15 October 2015

Now is the time for another Green Revolution

Laura H. Kahn

The Green Revolution of the 1960s prevented mass starvation in the developing world. Just as deep fear was taking hold among economists and demographers that food production wouldn’t keep up with global population growth, the effects of technological advances solved the problem. The microbiologist and geneticist Norman E. Borlaug developed a high-yield, disease-resistant wheat plant, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Work at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines radically improved grain productivity. As a result of these and related advances, wheat and rice yields in Asia doubled from the 1960s to the 1990s, and grain prices fell even though the Asian population grew by 60 percent.

Today, though, the specter of global food insecurity—lack of access to safe, nutritious food—is again rearing its head. Food insecurity is compounded by the problem of climate change, which through alterations to temperature, weather patterns, and organism habitats, could affect crop yields. That means a new green revolution might be in order. Averting widespread starvation and protecting national security in an era of climate change will require robust food security strategies that make modern agriculture more sustainable and efficient. These strategies must include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing food wastage, and developing genetically modified crops that can withstand drought, floods, pests, and disease.

Causes and consequences. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, Borlaug cautioned against concluding that the Green Revolution had permanently eliminated hunger. Food security is contingent on two opposing forces: the power of humans to produce food and their power to reproduce. The world’s population is growing: As of 2015, it exceeds 7 billion people, and demographic studies estimate that by 2100, it could be somewhere between 9.6 and 12.3 billion. Fortunately, the cost of feeding the world is decreasing, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the global cereal supply for 2015 and 2016 is expected to comfortably meet demand. The question is, will this trend continue as climate change worsens?

Worrying signs already exist that climate change is adversely affecting agriculture in many parts of the world. California’s prolonged, severe drought is estimated to have a major impact on production of nuts, fruits, and vegetables.  Drought conditions are plaguing Europe, especially around the Mediterranean. India’s East Coast is drying out and doesn’t have enough rain to grow corn. Drought conditions are affecting the equatorial regions of Africa and South America, especially Brazil; farmers in Sao Paulo state, an area severely hit by water shortages, have lost almost a third of their crops. As the World Bank estimates, the planet needs to produce at least 50 percent more food by 2050, but climate change could cut crop yields by more than 25 percent. Already, a third of all child deaths globally can be attributed to under-nutrition.

One effect of food insecurity is that it adversely impacts national security and increases the likelihood of war. Over the past two decades, high food prices have been highly correlated with civil unrest. Some have argued that the Arab Spring was spurred on by sky-high food prices. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign in February 2011, one month before global food prices peaked, and from 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst drought ever recorded in that country. The drought contributed to a massive exodus of Syrian farmers, herders, and other agriculturalists. Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, more than 200,000 have been killed, and more than four million refugees have left the country. 

Breaking bad habits. One step towards greater food security would be transforming agriculture to emit fewer of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, agriculture produces 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—through such things as fertilization, certain irrigation and tillage methods, burning crop residues, leaving organic matter to decay in flooded fields, cattle digestion, and storing manure. The US Department of Agriculture has outlined how farms and ranches could reduce their emissions: by reducing the amount of fertilizer applied to crops, changing livestock and manure-management practices, shifting to conservation tillage, and planting trees or grass. Governments would need to provide financial incentives for farmers to adopt these practices. 

Reducing food waste would also improve food security. The FAO estimates that 1.3 billion tons of edible food are wasted each year. Problems can occur at many places along the supply chain, during harvesting, packing, storage, or transport. For example, food may spoil before reaching the consumer. Harvested fruit that falls off a truck, meanwhile, is often treated as garbage, as is overripe fruit on store shelves. The FAO is collaborating with Messe Dusseldorf, a trade fair organizer, and others on a global initiative to reduce food loss and waste, but more could be done at local levels to ensure that “extra” edible food from the supply chain goes to the poor, not the garbage heap.

Water conservation is also crucial for food security because without water, plants cannot grow. And in a drought-ridden world, saved water could mean the difference between feast or famine. Globally, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water use, and in the United States, the figure is approximately 80 percent. At least half of US irrigated cropland uses inefficient, traditional irrigation systems. Research on improving water use would be an important step towards better water conservation, especially in drought-prone areas. Subsurface drip irrigation is one strategy that would reduce waste.

The science solution. Perhaps the most important agricultural advances, though, will come through scientific research. Ironically, the great technological gains of the 20th century, by increasing crop yields, led to an underinvestment in further agriculture research. They also contributed to an overreliance on fertilizers and widespread ground water depletion, problems that further research can help solve.

Our most important advances will likely come through more research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The company Calgene first introduced GMOs in 1994 with the Flavr Savr, a genetically modified tomato that stayed riper longer than regular tomatoes. Critics may contend that the tomatoes lacked flavor, but GMOs are nevertheless one of our most important tools for averting mass starvation and disease. For example, in 2001 Syngenta obtained the commercial rights to golden rice, a variation on rice—a staple for nearly half the world’s population—that contains vitamin A. It has the potential to eliminate blindness and premature death in millions of children. Sadly, worldwide opposition to golden rice long delayed its introduction on a wide scale, even though, according to the World Health Organization, between 250,000 and 500,000 children go blind from vitamin A deficiency every year; about half of them die. 

The introduction of golden rice could be a major step forward for global food security, if the public ever accepts it. (Bangladesh Rice Research Institute is currently conducting field trials with it.) As climate change worsens, more research along similar avenues could potentially be lifesaving. For example, genetically engineered crops that can withstand extreme weather events are needed, and foods containing additional essential vitamins could further improve global health. Political opposition, particularly by environmental activists such as Vandana Shiva, poses significant hurdles that must be overcome. Public education would be a good place to start.

Now is the time for a second Green Revolution, before the effects of climate change worsen. Global agriculture must be efficient and resilient if we are to feed the several billion additional people who will inhabit the planet in the near future. Public and political support for science will be vital.