Finding Innovations to Feed the Hungry

Multiply that number times the number of farmers who are using the technology, and you've got the social value of the new technology.

And that, Masters says, provides a realistic value on which to base rewards to innovators — be they farmers or agricultural researchers — who develop a new technology, or spread one around.

"People have talked about prizes [to stimulate innovation] for a long time," Masters says. "The problem is getting a method to measure how much the prize should be. And that's the real innovation here, the thing that people couldn't do before. Now we can measure it because we've had a lot of experience in West Africa."

And that, of course, is why he has embarked on an ambitious effort to create a program that would make it worth any farmer's effort to develop a better way to grow crops, and pass that knowledge along to others.

He has already met with one major philanthropic organization, which expressed an interest in the concept but wanted to see the nuts and bolts of the program before committing any resources.

"So we're rounding up scientists and economists who would be willing to serve on a founding board," he says. They will "write the rules" that will govern the program and lend their own credibility to the effort. That will provide a foundation for determining who gets the rewards and how much they should be.

Once that's done, philanthropists and governments and private institutions will be asked to contribute to the project, and they will have a scientific basis for judging the success of the program, Masters says.

Sobering Facts

Those are among many steps needed to move the program from a vision to a reality, so it's a long shot, to say the least. The competition for dollars is fierce, and the United States may turn inward after the Iraq war, so there are many ways this idea could fail. But the facts speak very loudly.

According to the World Health Organization, about 6 million persons die each year from the effects of malnutrition, making it the single most important cause of human mortality. Ironically, most of them are poor farmers, Masters notes, because farming is the only way they can get the food they need to feed their families.

"It's absolutely an enormous tragedy," he says.

He says he's convinced some foreign aid helps, but it's dwarfed by the scale of the problem. Of all those who die this year, anywhere on the planet, 14 percent will die from malnutrition.

Oh, by the way. Happy Thanksgiving.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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