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Full Plate of Issues With World Food Supply

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No one doubts that children who come to school energized by a bowl of oatmeal are better able to learn than kids whose stomachs are growling. Likewise, countries whose citizens are adequately fed are more likely to have the vigor to produce, innovate, make good governing choices, compete and trade than countries that are malnourished.

In short, countries not beset by starvation are better consumers of U.S. products than countries that don't have enough resources to feed everyone. So apart from humanitarian concerns, it's in our national economic interests to do what we can to take hunger out of the equation for as many countries as possible.

Some contend that food shortages elsewhere hurt U.S. security interests as well by destabilizing countries, but that may overstate the case. Consider the systematic starvation of the North Korean people. If there were a direct line between hunger and unrest, Dear Leader and Dear Leader Jr. would be long gone. And whether anti-West terrorists have enough to eat is not a credible explanation for their actions.

Nonetheless, U.S. economic interests are sufficient reason for considering world hunger and our role in reducing it. It's a campaign Sen. Richard Lugar has long waged, and bravo to him for his unwavering dedication to it. But we also need to keep in mind that feeding - or helping countries feed their own people - is not without consequences.

When fewer people are hungry, fewer children will die of malnutrition, and people will live longer. That means populations will stabilize and grow.

And that means even more food will need to be produced. Also, as countries prosper, their appetites change. A diet of rice and bugs no longer suffices, and the demand increases for chicken, goat and even beef. As the menu becomes more complex, there are requirements for more stoves to cook on and refrigerators to keep food fresh in - all of which takes far more resources than a bowl of rice every couple of days.

But the amount of arable land in the world is finite. Some inhospitable places can be made more favorable to crops through the use of fertilizers and seeds that have been tinkered with so they grow in dry areas, are resistant to pests and the like.

However, those chemicals can have an unhappy consequence for rivers and lakes, poisoning drinking water and creating dead zones in oceans. In short, imperiling life. The issue of genetically modified crops is fraught.

Nonetheless, growing more food on the same amount of land obviously requires those chemicals as well as genetically modified seeds.

Most Americans yawn at the controversy: We might recoil at the concept of Frankenfood, but we expect a red (though tasteless) tomato at the grocery store in March. And if that means using genetically modified tomato seeds, so be it.

Other nations start at the recoil and keep going in that direction. Countries in Europe, for instance, ban the importation of food grown from genetically modified seed. So African countries that go the genetically modified route cut off the closest export markets. That, in turn, reduces the country's (and the citizens') income, which sends them back to the lack of resources issue: poverty and hunger.

An answer? I don't know it. But I do know there's a consequence for every action in life, in government policy, in politics. And there's a consequence for every inaction.

Doing nothing means continued misery for places in the world where food is not abundant and is hard to grow. Doing nothing is essentially an endorsement of the idea that there are too many people on the planet, and a bunch of them should just go ahead and die.

Of course, doing something - more chemicals, more genetically modified crops - is not without consequences: more stress on the planet's resources, more conflict over strongly held views on the safety of genetically modified food.

Doing nothing is not an option on two counts, one tenderhearted, the other selfish: It's mean, and it hurts American chemical, seed and food producers by restricting available markets.

So we need to figure out how to minimize the bad effects of the "do something" option: fertilizers whose poisonous qualities dissipate before they reach waterways; a way to accommodate Europe's aversion to genetically modified food; expansion of markets for African countries, especially if Europe is closed to them; reduction of greenhouse gases that comes with increased use of fossil fuels.

This requires research at places like Purdue. It requires diplomacy. It requires increased trade options for Africa. Many people in government and on both sides of the aisle are working on these issues.

If we can take a break from the sour and hostile mood we all seem to be in these days, we ought to thank the people in "the establishment" who do what they can to work on these issues.

Sylvia A. Smith has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1973 and has covered Washington since 1989. She is the only Washington-based reporter who exclusively covers northeast Indiana.