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Food and Farm Experts Seek Breakthroughs to Feed the Future

By Charlene Porter | Staff Writer | 22 February 2012
Children and adults carrying food buckets and standing in line (AP Images)

Feed the Future aspires to prevent the drought-related crop failures that led to the 2011 food crisis in East Africa.

Washington — The Obama administration is turning to agriculture and food industry experts to identify breakthrough ideas to double or triple food production in nations facing chronic hunger.

A February 22 meeting at the White House was the next step in the Feed the Future initiative, a three-year-old program launched in the aftermath of food shortages in 2007–2008. Various economic, market and weather events combined to drive up food prices during that time to a level that reversed a 40-year pattern of declining hunger worldwide and shoved more than 100 million people back to extreme hunger and poverty. 

The experts convened at the meeting are looking beyond the agricultural basics to technical issues such as crop genomics, seed technology, and agricultural finance and risk management. The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah, reminded the private-sector audience of the huge advances made by the Green Revolution in the 1970s and said he hoped for a repeat of that success.

“We know that sub-Saharan Africa can double or triple its actual food production in a generation,” Shah said. At the same time, systemic changes could help transform the economies of those developing nations to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, he said.

“We know that your technologies that are in your firms, in your people, in your labs, applied to these problems will make a very specific difference,” Shah said. The top U.S. international development official suggested that seed research under way in major agricultural companies might be applied to projects USAID has in progress now to develop crops that perform better in drought or produce greater and more reliable yields.

Sharing of information and success stories has helped improve American agriculture since the early 19th century. The support system became formalized with the creation of a national agricultural extension service in 1914. Introducing mechanisms to improve information exchange and comparative methods is one idea gaining significant attention as a means to improve developing world agriculture.

Shah said 21st-century information technologies are already helping farmers improve yields in developing countries: “The modern version of the ‘farmer field school’ is likely to be empowered by information technologies. That is perhaps the greatest transformational force that has taken hold in these communities in the last decade.”

Feed the Future has an ongoing objective to advance new methods and techniques. Shah said the program has already invested more U.S. assistance funds into agriculture and increased consultations with other organizations working in this area.