While there has been a marked decrease in the rate of global population growth since the early 1990s, it is still rising rapidly, especially in developing countries. Medium-term projections for world population are approximately 8.3 billion by 2030 and 9.3 billion by 2050, before hopefully stabilizing at about 10-11 billion toward the end of the 21st century.
To feed this population, global agricultural production must double, perhaps triple, from 2000’s 5.23 billion tons. Meeting this demand implies two key challenges. First, developing an environmentally and economically sustainable method to produce this additional quantity of food. Second, and even more daunting, distributing food equitably.
Over the past 40 years, technological breakthroughs have facilitated increases in food production “pari passu” with global population growth. The result is that now per-capita world food supplies are 23 percent higher and real prices are 65 percent lower than in 1961. Global rice and wheat production has increased from 127 million tons to 762 million tons. In the second half of the 1960s, the use of new types of wheat and rice and new farm management practices, which made up the “Green Revolution,” were often depicted as the wholesale transfer of technology from high-yield agricultural systems to Third World farmers. To me, however, this revolution signified a new era in which agricultural science was used to produce technologies appropriate to conditions in the developing world.
The potential for further expansion of agriculture to new arable land areas is limited for most regions of the world, particularly for densely populated Asia and Europe. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that more than 85 percent of future growth in cereal production must come from increasing yields on lands already in production. Such productivity improvements will require crop varieties with higher genetic yield potential and greater tolerance of drought, insects and diseases. To achieve these genetic gains requires advances in both conventional and biotechnological farming methods. Clearly, we also need to rethink our attitudes about water, and move away from thinking of it as nearly a free good.
The rapidly spreading use of biotechnology offers great promise for improving the yield potential, yield dependability and nutritional quality of our food and feed crops. Commercial adoption by farmers of the new varieties has been one of the most rapid cases of technology diffusion in the history of agriculture. Between 1996 and 2001, the area planted commercially to transgenic crops has increased 30-fold. The arguments of the opposition, however, cannot be ignored and Third World nations must put into place regulatory frameworks to guide the development, testing and use of genetically modified organisms, both to protect people and the environment. In addition, the intellectual property rights of private companies also need to be safeguarded to ensure fair returns to past investments and to encourage greater investments in the future.
The current backlash against agricultural science and technology, evident in some industrialized countries, however, is hard for me to comprehend. How quickly urbanites become detached from the soil and how quickly some environmentalists are to brand farmers and ranchers as natural-resource plunderers rather than the stewards that they really are.
By increasing yields on lands best suited to agriculture, farmers have been able to leave untouched vast areas for other purposes. For example, had the 1950 average global cereal-grain yield per hectare still prevailed in 1998, instead of the 600 million hectares used for production, nearly 1.8 billion hectares of land would have been needed to produce that year’s global harvest.
More than any other region of the world, food production south of the Sahara is in crisis. High rates of population growth and little application of improved production technology have resulted in declining per-capita food production, escalating food deficits, and deteriorating nutritional levels, especially among the rural poor.
Almost certainly, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food. And yet there are upwards of 1 billion people who go to bed every night hungry. Particularly disheartening are the 300 million young children who go hungry each day, with this undernourishment leading to often-irreversible damage to their bodies and minds.
When I received my Nobel Peace Prize 31 years ago, I stated that the “Green Revolution” had won only a temporary success in man’s war against hunger, and warned that unless the frightening power of human reproduction was curbed, the success of the Green Revolution would be ephemeral.
I now say that the world has the technology — either currently available or well advanced in the research pipeline — to improve crop productivity and feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology.
Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. This small, but vociferous and well-funded, antiscience and antitechnology group is highly effective. They are denying the small-scale farmers of the Third World — and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa — access to the improved seeds, fertilizers and crop protection chemicals, and hence both justice and economic development.
The result of these trends bodes ill for Africa and the world. As Lord John Boyd Orr, the first director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, stated, “you cannot build peace on empty stomachs.”
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