PREVIEW-World Food Prize eyes gains, setbacks in hunger

Tue Oct 13, 2009 11:49am EDT

* 2009 World Food Prize Symposium

* Oct. 14-16, Des Moines, Iowa

* Food security threats eyed in wake of price spikes

* Bill Gates, CEOs of Pepsi, ADM to speak

* Can world act quickly on plans to reduce hunger?

By Roberta Rampton and Christine Stebbins

DES MOINES, Iowa, Oct 13 (Reuters) - Researchers and others who seek to alleviate hunger by boosting farmers' productivity will gather this week in the heart of the U.S Corn Belt to focus on the political risks when people don't have enough to eat.

Last year, fears of food shortages gripped grain markets, sending wheat and rice prices soaring to record highs and sparking hoarding and riots.

The unrest was a powerful reminder of the risks of food insecurity and helped spur the world's richest nations to promise to spend $20 billion over three years to help small, subsistence farmers improve their productivity. [ID:nLA547470]

"This is one of the key, crucial questions of the coming decades that has to do with whether the world is going to live at peace or not," said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, which hosts the symposium this week in Des Moines, Iowa.

"Whether it's terrorism, or internal conflict, or relations between states over the trade of food and water ... what do we do to address it?" said Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.

The World Food Prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" that lifted crop yields in Latin America and Asia, who died last month from cancer at age 95 while still grappling with the problem of how to end hunger.

The number of chronically hungry has now ballooned past 1 billion people -- a crisis felt most acutely in Africa, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has said.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the world will need to boost production by 70 percent by 2050 to feed growing numbers -- a challenge given scarce land and water and the changing climate. [ID:nLN517136]

Critics of the first "Green Revolution" have warned about the overuse of chemicals, corporate control of seeds, and the displacement of small farmers as the world moves again to increase crop output.

The forum links scientists with philanthropists, executives and others staking ground in the issue: Bill Gates, PepsiCo (PEP.N) CEO Indra Nooyi, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM.N) CEO Patricia Woertz, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

This year's World Food Prize will go to Gebisa Ejeta, a Purdue University scientist who developed drought- and weed-tolerant crops and worked to get the seed into the hands of small farmers in his native Africa. [ID:nN11502970]

It will take more than a jump in yields to achieve food security, said past laureates interviewed by Reuters, noting investment needed in education, health and infrastructure.

Plans for how best to spend money pledged to agricultural development continue to be deliberated in the United States and around the world. Some worry that dithering could stall momentum either for donors or within developing countries.

"We've got so many plans developed for almost every country in the world. We now need to pick them up and put them into action," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, an economist at Cornell University and a Food Prize laureate.

For more from that interview, please see: link.reuters.com/vac63f

In Africa, it took a long time to lay the foundation to address agriculture's role in hunger, said Monty Jones, head of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, who won the World Food Prize in 2004 for his work on rice.

But nations are beginning to take ownership of the issue and move forward on plans, Jones said.

"We've done this in good faith. We've taken our time. We've got a good plan. We are now implementing that plan," he said.

"I am very confident in the short term to the medium term, we'll begin to see the impacts of this very good plan on work on the ground," Jones said.

Where African countries have invested in fertilizer and seed for farmers -- like Malawi -- yields have shot up, said Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University's Earth Institute, a World Food Prize laureate who works extensively in Africa on hunger.

"The African Green Revolution is possible, and it's a way that hunger can eventually be eliminated on that continent," Sanchez said. Previous World Food Prize winners [ID:nN13143823] (Editing by Jim Marshall)

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