Summit Goal on Hunger Needs Bio-Breakthrough

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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? Cross-breeding, biotechnology 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. …

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