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Lessons from the green revolution

POSTED 24 APRIL 2008


Hunger returns. We look to history for solutions
The price of food is skyrocketing. Price hikes over the past couple of years in corn, rice, wheat and soybeans have sparked food riots that are racking dozens of poor countries.Women and children swathed in brightly colored clothes sit along a dusty wal On April 20, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “If not handled properly, this crisis could result in a cascade of others ... and become a multidimensional problem affecting economic growth, social progress and even political security around the world.”

Food shortages echo around the world, and war always makes the problem worse. Amina Sheikh Nurow, 23, finds it ever harder to survive in a refugee camp in Somalia, and says, “We’re eating just one meal a day.” If she has no sorghum she gives the children water with sugar. As food prices soar, the World Food Program is running short of money. Photo:  World Food Programme

Jean Ziegler, the U.N.’s special envoy on food, was more explicit. According to Reuters, Ziegler said rising global food prices are leading to "silent mass murder.”

The growing hunger pangs have already caused political turmoil:

corn kernelIn Haiti, food riots nearly overthrew the fragile government, and starving poor people are eating mud mixed with oil and sugar: “It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, told the New York Times (see #3 in the bibliography). “It makes your stomach quiet down.”

corn kernelIn Egypt, where food prices have doubled in the past two months, the government spends more on food and fuel subsidies than it does on health and education -- but food-price protests persist.

corn kernelIn Malaysia, the government was almost ousted by the reaction to rising prices for food and fuel. The price of palm oil, commonly used for cooking, has soared due to massive conversion of palm oil to diesel fuel for the European Union.

corn kernelIn Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, signs warn shoppers not to hoard rice.

corn kernelIn Senegal, a normally peaceful country in West Africa, riot police attacked demonstrators protesting food prices. Similar protests have also broken out in several other sub-Saharan countries.

An empty belly and a hungry child are powerful motivators, and amid the worst explosion in food prices in 30 years, poor people are responding. “It’s the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and special adviser to the U.N. secretary general told the New York Times. “It’s a big deal… . There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”

Casting blame
Driving the surging prices is a cauldron of causes:

corn kernel 2Growing affluence is boosting demand for meat and dairy, which require much more grain than vegetarian food. “Close to 3 billion Chinese and Indians have an income that’s going up, and they want to eat more like us, and that is going to require more food production,” says William Tracy, head of the agronomy department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

corn kernel 2Droughts in key breadbaskets, including Australia, Ukraine and Russia, have created a “perfect storm” of lowered production and rising prices, according to agricultural economist Howard John (Jay) O'Neil III of Kansas State University. He anticipates that the weather will change and farmers will adapt by planting more of the high-price crops that are now so scarce. But with the price of virtually all major crops rising, it’s not clear how soon supply and demand can rebalance unless more land can be plowed. Exactly where that land may be found is unclear.

corn kernel 2Degraded soil and diminished water supplies are sapping yields on a growing proportion of farmland.

corn kernel 2Government mandates and subsidies are diverting corn, palm oil and cane sugar to ethanol and biodiesel, creating an ominous new link between the prices of food and of petroleum.

corn kernel 2Population is growing by 70 million per year, with the fastest growth in areas that already have food shortages.


Since 2005, prices for these key crops have roughly doubled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects them to level off in the future. For people who spend most of their income on food, these price hikes can mean hunger.Graph: USDA

The food shortage is old news to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, who has long warned that food is becoming scarce. In an interview, he told us, “The world grain situation has been tightening for several years.”

Brown assesses the big picture by looking at “carryover stocks,” the reserves that remain just before the next harvest comes in. “In seven of the last eight years,” he says, “consumption has exceeded production, which can happen only if we draw down our stocks. The carryover, the grain in the bin when a new harvest begins, is the seminal indicator of food security, and it’s now down to 54 days consumption,” not much more than is needed to fill the supply pipeline. “That is one reason that markets have gone crazy in the last few years.”

Graph demonstrates failure of Africa to thrive in cereal grain production, compared to Latin America and South Asia.
This is the green revolution: Per-hectare yields of basic grains have doubled in South Asia and Latin America. South of the Sahara, the picture is not revolutionary. Graph: Food and Agriculture Organization (see #2 in the bibliography).

A historic hope?
As we consider how to deal with the current food shortage, we inevitably look back 50 years to the food-short days after World War II, and recall a technological triumph called the green revolution. This global effort to breed crops for the developing world caused a spike in productivity of wheat, rice and corn, and later other major crops.

The revolution was based on technology -- a combination of modern seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, and a heavy dose of education for poor farmers, and it built on the genetic abilities residing in thousands of local crop varieties that farmers had built up over centuries of cultivation.

The green revolution wasn’t perfect, but it saved millions from starvation, and made food far more affordable for everybody.

Graph compares yield and production of developed and developing countries, developing countries still operate at dramatically lower levels of agricultural product
Estimates of annual, per-hectare yield increases attributable to seeds from international agriculture research centers show that a lot more people would be starving without the green revolution. Data from table 1 (see #1 in bibliography).

What can we learn from the green revolution? And could a “second green revolution” extricate us from today’s food problems?

How can agricultural research address a food crisis?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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