giving a man a fish lets him eat today but giving him a fishing rod lets him eat every day; the 900 million need both fish and rods.

The most beneficial and cost-effective immediate aid? Providing micronutrients—vitamins and minerals such as iodine, zinc and iron—to kids. The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of economists who take a hard-nosed look at the costs and benefits of a variety of save-the-world proposals, concluded in May that providing vitamin A and zinc supplements to malnourished infants and toddlers under 2 would cost $60 million annually. That would bring a return in lives saved, diseases averted and cognitive benefits gained of just over $1 billion. Providing iron and iodized salt would cost $286 million a year, with benefits of $2.7 billion. Doctors Without Borders is launching a campaign to provide a fortified supplement—it's a sort of spread—that is packed with the required nutrients and, crucially, does not require refrigeration.

The embrace of micronutrients represents a radical change for food aid. "For the last 40 years, there has been very little effort to figure out what works and what doesn't, or to see how we can improve the effectiveness of food aid," says Buddhima Lokuge of Doctors Without Borders.

What doesn't work? Providing malnourished children with blended wheat or corn flour, as donors still do, is a near disaster: the flours typically do not contain dairy compounds (they were dropped in the 1980s, when milk surpluses in donor countries dried up) but do include soy, which inhibits kids' ability to absorb nutrients such as zinc, explains Lokuge.

Another fiasco is buying food at home, as U.S. law requires, rather than where the hungry live. "Half of what you spend on food for the needy goes to transport," says

Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, "so you can buy 50 percent less." And for the fishing rod? In Africa, just 5 percent of the land that could grew high-yielding rice from the green revolution—a decades-old technology—is doing so. A big reason is soils so depleted they cannot sustain the high-yielding varieties. Fertilizer, which has soared in price in tandem with oil, is beyond the means of most subsistence farmers in Africa today.

But here, too, there are low-tech answers. Planting nitrogen-fixing trees, a technique developed by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, supplies soils with that crucial nutrient. But to make it work, says Oxfam's Offenheiser, "you need institutions that provide agricultural extension services," agents who advise farmers on when and how to plant new high-yield seed varieties, and what kind of soil and how much fertilizer they require.

Such a program has worked in Sauri, Kenya, a "Millennium Village" where experts are trying to implement U.N. Millennium Development Goals, including halving the percentage of people suffering from malnutrition by 2015. In Sauri, maize production has soared from 1.9 tons per hectare in 2004 to 6.2 today. (In Africa overall, yields have barely budged in 50 years, remaining stuck at about 1 ton per hectare.)

How much does that boost cost? In Sauri, which has 5,300 people, only $50,000, or about $10 per person a year. "The boost of farm productivity has very often been the deus ex machina that triggers the long-term growth process," economist Jeffrey Sachs, president of the institute, argues in his 2008 book "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." Hunger stands in the way of every other development goal: malnourished children can't learn, and starving adults can't work.


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