It seems like a no-brainer: To feed a growing global population, we’ll have to produce more food. But as the “Food for 9 Billion” project has been discovering, ramping up production is only part of the story. In fact, it’s sometimes part of the problem. More urgent are efforts to use resources more wisely and strengthen the connections between our food systems and other human and environmental needs.

That idea was reinforced by the results of the 2012 Innovation Challenges announced this week by the Rockefeller Foundation, an organization that is linked in many people’s minds with the high-yielding wheat and rice varieties of the Green Revolution. The list of winners (eight were selected out of nearly 2,000 applicants) resonated with the roster of “Food for 9 Billion” radio and TV stories.

Mobido Coulibaly of Mali was awarded for a reality radio series in which young people compete to create the best new farm. Kenya’s Joseph Macharia plans to use radio and other mass media to deliver agricultural information to youth. Nigerian Fatima Oyiza Ademoh won for a program called Youth Agro Entrepreneurs, which teaches sustainable farming practices to young adults.

Those three projects brought to mind our recent story on PBS NewsHour about Japan’s struggle to keep family farms from dying when elderly farmers retire. Sam Eaton reported that some in Japan are pushing to make farms bigger and more competitive, while others would rather find ways to make farming more appealing to young people. Societies around the world are grappling with similar questions. Who will produce our food in the future? Is industrial farming the only way forward?

Two Innovation Challenges awards went to researchers for low-cost technologies that dramatically reduce the amount of water and fertilizer smallholder farmers need to grow crops. Amos Winter, a recent MIT graduate and prolific inventor (check out his high-efficiency wheelchair designed for developing countries), was recognized for a drip irrigation system that “will reduce the cost of 1-acre drip irrigation systems by 90 percent and will put them in reach of small-scale, subsistence farmers who live off the electrical grid.” John Duxbury, a soil chemist at Cornell University, was cited for promoting land management techniques (mainly raised beds and furrows) that improve soil fertility and cut water use.

We interviewed Duxbury for a “Food for 9 Billion” story that aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace in February about efforts to prepare for climate change in Bangladesh. He didn’t downplay the threat to the country’s food supply, but said there was huge potential for getting more out of existing systems with relatively simple improvements tailored to local conditions. In radio stories about water scarcity in India and soil fertility in Ghana, we met other innovators who stress conservation, local problem-solving and “systems thinking” over the push for higher yields.

Not that anyone actually says jacking up productivity is the only answer – or linking farmers to markets, or eliminating waste, or slowing population growth or any other single thing. We’ve been reporting these stories for about eight months now, and nearly everyone we talk to says the world is a complex place and there are no magic bullets. But it’s good to be reminded that humanity has a lot of other weapons in its creative arsenal.

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Jon Miller

Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).