Feeding A Hotter, More Crowded Planet Nearly a billion people worldwide don't have reliable access to food, according to United Nations estimates, and some experts worry climate change will drive that number even higher. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the future of food security, and how farmers may need to adapt in coming generations.

Feeding A Hotter, More Crowded Planet

Feeding A Hotter, More Crowded Planet

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Nearly a billion people worldwide don't have reliable access to food, according to United Nations estimates, and some experts worry climate change will drive that number even higher. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the future of food security, and how farmers may need to adapt in coming generations.

Lester Brown, author, "World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse" (W.W. Norton, 2011), founder and president, Earth Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.

Gawain Kripke, director, policy and research, Oxfam America, Washington, D.C.

Gerald Nelson, senior research fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.

IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. The American Southwest is beginning to resemble the Dust Bowl of the Depression. Cotton crops have crumbled. It hasn't rained much in over a year.

The situation is even worse in East Africa. Droughts there have devastated harvests, and according to the U.N., over 11 million people there are at risk of starvation. I'm sure you've seen the pictures on the nightly news and online.

Is this sort of thing going to become the norm? Because climate models predict that extreme weather events, like droughts and floods, will become more common in the future, threatening farmers' ability to produce reliable harvests.

And not only will growing the food become more difficult, but the farmers will need to produce more of it because by the year 2050, there will be another two billion people on the planet, meaning we'll have over nine billion mouths to feed.

So how are we going to grow more food than ever on a planet with more frequent droughts, floods and heat waves? Are high-tech solutions like genetically modified crops the answer? Or do we need to look back toward more traditional farming techniques, like getting fertilizer to farmers who can't afford it or to keep the soil healthy and fertile? Maybe a little bit of both?

So for the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking about the challenges of keeping food supplies secure in the face of a changing climate? What are the problems? Where can we look to for solutions?

If you're on Twitter, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let me introduce my guests. Lester Brown is author of "World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. He's also the president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, and he joins us from Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Lester.


FLATOW: Thank you. Gerald Nelson is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in D.C. He also joins us from NPR in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Nelson.

Dr. GERALD NELSON: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Gawain Kripke is the policy director of Oxfam America in Washington. He joins us by phone from Mexico City. Welcome to show, Dr. Kripke.

GAWAIN KRIPKE: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Hi there. Let me begin with you, Lester. You've been on this program many, many times over the year, basically with the same message, that we're running out of food, that the climate is getting worse. What's new about your opinion now?

BROWN: Well, probably the urgency with which we need to look at this issue. Crop ecologists, as you may remember, have a rule of thumb for converting higher temperatures into crop yields, namely that for each one-degree Celsius rise in temperature, you can expect a 10-percent decline in grain yields. And we saw that in spades in Russia last summer when they had that extended heat wave and drought that cost them about 40-percent of their grain harvest.

But more fundamentally, the agricultural system that we have today has evolved over an 11,000-year period of rather remarkable climate stability. It is designed to maximize production with that climate system. But now that climate is changing, with each passing year, the agricultural system is more and more out of synch with the climate system, and that's presenting a challenge.

We're beginning to see some evidence of that now. We were hoping, after the draw-down in world grain stocks last year of about 40 million tons that led to the price run-up that began late last summer, we were hoping that this year, we'd be able to rebuild stocks.

We had good prices at planting time. Farmers made an all-out effort around the world to plant as much as they could. But even so, with this heat wave in the United States this year, we find that we're not only not going to be able to rebuild stocks from this year's harvest, but we're going to fall short again, and world grain stocks are going to drop further.

This means that we now have to wait at least until next year's harvest for any relief on the food front. And then the final point I would make is that yesterday's estimate of the world grain harvest by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of this year's world grain harvest indicates that prices for wheat and corn, soybeans, everything is going to be even higher than they thought a month ago.

So the world's got its hands full now with rising food prices, particularly in places like East Africa. When you combine high food prices and drought, then you've got some real problems.

FLATOW: Gerald Nelson, is that what's happening in East Africa? Is the climate change part of those terrible pictures we're seeing every day?

NELSON: Well, you can never attribute any particular weather event to climate change, which is a long-term change in the way the weather, precipitation and temperature pattern happens. But certainly there are indications that, in fact, our climate has been changing.

There was a recent paper by David Lobell and colleagues where he was able to tease out some information out of the existing record that suggested, in fact, that some parts of the world have seen pretty substantial negative effects from climate change.

So for example, Europe, one way to think about it in Europe is that the yield increases that came out of the productivity work of the biologists were basically taken up by the higher temperatures that Lester alluded to in his remarks.

The United States managed to avoid that particular temperature increase pattern over the last few years, and it's not clear exactly why. It's one of the great mysteries, current mysteries of the climate situation in the world. But I guess the question I would ask to the farm interests in the United States, who have been tended to think that the climate change would actually be good for them - higher yields and higher prices elsewhere - I guess the question I would ask is: Is this outcome something that you're willing to bet the farm on?

There are several climate models that suggest that U.S. agriculture, as well, will be hard-hit by climate change. So we're in a very uncertain stage right now.

FLATOW: And on top of this, climate change and these droughts and floods, Gawain Kripke, there are other threats to food production today. Are there going to be even greater threats in the future?

KRIPKE: Well, we're very concerned looking forward about what the food security outlook is. One of the big concerns is that we of course have growing demand with growing population and higher incomes around the world. But agriculture productivity seems to have flattened out over the last several decades. So we don't know if our technology and our techniques are up to the challenge.

We did - Oxfam commissioned a bit of modeling to try to make estimates about what food prices would look like 20 years out from now, and we found that under normal circumstances, food prices are likely to increase - food commodity prices are likely to increase somewhere about 50 percent from now to 2030. And if you throw in some estimates in what climate change might do, you get food prices that might be as high as 100 percent higher than they are now.

And food prices matter a lot because poor people spend a lot of their income on food, and if they don't - if they can't afford food, then that means they go hungry or have to sacrifice other things.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You know, we keep hearing, Lester, that oh, we're paying farmers not to grow food, and there's all this excess supply. Why - is that true? And why is that not getting out and distributed?

BROWN: Well, the idea that we're paying farmers to hold land out of production now to avoid surplus is history. That was pretty much 20th century. Right now, farmers everywhere are going full-out. I don't know of any government in the world that's holding land out of production.

One of the issues we're facing, though, is the one that Gawain mentioned, which is that there are a number of countries where grain yields, which have been increasing for decades, are no longer increasing. Rice yield per acre in Japan has been flat now for 14 years. It looks as though China's rice yields are flattening out, at least based on the data for the last four or five years.

And we see wheat yields in countries like France and Germany and the U.K. flattening out in Europe. And what this means is that in the more agriculturally advanced countries, farmers are catching up with scientists. Farmers would like to keep raising their yields, but in some countries, there are no new technologies now allowing them to do that.

A second point that we haven't mentioned yet that reinforces the climate issue is spreading water shortages. Half of us now live in countries where water tables are falling as a result of over-pumping for irrigation. And that includes the big three grain producers - China, India and the United States - along with a number of other smaller countries, many of them in the Arab Middle East.

But water is going to be one of the real constraints on efforts to expand production, to expand food production. And in fact, I would guess that if Malthus were writing his famous essay today, he might write it on population and water rather than population and food because we have a lot of land in the world today that could produce food if we had water to go with it. But it's water that's emerging as a major constraint on efforts to expand food production.

FLATOW: Can we expect to see warfare over water like we see it over oil now?

BROWN: Well, water, the competition for water actually takes place in world grain markets. When countries run up grain deficits, as many are doing - or water deficits, I should say, they offset those deficits by importing grain. The reason for that is the - is that it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain. So if you need to import water, the most efficient way to do it is with grain. So thus far, we haven't had any water wars because the competition for grain has been taking place in the world grain market.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Well, before I go to the phones, one last question, you know, you've said that science - or farmers have caught up to science, and there don't seem to be any new sort of green revolution miracles on the horizon. Did I hear you correctly? All three of you can comment if you'd like.

NELSON: Well, let me give you a statistic. The IR8, which was the first of the green revolution rices in India grown in ideal conditions in the summertime when there's no clouds, yields - yielded about 8 to 9 metric tons per hectare. Today, the best rice yields from the International Rice Institute for the new varieties are on the same order of magnitude, slightly less. So we haven't bumped up the biological maximum on rice. There have been efforts to get - make 10 or 15 ton-per-hectare rice that they have not yet been successful.

So if that's the cup half empty and I think that's a very serious problem that we face, the cup half full part of the story is that if you look at Africa, you find that the inputs that are used in African agriculture are generally - are extremely limited. If you go to the United States, if you go China, you go to India, you'll find that nitrogen application levels are extremely high. They're probably at the maximum amount that farmers really should be putting on, in some cases substantially above. But if you go to Africa, you'll find that there's only five to 10 kilograms per hectare on average, and that means there are an awful lot of farmers who don't put any nitrogen fertilizer on.

And that's whether it's inorganic fertilizer coming from natural gas production or even organic matter for that. So there is a potential to increase yields substantially in Africa. And it's a policy-based potential rather than a biological potential. It involves both getting prices right for farmers, so higher prices for their outputs and access to their inputs, which involves things like building roads, making sure that harbors and ports work and getting governments out of the way of, you know, informal taxes, shall we say, on markets for agricultural commodities in and out.

I would also say on the water side that, again, there is, for the most part, I totally agree with what Lester Brown has to say, but it is the case that climate change blooms with higher temperature, therefore more evaporation and more precipitation.

So we will end up with more precipitation somewhere on the planet as a result of higher temperatures. If it ends up on land, then the question is can we capture it and put it to use? And so in Africa, there is a very small amount of irrigation, and there's some potential for small-scale irrigation to deal, at least partially, with the shortages that I otherwise think are very real in many parts of the world for the water situation.

FLATOW: We're talking about food and water shortages in the upcoming century on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Lester Brown, Gerald Nelson, Gawain Kripke. 1-800-989-8255. Gentlemen, is the population - when talking about nine billion, is the population just going to outgrow the ability to feed it?

BROWN: Well, in thinking about the population issue, and you mentioned leading into this segment, Ira, that we're about at seven billion now and headed for nine billion by mid-century, but I rather doubt that we're going to see nine billion. And what I don't know is whether we will get the brakes on population growth before that because we accelerate to shift to smaller families or because we fail to do that and the number of hungry people in the world and infant mortality rates within that group will begin to rise.

I mean, we've all ready seen the decline in the number of hungry people in the world that characterize the closing decades of the last century reverse as we came into the first decade of this century. It bottomed out at about 825 million and is now up close to a billion. And right now, there's not anything in sight to reverse that trend. That's one of the disturbing things about the food outlook at the moment.

FLATOW: What about the competition, you know, for using grain that would feed people to use, for example, to use - to make ethanol out of it?

BROWN: Well, I've written a large amount of material on this topic, beginning interestingly in 1981 when we first had the grain-for-fuel program. But what you quickly realize when you look at this is that you really can't run many cars on grain. The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year at average world consumption levels. So the idea that fuel from grain is going to save us from oil depletion is not - it doesn't really have any basis in reality.

What I think we need to do is free up the grain that's being used for fuel now and accelerate the shift to the electrification of our transport system to all electric cars and plug-in hybrids. And we have plenty of electricity with wind, which is the fast-growing segment of the world energy economy right now, growing at about 30 percent a year. And we have more than enough wind to satisfy electricity needs worldwide and also to run cars on it. So we don't have to use grain to fuel our cars. Wind energy will be a much cheaper option over the longer term.

FLATOW: One quick question going - before I hit the brake. Are there certain countries that are going to be hit harder than others around the world?

KRIPKE: Well, I think the science of - or I should say the state of art of climate modeling is still in its infancy, and we - there's a lot that's unknown about what's going happen, but generally, there seems to be a consensus. I've looked at some of these maps about where they're expected to have better impacts, and you see basically in the equatorial zone is where the projections for the greatest impacts on agriculture are likely to be. And ironically, there may be some - the math that I see, you know, you might see some actual positive impacts on productivity in the more temperate regions. But the equatorial regions is where you find the poorest countries and the most vulnerable people are also where you - where likely climate impacts are likely to be the worst for agricultural productivity.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break. We'll come back more and talk lots more on climate change and food security. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, go to our website at SCIENCE FRIDAY, check out the images and leave a message and get into a discussion there also. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about climate change and food security this hour. Our guests are Lester Brown, Gerald Nelson and Gawain Kripke. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we get a few - a lot of folks want to talk. So let's see if we can get some phone calls in here. Holly in Patchogue, New York. Hi, Holly.

HOLLY: Hi. How are you, Ira, gentlemen. How are you, fellows? I have a question for you. Why is it not that we could use worldwide, not just in America, because I only know about America, chemtrails to cause cloud formations for rain in arid areas?

FLATOW: Cloud seeding, she said. Thank you. Cloud seeding she's asking about, I imagine.

BROWN: Well, in order to seed clouds, you have to have the clouds. And in a lot of arid areas, there's simply are no clouds, and in the drought areas, as in East Africa today, there probably aren't very many clouds to work with. The unfortunate reality is that when you have severe drought you often have a lot of bright sunlight and very few clouds at all. And the areas where this has been worked - the Chinese probably work at it more than almost any country that I know of. And their results are, I think, marginal at best.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Gerald Nelson, we're concentrating a lot on the poorer countries and talking about them, but I imagine the richer countries are going to be affected also. I mean, if - you might - as you say, you might not be able to mention weather in any one part of the country, but - as being climate change - but 50 years from now, we may look back at Texas and say, boy, that was certainly an indicator.

NELSON: I think every farmer in the world is going to have to adapt to climate change in one way or another as we go forward. I think there's nothing we can do today to stop the climate change that's going to go forward in the next few years. We can slow it down, and we really need to start slowing it down now. For some farmers in a few locations, the ultimate adaptation will mean that they can come up with higher yields. But I think for the bulk of farmers in the world, if they were working with today's varieties, they'd see lower yields, and in some cases substantially lower yields as a result of climate change.

So we have got a lot of work to do to get the varieties right so that the farmers can maintain their productivity in a situation where they've got higher temperatures, changes in precipitation. We need to do some research on how our existing genetic material actually performs under different climate scenarios. That's possible to do today because there are different parts of the world with different agro-climatic zones. But we don't actually do that yet, and that's one of the data collection things that we need to start soon rather than later.

But I worry about what happens - actually 2050 is, for me, almost a magic number. The population growth that you alluded to earlier is going to slow down - might or might not make it to nine billion by 2050, but it will slow down. We'll have higher income growth, which means that more people will be located in what we call the developing world today will have higher incomes. And so they're going to want more quantity and also more quality of food.

And the FAO has estimated something on the order of a 70 percent increase. But there are some areas of flexibility in the system as it currently exists. And with good concerted effort, which I'm not sure we'll have, which will be a variety - a combination of both policy reforms and policy improvements in different parts of the world and substantial investments in biological productivity, I think we can deal with the climate change outcomes that we're likely to see between now and 2050.

But if we don't slow climate change, greenhouse gas emissions now, then we're going to see temperature increases that we've never seen as a species as we move towards the 21st century. And that is where I'm really worried because at some point, no matter how much you work on plants to increase their tolerance to heat, you're going to run out of room. And we may be pushing those limits by the time we get to the 21st century.

FLATOW: Well, there are scientists who say we have reached the tipping point, that, you know, it's getting to be a pipedream with the lack of cutting back in these greenhouse gases that you think you can turn this around and you just should start working toward mitigating the situation. What do you do about it?

NELSON: Well, just to make your story a little more gloomy, don't forget that as part of the higher temperatures we'll get sea level rise both from just heating of the oceans and therefore some parts of the world that are productive today won't be, the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, for example, or the Nile River Delta I in Egypt. We'll also get melting of the glaciers eventually. It's not exactly clear when that'll happen, but that means that the water storage that exists there that feeds the great rivers of South Asia will no longer exists. And we could at least in theory replace them with dams but that would be a tremendously expensive.

So these are just some of the additional challenges beyond the ones that people are already looking for - looking at. It really means that there's an incredible urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and start that process right now.

FLATOW: And, Lester, is - we hear that there - many times I've heard over the years that it - the world hunger problem is not one of quantity, that there is a lot of it. It is one of distribution. It doesn't - we have enough food. It just doesn't get to the people who need it. Is that still true?

BROWN: We hear that, have been hearing that at least ever since I can remember. And the basic problem is poverty, of course. And people who don't have the income and the purchasing power are going to have trouble producing it, have trouble getting enough food. Those who live on family plots of land that are divided and subdivided again with each generation, now have plots so small that they can't make a living on it.

But the idea - I mean, it's easy to say that it's not a problem of production, it's a production of distribution. You can also make that point for education. If we distributed the world's educational means equally, everyone would certainly have an elementary school education, maybe everyone even a high school education. But you and I would have not been able to go to college. So having said that it's problem of distribution is not all that useful, I don't think. It sounds as though there's some easy way of solving it by just distributing it differently. But the market does most of the distribution, and the market is not kind to people who have low incomes, particularly when they're spending 50 to 70 percent of their income on food and the price of food doubles.

I think another thing to keep in mind is that, in this country, there is so much between the farmer and us in terms of costs. If you buy a loaf of bread in this country for $2 and it may have 10 cents worth of wheat in it, so the price of wheat doubles and the price of bread goes to $2.10. But if you live in northern India or Pakistan and you go to the market and buy wheat, bring it home and grinded it into flour and make chapatis, if the price of wheat doubles, the price for your bread basically doubles. So then those in the low-income countries don't have the insulation from the effect of rice and commodity prices that we do.

FLATOW: Hmm. And we've seen that in the news, haven't we, where some people in these countries are just very unhappy just over the cost of bread?

BROWN: Yes, and this...

FLATOW: And this is something that I often paid a lot of attention to. And the - in the United States, the average household spends about 10 percent of their income on food. In developing countries, you see a household spending much more than that, 30, or in some cases over 50 percent of their income is spent just procuring food so prices go up. That creates a real shock.

NELSON: And the reason to focus on distribution isn't so much to say that - you know -it's to point out the issue that the food supply is only one dimension to the problem we face. And you can't really solve the problems of hunger by increasing supply. You have to focus on who - how to - who and how you're assisting with it. We could grow a lot more food and yet we'd still have a significant portion of the world that's not getting enough food. So we really need to focus our efforts on the poorest and most vulnerable people - not just in distributing food but in making sure that they have the means of production, the ability to grow their own food and have livelihoods so they can access food.

FLATOW: Gawain, do you have any simple suggestions?

KRIPKE: Well, there are a lot of suggestions. Agriculture has a livelihood that has been significantly neglected for decades by the international community, by foreign aid donors and by governments themselves. And we're seeing now, with prices going up, a new interest in agriculture, although necessarily a new interests in resolving food security issues.

But even modest enough in agriculture would be significant changes from the past where we see very small amounts of money going into improving our agricultural productivity, improving the infrastructure and supply systems, both to produce food and - but then also to move it from farms into the supply system. So in Africa, you see these farmers working very, very hard with very little productivity because they're not getting the basics of agricultural productivity. So the international community can help a lot. There's a big role for international institutions like the World Bank and also for NGOs and individuals to try to - to try and make a difference.

Gerald talked about how there's a pretty growth potential if these farmers who are working very hard can get some better tools, they can increase their production a lot and help improve overall supply, but most importantly, improve their own access to food.

FLATOW: Let me ask this question about genetically modified foods because most of Europe, a lot of the world is resistant to genetically modified foods. If we could get more acceptance of them, would they help - would that technology helps solve the problem?

BROWN: Well, my response to that would be that, up until now - and I should point, we've had genetically modified varieties of corn and then soybeans on the market for the better part of 20 years now. In fact, most - almost all of the U.S. corn and soybeans grown in this country are genetically modified. But what genetic modification has done thus far is, one, reduce insecticide use as with the boll weevil on cotton. When you have varieties of cotton that are - have been genetically modified to resist the boll weevil, then you can dispense with using insecticide. And that's a major advance.

At the same time, with soybeans, we've made them resistant to herbicides so we could use herbicides of the mechanical cultivation. That's a mixed situation because it reduces soil erosion, it reduces energy use, but it includes - it increases the amount of that herbicide in the environment.

BROWN: But what we do not have yet from genetic modification is any dramatic advance in yields for any of the major crops like wheat or corn or rice, nor do I think we will because traditional plant breeders had already done most of the things we could think of to do to raise grain yields. So what the genetic modification science has started working on are other things that we couldn't do using traditional plant breeding.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about food security in the coming age of global warming on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

NELSON: Let me add to what Lester just said about GM crops. The - and I actually agree with everything that he said. There are some blue sky efforts going on that could potentially, but not in the near term, actually bump up that yield ceiling. One example is an effort to convert rice from what's called a C3 crop to a C4 crop, which is more effective in terms of its utilization of CO2, but also in terms of its water use efficiency. And there are few plants that have made that conversion from that particular biological pathway to another one and so that it does exist in nature. And if we could put that kind of technology into rice and a few other of our food crops, we could get an increase in the yield.

But there are - in the additional to the temperature constrains that Lester talked about earlier, there's just the radiation use efficiency. You know, how much of the sunlight that comes down can be taken up by the plant and convert it to useful plant material? So there's some blue sky efforts to try to increase the radiation use efficiency. Again, we should not count on those in the near term. There is something that might contribute in 10 to 20 to 40 or 50-year range.

FLATOW: Well, it's a long way off.

NELSON: But having said that, let's not forget that farmers in southern Africa who grow maize and base crops that deal with parasitic plant called striga and a result get yields on the order of 10th of a ton to 20th of a ton per hectare, could use a genetically modified version of maize that would raise their effective yields to two to three to four times. So a huge increase in effective yields, without dealing with that upper level of biological limits by nature. So there are some ways in which...

FLATOW: But is that a matter of convincing them to do that or...

NELSON: Well, it's - you know, in the first instance, it's a matter of making the materials available to them. And so that's where the resistance to using genetically modified organisms in agriculture has actually contributed to some - you know, I have to say, there are a large number of people who've died in Africa because they haven't had access to some modified crops.

FLATOW: When you say access, let's get down to the meaning. Does that mean it's too expensive for them to buy?

NELSON: They're not allowed to grow it. They're not allowed to make that - seed companies are not allowed to make that material available to farmers in developing countries because of regulations on the importation and the use of that.

FLATOW: Hmm. Gawain, you agree?

KRIPKE: Well, I - choosing technologies is a complicated matter and choosing appropriate technologies for your country and your farmers is something that countries have to do. Many countries in Africa don't have adequate regulatory systems to really manage these technologies. So you can say that there's some opportunity in GM technologies, but we should also not neglect much more conventional strategies to increase yield and to improve the productivity and also the - how much farmers can save from their harvests. So you definitely want to lay as many bets as you can when trying to increase food supply and deal with these problems. Being myopically focused on one strategy and one technologies is probably going to do more harm than good.

FLATOW: So it would be this conventional - the conventional techniques you're talking about?

KRIPKE: Well, Gerald mentioned the low usage of basic farm inputs, like agriculture - sorry - fertilizer and pesticides in much of Africa. Very little of African agriculture is irrigated, only about four percent. That's a technology that's several thousand years old that we're still not using in - throughout Africa.

FLATOW: Because?

KRIPKE: Well, it's a low-level investment by the public sector and also by the private sector in agriculture in those regions so...

FLATOW: Same thing with...

KRIPKE: ...it's really - sorry, go ahead.

FLATOW: Same thing with the nitrogen and the fertilizer, that's just how they do it, is what you're saying?

KRIPKE: Yeah. And I described a serious neglect by all actors of agriculture in developing countries, generally, and in Africa in particular. And that's been beginning to be turned around in the last couple of years as we recognize these challenges ahead of us.

President Obama has launched a new initiative to try to really invest more in the productivity of small producers around the world, and many other international institutions are taking up the banner. But we're all facing budget cuts at the moment and - so it's not clear that that initiative is really going to deliver much in terms of new resources.

FLATOW: All right, gentlemen. We have to leave it there. A very interesting discussion and something we'll have to continually revisit. Lester Brown is author of "World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse," also president of the Earth Policy Institute; Gerald Nelson, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington; and Gawain Kripke is the policy director for Oxfam America, also in D.C. Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today.

BROWN: Thank you.

NELSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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