Finding Innovations to Feed the Hungry

This week as we gather around the Thanksgiving dinner table to engage in one of our annual rites of self-indulgence, Will Masters will be haunted by a very different image.

Ten years as a researcher in West Africa has left him with many reminders of one awesome fact: More people will die this year of the effects of malnutrition than any other cause.

But unlike most of us, Masters has set out to do something about it. He doesn't want to send food to people who are starving during a time of plenty. He wants to help them help themselves, and he is developing a program that will reward farmers and researchers who come up with new techniques for improving agricultural yields.

That may be the only way to reduce the number of people who will be forced into a downward spiral that begins with not enough food on the dinner table.

Masters wants to give cash to innovators who help solve this crucial problem. Think of it as sort of a Nobel Prize for farmers.

Adding Incentive

As a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, Masters grappled with the problem of evaluating the success of foreign aid for West African countries where millions are starving. The problem, it turned out, is that while some aid resulted in dramatic improvements in crop yields, it was hard for granting agencies, or private philanthropists, to see real progress resulting from their largess.

"I think one reason we give so little foreign aid, and we give a lot less than some other countries, is that we don't have mechanisms that can make us feel confident that our money is really helping," Masters says.

Masters, who is on a one-year leave from Purdue to direct the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University's Earth Institute, says that some of the programs he studied in Africa led to dramatic increases in crop yields, but frequently that technology was not passed on to other areas.

One reason for that is a lack of incentive. It's hard to get rich by helping neighbors produce more food, because unlike the proverbial better mousetrap, it's difficult for the innovator to "sell" the technology to anyone else. For example, one aid program in Ethiopia produced an "ultra-short season sorghum that can mature within about 80 days," Masters says.

As a result the sorghum could be harvested before a devastating parasitic weed reduced the yield to "near zero," he says.

The gains from that innovation are spread over millions of very poor farmers, he says, so there's no one to send the bill to, and no way to recover the costs of research. All of that led Masters to pioneer in the development of techniques to measure that progress in very real ways so that donors could know if their gifts are really helping.

Calculating Better Crops

It turns out, he says, that in agriculture, it is "uniquely possible to measure the benefits" of new technology.

"First, you can do controlled experiments'' to measure precisely what it takes to make the new technology work, and how much it improves the yield, he says.

"And then you can use farm surveys to measure the extent of adoption [by other farmers]," he adds. And since food has a commercial value, "you can find what it's worth to society just by multiplying the price times the increase in quantity that you get by using a particular technique as opposed to another."

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