My perhaps overly glib defense of NASA?s Mars rover missions drew a couple of good challenges worth addressing. Adrian Custer challenged my assertion that the $820 million NASA?s spending on Mars is ?chump change.?

On the world hunger question, jfleck is wrong that $820 million is chump change. If you look at the whole budget for applied research in agricultural sciences it’s not very big. Take the next rover mission, move it to agricultural research and you might very well find ways to increase agricultural productivity in africa by a few percentage points. Doesn’t even really need research, more of a question of paying for outreach. And a million bucks pays for a whole lot of salaries, cars, gas and meetings.

Yeah, Adrian, that?s a really good point. Not that there?s necessarily a one-for-one correspondence here ? ?Let?s take $X million from NASA and spend it on anti-hunger agricultural stuff? ? but Adrian is right that some dent could be made with perhaps less money than I was willing to admit. This is from Dec. 12 Science, a review article about the global food situation suggesting policy approaches to deal with it:

Crop yield growth has slowed in much of the world because of declining investments in agricultural research, irrigation, and rural infrastructure and increasing water scarcity. New challenges to food security are posed by climate change and the morbidity and mortality of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS). Many studies predict that world food supply will not be adversely affected by moderate climate change, by assuming farmers will take adequate steps to adjust to climate change and that additional CO2 will increase yields. However, many developing countries are likely to fare badly. In warmer or tropical environments, climate change may result in more intense rainfall events between prolonged dry periods, as well as reduced or more variable water resources for irrigation. Such conditions may promote pests and disease on crops and livestock, as well as soil erosion and desertification.[1]

My premise about the benefit of research money for global food issues looks wrong from this perspective:

In addition to being a primary source of crop and livestock improvement, investment in agricultural research has high economic rates of return . Three major yield-enhancing strategies include research to increase the harvest index, plant biomass, and stress tolerance (particularly drought resistance). For example, the hybrid “New Rice for Africa,” which was bred to grow in the uplands of West Africa, produces more than 50% more grain than current varieties when cultivated in traditional rainfed systems without fertilizer. Moreover, this variety matures 30 to 50 days earlier than current varieties and has enhanced disease and drought tolerance. In addition to conventional breeding, recent developments in nonconventional breeding, such as marker-assisted selection and cell and tissue culture techniques, could be employed for crops in developing countries, even if these countries stop short of transgenic breeding. To date, however, application of molecular biotechnology has been mostly limited to a small number of traits of interest to commercial farmers, mainly developed by a few global life science companies.
Although much of the science and many of the tools and intermediate products of biotechnology are transferable to solve high-priority problems in the tropics and subtropics, it is generally agreed that the private sector will not invest sufficiently to make the needed adaptations in these regions with limited market potential. Consequently, the public sector will have to play a key role, much of it by accessing proprietary tools and products from the private sector.

One big thing that seems to work is the simple-sounding solution of helping folk build good roads:

Government expenditure on roads is the most important factor in poverty alleviation in rural areas of India and China, because it leads to new employment opportunities, higher wages, and increased productivity.

But there?s good reason to think that having us waltz in with our cool new food-growin? technology may not be the most effective approach:

Smallholder farmers in the tropics have skills and social networks that give us cause for optimism for future soil quality and food security. Many are managing their soils sustainably and productively. Although they tend to be limited in labor resources (i.e., have low “human capital”), they compensate in forms of collective action and networking (i.e., “social capital”). This means that they adapt technologies to their local needs (using indigenous knowledge and innovation) and avoid labor-demanding and expensive practices. Interventions that use community-based approaches that empower farmers to manage their own situation therefore hold the greatest promise for maintaining soil quality and ensuring food security.[2]

So there?s something to be said, apparently, for listening to the folks we?re trying to help.

1. Rosegrant, M.W. and S.A. Cline, Global Food Security: Challenges and Policies. Science, 2003. 302(5652): p. 1917-1919.
2. Stocking, M.A., Tropical Soils and Food Security: The Next 50 Years. Science, 2003. 302(5649): p. 1356-1359.