Where next in the battle to feed the world?

With the Green Revolution that fed millions running out of steam, can GM crops or organic farming keep hunger at bay?
A properly cared for rice plant can produce rice for 20 years. On average, farmers need 2,000 .../ Credits: Reuters

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Food production has often struggled to keep up with growing populations. Feeding 9.1 billion people in 2050 requires a 70% boost in output, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). How can this be done?

The Green Revolution

History provides some pointers.

In 1968, US author Paul R. Ehrlich wrote: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over...hundreds of millions will starve to death." Fortunately he was wrong. The ‘Green Revolution’ nourished Asia and Latin America from the late 1960s.

Scientists developed hybrid seeds which turned into plants that grew quicker, in any season, and were resistant to pests and disease. New irrigation canals, fertilizers, and pesticides provided water, nutrients, and protection. Agriculture was increasingly mechanized.

In Asia, while the amount of cultivated land increased by only 4%, cereal production doubled between 1970 and 1995. Food surpluses offered insurance against bad years and led to lower food prices. Poor people ate better.

The limits of revolution

The revolution was confined to areas that either received a lot of rain or were irrigated. That left out most of Africa, where today only 7% of arable land is irrigated.

Some farmers in remote areas could not easily get hybrid seeds, fertilizers and water pumps. Mechanization meant fewer farm jobs and lower wages. People deserted the land in large numbers.

Moreover, the revolution seems to have run out of steam. Yields have stagnated or even fallen in the last two decades, according to the FAO. When the rice variety IR8 was introduced in 1966, it produced almost ten tons per hectare; now it yields barely seven.

In some cases, the land is exhausted. Intensive farming gives the soil little time to recover and uses a lot of water. In some hot, dry areas groundwater reserves are dangerously depleted. Increasing use of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides breeds resistance and makes farmers vulnerable to oil prices.

It seems agriculture needs a new revolution.

GM crops to the rescue?

Some scientists say genetically modified (GM) crops are the answer. Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel Prize-winning architect of the Green Revolution, believed they would eradicate hunger.

GM crops can be engineered to enhance growth using less water, land and fertilizers while being more resistant to insects, disease, salt, and drought. GM pioneer Monsanto predicts that the yield from GM maize grown in America, which has doubled since 1970, can double again by 2030.

However, the bulk of GM crops currently grown do not provide food. Most of the world’s GM farmers grow cotton, either in China or India. Cotton, maize, rapeseed (canola) and soybean dominate the industry.

The majority of the GM harvest comes from the US, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada. Large proportions go to feed livestock and make biofuels.

GM versions of staples such as rice, wheat and vegetables have yet to be introduced at scale.

GM has “developed in too narrow a context” to help most of the poor, concluded the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, blaming GM patents for  “prohibitive costs, threatening to restrict experimentation while also potentially undermining local practices that enhance food security.”

On the contrary, argues the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Because GM cotton farmers have improved yields and increased incomes they can feed themselves and stimulate local development.

An organic alternative?

“GMOs as stand-alone technologies cannot achieve food security in Africa,” says Walter Alhassan, a biotechnology consultant at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa. He argues that it is also necessary to develop conventional technologies such as gene marking and cross-breeding.

For instance, New Rice for Africa (NERICA) hybrids crossed high-yielding Asian rice with African rice that can thrive in harsh environments—in Uganda, production doubled between 2004 and 2008.

The FAO has hailed 'conservation agriculture'—minimum plowing and chemical inputs, crop rotation—as “a truly sustainable production system” that can enhance food security.

Organic agriculture offers another alternative. This allows farmers to produce food without relying on petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides and the patent systems that govern GM crops.

It can boost yields too. A UN Environment Programme survey of organic projects in East Africa found that yields more than doubled, beating both traditional and chemical-intensive farming methods.

Which farming techniques will feed the world? History suggests technology-based options will prevail, but the Green Revolution may also be succeeded by an even greener counter-revolution.

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