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Wanted: Innovations to feed the hungry

After many decades of economic growth, the single most important cause of human mortality remains malnutrition. The World Health Organization estimates that food deficits cause about 6 million deaths per year, or 14 percent of the total. Surprisingly, most people who die from hunger are actually farmers not by choice, but by necessity. They are born in rural areas, and have no other resources with which to earn a living. When a farm family's production falls short of their own food needs, they fall into a downward spiral of malnutrition, ill-health, and even lower production.

In the November issue of AgBioForum, William Masters, director of the Earth Institute's Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, proposes a new way of fighting hunger: by giving cash prizes to innovators who develop sustainable techniques that the world's poor can use to feed themselves.

Prizes have been used to solve many seemingly-intractable problems, from an 18th-century prize for determining longitude at sea, to the 20th century prizes for long-distance flight given to Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. These prizes work well when governments or philanthropists anticipate that a breakthrough would be valuable, but are unlikely to be easily sold in the marketplace or obtained from university laboratories.

Professor Masters' approach proposes targeting any increase in the productivity of low-income farmers, using recently-developed measurement methods to compute what each innovation is really worth.

Professor Masters' proposal is motivated by the magnitude and nature of global hunger. Because the poorest people are farmers, one of the most effective tools in the historical fight against malnutrition has been agricultural research, adapting seed varieties and production techniques to local needs. This type of research consistently pays for itself, often many times over but the gains are spread over millions of very poor beneficiar
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Contact: Mary Tobin
mtobin@ldeo.columbia.edu
845-365-8607
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
11-Nov-2003


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