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."

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.