It's nearly impossible to look away. Recent news photos and articles tell heartbreaking tales of starving children in eastern Africa -- stories of mothers forced to choose between who will live or die because there simply isn't any food.
Do the faces in those news reports show us a glimpse of our future?
Forty years from now, our world will be hotter, our cities will be more crowded and more of us will be hungry. While the current crisis was triggered by drought, infrastructure and policy changes are needed to prevent even more famine in coming decades.
As Minnesotans, it's easy to dismiss global hunger as a problem that doesn't directly affect us. And with a quarter of our state's residents now considered obese, not having enough food may seem like the least of our worries.
But we should worry. Demographers predict that by 2050, the world's population will reach 9 billion; a high percentage of those people will live in cities or climate-challenged areas where they can't grow their own food -- much like today's Somalia and its neighbors.
And as their incomes increase, people will expect not just food, but more nutritious (and, thus, more expensive) food.
Minnesota exports $5 billion worth of agricultural goods each year -- about a third of our total agricultural production, and the basis for about 40,000 jobs.
Our farmers, our agribusinesses, our nonprofits and, yes, our universities, all play key roles in global hunger prevention. Many of our newest immigrants hail from parts of the world where population and hunger are expanding fastest.
We have no choice: Minnesota must be part of the solution. These are big challenges, without one-size-fits-all answers.
But by making some reasonable -- in other words, nonideological -- policy changes, we can help mitigate this looming potential disaster. Here are five ways I believe we can reach the goal of sustainably feeding everyone:1. Support funding of agricultural research and development.
Such work will boost the productivity of farms in the United States. The resulting technologies and practices can be transferred to developing countries, along with exported food.
Between 1950 and 1990, U.S. ag productivity grew at a brisk 2 percent a year, thanks largely to publicly funded research, and American farmers made enormous breakthroughs in production, which helped feed a growing global population.
But the decline in federal agricultural research funding that began in 1980 has caught up with us, and in the last 20 years productivity has stagnated.
Why should taxpayers fund agricultural research?
Think of it like medical research: Publicly funded research from organizations like the National Institutes of Health builds a knowledge base for private companies to develop drugs and other products that have saved millions of lives.
Why can't we do the same in agriculture and food production?2. Be vigilant about the effects of climate change, disease and drought, and be prepared to work on a global level to mitigate them before they reach crisis levels.
Here's one example of how such cooperation can work: Scientists from dozens of countries are working together to prevent the spread of Ug99, a devastating cereal rust disease that threatens 90 percent of the world's food supply.
The work includes nonprofits, educational institutions, international agricultural agencies and farmers.
Recently, University of Minnesota researchers announced a key breakthrough -- mapping the rust pathogen genome -- that wouldn't have happened without this global collaboration. This fight is taking on added urgency in eastern Africa, where Ug99 has been most devastating and famine is spreading.3. Accelerate the shift toward second- and third-generation biofuels such as algae and cellulosic material.
When commodity prices reach record highs, as they did in 2008 and may do again this year, food prices go up, here and around the world. This year, for the first time, more corn will be needed for making fuel than for feeding animals, according to the USDA's forecasting agency.
That's simply not sustainable.
Researchers and producers know that next-generation fuels can be produced from nonfood crops; the question is how to produce these new fuels on a large scale in an economically viable way.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and two colleagues recently proposed redistributing some subsidies for corn ethanol into research for future fuels. That's a step in the right direction, and agricultural producers -- who should be part of any biofuels discussion -- generally agree.4. Concentrate efforts on small-scale farmers, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where many of the world's poorest people reside and where much of the population growth will happen.
This advice comes from Shenggen Fan, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (and a U of M alumnus) and is echoed by many others.
The Green Revolution of the 1960s and '70s took this approach, with great success. But simply helping farmers increase their crop yields won't be enough this time.
Yes, farmers in poor countries often lack seeds, fertilizer, water and enough land. In today's global markets, equally large problems come from the lack of a market infrastructure -- even roads to get crops to market -- as well as access to technological innovations and financial tools to reduce the risks of weather and price volatility.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been advocating this approach as well in efforts to continue funding for the "Feed the Future" program, which is at risk of major cuts by Congress.5. Recognize that simply having enough food isn't enough.
The World Hunger Organization reports that global agriculture currently produces enough food to theoretically give every person about 2,700 calories per day, which is more than enough to survive -- if you set aside questions of access and pricing.
So we have to ask the hard questions about what people eat.
The growing middle class in developing countries like China and India will expect to eat better in the coming decades, which usually means more food choices. That's an opportunity for agricultural producers, but also a challenge.
As diets shift toward bigger portions and fattier, sweeter food, people tend to gain weight. Global obesity rates have doubled since 1980, the World Health Organization says, and people in developing countries already are at risk.
As we develop ways to grow and distribute more food, we must ensure that available food is healthy as well as safe. WHO's guidelines on diet and physical activity are a good start.
These are long-range solutions to a long-range set of problems, but now is the time to make the policy decisions that can lead toward a world with enough good food for all.
Forty years from now, regardless of where they live, our grandchildren may thank us.
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Allen Levine is dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota and is director of the Minnesota Obesity Center. The views he expresses are his own and do not reflect an official position of the University of Minnesota.
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