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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 08/03/2011

Innovations in the fight against famine


A Somalian refugee child stands outside his home on the edge of the Ifo refugee camp in Kenya on July 22, 2011. (Oli Scarff - GETTY IMAGES)

The famine in Somalia has shed new light on world hunger and the efforts individuals and organizations are undertaking to combat it. Aside from airlifting food and providing IVs, there is a larger problem in need of solving.

Organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative provide a gathering place for smaller organizations that are working to find and implement innovative solutions to avoid the need for a crisis response. We reached out to both organizations for information on how their partners, colleagues and grantees were innovating when it comes to hunger prevention.

“It’s not just the climate that’s causing the famine,” said Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, citing countries with similar climates to Somalia that had avoided such widespread devastation. “Both Kenya and Ethi­o­pia have made a significant commitment to focusing on agriculture in their own countries. And so our ability to change the level of productivity depends a lot on government commitment.”

The need to build bridges between the research labs and farmers’ fields by helping to identify partners along the “value chain” is critical, according to Pingali. The value chain is the process a product goes through where, at each stage, value is added to it. For example: A farmer’s wheat might move through companies that process, package and market it. It is also necessary to create a small private sector that can commercialize seed production, Pingali said.

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, is trying to do just that.

GAIN focuses on making sure there are essential micro-nutrients in food distributed both on an emergency and a long-term basis. Regarding long-term solutions, the organization uses a market-based approach in order to strengthen the regional marketplace while nutritionally fortifying locally produced food.

The group works with the private sector and donors to make sure pre-mixed packets that contain a combination of vitamins and minerals reach every-day consumers, while addressing the flaws in individual farmers’ supply chains and informing consumers about the benefits of fortified nutrition. Too often, the fortification packets are seen as medicinal rather than supplemental.

“In order to improve access among vulnerable populations to affordable and diverse nutritious foods, one must view them as a consumer society versus a handout culture to ensure sustainability,” said Gautam Ramnath, the manager of GAIN’s business development and leverage group. The organization has joined with the U.S. State Department to create the “1,000 Days Hub“ to target malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life — from inception to 2 years old.

The World Food Programme has also instituted a “Purchase for Progress” (P4P) program in an effort to connect local food producers with national, regional and global markets. The organization claims to have paid roughly $37 million to small farmers in 21 countries.

Work is also being done to change the actual food being grown. While Somalia is coping with a severe drought, an absence of water is not always the problem. Too much water can destroy rice crops, leaving farmers, their families and their immediate communities victim to starvation and malnutrition. The International Rice Research Institute, with assistance from the Gates Foundation, is working on creating a more robust strain of rice that can better withstand flood.

The organization, a self-described “non-profit independent research and training organization,” is based in the Philippines and was started by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in collaboration with the Philippines government. IRRI works to improve rice production in an effort to reduce poverty, create a sustainable production cycle, and improve nutrition and health. The organization also seeks to inform farmers of the latest technologies and processes available in rice production and provide scientists with genetic information and the latest research to further innovation in the field.

The issue of genetically modified food is somewhat controversial, however. In 2003, several governments in Africa, including Zambia and Zimbabwe, objected to aid from countries, such as the U.S., that produced genetically modified food. But their objections placed them in the difficult position of having to choose between letting large segments of their population starve, and keeping genetically modified foods from coming across their borders. Those in favor of the distribution of genetically modified foods argue that the short-term threat of death by starvation outweighs any potential long-term health risks.

“Most of the material that we’re seeing right now is not genetically modified food,” said Pingali, citing advancements, such as the development of drought-resistant maize and IRRI’s flood-resistant rice, both of which are not produced through genetic modification.“There is certainly a role for genetically modified materials coming in,” continued Pingali, “but we’re still quite a ways from having that available.”

— What innovation would you like to see in the fight against famine and world hunger? We're following #faminefight for your feedback.

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