Comment: Elon Musk’s billions can’t solve world hunger on own

The problem isn’t in boosting supply but in understanding hunger’s social, political and economic causes.

By Gabriela Soto Laveaga / Special To The Washington Post

Recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk proposed that he might donate a portion of his fortune to end world hunger if the World Food Program could describe on Twitter exactly how $6 billion would solve the problem. His provocation and assumption that he could simply throw money at hunger to make it go away was bold, but the idea is old. And unfortunately, over the past 80 years, attempts to use individual or institutional wealth to end world hunger have yielded uneven results.

The problem with this approach is that hunger has often been framed as an achievable numbers game of producing more food to feed more people. For instance, efforts have focused on creating improved crops that yield more with more fertilizer or more irrigation. Yet history shows that science alone — even with generous funding — cannot solve an issue that is social, political and economic, such as hunger.

In the mid-20th century, scientists, government officials and philanthropists began to think about addressing hunger, and explained it as an especially acute problem afflicting poor countries in need of technical assistance. They saw it as a development-aid issue, prompting governments to think about solving hunger on a grand scale. In 1943, for example, the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation jointly created the Mexican Agricultural Program for crop research and training. Later, in 1960, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was established in the Philippines.

These efforts became an important front in the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union tried to use food aid in their efforts to address hunger in the short term and win hearts and minds — and stomachs — in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In 1969, 24 individuals concerned with these issues gathered in Bellagio, Italy, to discuss how best to end world hunger. Years later, the journal Nature pronounced it to be one of the meetings that changed the world. Sixteen of the participants were leaders of major foreign-assistance agencies focused on agricultural development, and the other eight were consultants in the “science of food production.” All were men, and nearly all were from the Global North, including the United States, France, Italy and England.

Then, as today, the world was facing a looming global crisis of food production. At the time, the impending specter was not climate change, but rather an intense fear of an “overpopulated” world. The worry was that the globe’s Malthusian collapse would launch from seemingly unchecked population growth in the Southern Hemisphere. The “population bomb” never erupted, but at the time it motivated many groups to act, whether to slow population growth or develop agricultural solutions to feed more people.

The late 1960s was an era of firm belief in the power of science to crack all problems, including vexing social ones. Humans had, for instance, recently walked on the moon, and in 1967, the World Health Organization had launched a campaign to eradicate smallpox with a vaccine. (Global eradication was accomplished 13 years later.) Faith soared that science really could take us beyond our world and solve societal problems.

The group meeting at Bellagio proposed that wealthy countries and international, philanthropic organizations partnered with host nations invest together in agricultural research, crop breeding and training agricultural scientists to work on increasing crop yields. The core of their solution would be research centers anchored across the world’s microclimates and focused on studying different crops.

They were building on successes gleaned at two existing centers: The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), set up in 1966 in Mexico and modeled on the 1943 Mexican Agricultural Program, and the IRRI in the Philippines; both of which had produced disease- and stress-resistant maize, wheat and rice.

After Bellagio, many of the same participating organizations — including the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program, the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, together with the Rockefeller, Ford and Kellogg foundations — came together again and in 1971 formed the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) with an ambitious hunger-ending goal.

The CGIAR enabled the free exchange of research, hands-on education of farmers and training for younger generations of crop scientists. Its core mission included improvements in crop breeding and providing better seeds to farmers around the world.

This approach showed immediate successes. Crop yields in areas networked into these centers multiplied, and international aid funding flowed for more agriculture research. The CGIAR incorporated or built more centers, reaching a total of nearly 20 globally by the 1990s.

There were big successes, but there were also serious missteps. Initially, these efforts did not target women, who make up the majority of the world’s farmers, nor were they represented in farmer programs. An aggressive focus on producing more grains — wheat, maize and rice — often left poor regions more vulnerable to climate changes and with less diversified crops. Access to research-center resources often benefited wealthier farmers, cementing regional hierarchies.

More crucially, dependent on external funds, scientists often set aside promising research areas for donor-driven or supported ideas. An additional challenge was synchronizing regional and global needs while coordinating diverse centers often impacted by national politics.

As CGIAR realized this, the organization shifted its focus to more community-centered projects, empowering women’s initiatives and diversifying crops. It learned that it needed to focus on streamlined projects and then scale up. Too many initiatives and they could become too diffuse at the ground level. The organization also faced budget cuts and began to shutter or consolidate national centers when funding priorities for governments and foundations shifted.

Today reformulated as OneCGIAR, the organization is an undisputed leader in global research. Its impact was acknowledged at this year’s U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, when Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced that his foundation would donate $315 million in grants to CGIAR.

And yet, for all CGIAR’s successes at increasing crop production, hunger remains. There are many reasons for this: One is that many of the early initiatives backed by scientific research — for example seeds that yielded more — incentivized larger farmers to develop crops for export, leaving poorer, small-plot farmers more vulnerable. This also meant that food grown within a country wasn’t necessarily reaching hungry people within it. Hunger, then was not a yields game alone, but also a matter of equitable distribution of locally grown food.

As CGIAR turns 50 this year, it is critical to look at hunger as more than a technical problem to be addressed through scientific advancement alone. Commemorating the anniversary, a group of nearly two dozen experts recently met, once again at the Bellagio Center on the banks of Lake Como. Meeting in person and virtually were some of the world’s leaders in tropical agriculture and food sustainability; a grass-roots digital organizer for small farmers; an adviser to an African nation’s president; a water specialist; a past winner of the World Food Prize; and a former Rockefeller Foundation president.

In contrast with 1969, this group included women, people of color and representatives working on and from the southern hemisphere. It also included historians — including me — who could speak critically about past efforts. With new people at the table, perhaps new ways of thinking can bloom. Only by shifting our view can we reframe how we understand and address hunger; that access to food is a human right that cannot be solved if approached solely as a technical problem; and certainly one that cannot be solved by Elon Musk alone.

Gabriela Soto Laveaga is professor of the history of science and the Antonio Madero Professor for the study of Mexico at Harvard University. She is working on a book on agricultural research and water in Sonora and the Punjab.

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