Norman Borlaug, Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in developing and propagating more productive and disease resistant strains of wheat and other grains. This contributed to the so-called Green Revolution, about which he notes
From 1965 to 1985, the heyday of the Green Revolution, world production of cereal grains — wheat, rice, corn, barley and sorghum — nearly doubled, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion metric tons, and cereal prices dropped by 40 percent.
Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world’s people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.
But now the world's wheat supply is under great threat, at the same time as rising fuel petroleum prices and the conversion of corn to ethanol are also creating problems for price and availability of grain. Much of the world potentially faces a real food crisis.
Borlaug has an op ed in today's New York Times entitled Stem Rust Never Sleeps which begins with this paragraph outlining the dire situation the world possibly faces:
WITH food prices soaring throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shortages threatening hunger and political chaos, the time could not be worse for an epidemic of stem rust in the world’s wheat crops. Yet millions of wheat farmers, small and large, face this spreading and deadly crop infection.
Almost all of the wheat commercially grown today is vulnerable to a new strain of stem rust, Ug99 (so labeled because it first appeared in Uganda just before the end of the last century). For the vast majority of us who are so removed from the production of our food that we do not understand the impact of a grain disease Borlaug explains clearly that stem rus
can turn a healthy crop of wheat into a tangled mass of stems that produce little or no grain. The fungus spores travel in the wind, causing the infection to spread quickly
and that variants of this plant disease have been responsible for major worldwide famines, and even in the US we have seen major grain losses from stem rust in 1903-05 and 1950-54. Wheat is of course not only a source of protein for many Americans (although probably too many of us get too much of our protein from meat for our own well-being), but is also a major source of foreign exchange. According to one site I found,in 2005-06 the U. S. was the third largest exporter of wheat, sending over 57 million tons abroad that year, an amount equal to 9% of the world's entire production.
One would think that the American government would recognize the thread to the world's stability a sudden decrease in the availability of wheat would represent, and would do all in its power to ameliorate the effects of the new strain. And, as Borlaug points out, when Mike Johanns was Secretary of Agriculture, he moved aggressively to have the US take the lead in developing an international strategy to address the looming threat. This was combined with aggressive financial aid from the Agency for International Aid to assist Asian and African nations in developing their own research.
But now Borlaug finds a different and disturbing pattern from the administration:
The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.
The implications of this new direction are frightening. Besides the possible threats to US agriculture, Borlaug points out the actions represent an abandonment of our commitment to halve world hunger by 2015.
In his penultimate paragraph, which he uses to set the frame in which he urges a recommitment to the efforts that produced the green revolution, Borlaug writes:
If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world’s poor.
I have never lived on a farm. My experience in growing food has been that of many in suburban communities, of growing a few fruits and vegetables perhaps sufficient for part of one family's needs, with a little extra. As children my sister and I, along with our mother, spent a lot of time learning how to do things properly and were able to delight in eating homegrown produce and in sharing our extra by swapping with neighbors for theirs. In the two and half decades since moving into my current home our agricultural experience has been to benefit from the production of a now deceased 70-year-old Apple tree. I claim no great expertise on matters of agronomy.
I have often wondered about the trade-offs involved in the green revolution. Certainly the production of food stuff was greatly increased and made somewhat more stable. On the other hand, the approach made agriculture more energy intensive, and has led to a spreading of monocultural agriculture - planting all of one's fields with one crop, and with one variant of that crop. While this is certainly more efficient from the standpoint of the producer, it makes the crop far more vulnerable to things like plant diseases, and requires constant monitoring and the ongoing development of new strains resistant to newly arising variants of plant disease. And certainly the increased availability of grain has contributed in no small part to the explosion of populations as nations were better able to feed the increasing number of people. This has placed increasing strain on other resources in a fashion that is clearly not sustainable should populations continue to expand.
But in the short term it is irresponsible to for this nation to walk away from the international system it helped create and thereby subject many to the threat of starvation and the concomitant threats of civil disorder and international conflict: nations will go to war to ensure the food necessary for their people to survive.
Like it or not, the world in the short term must fully maintain the mechanisms of the green revolution, or millions will die. While we should encourage major changes in how we feed the world's people - our current approach is far too energy intensifve - and we should also recognize that all nations need to address issues of population growth, it is inhumane to abandon those who are dependent upon our current mechanisms while we seek to find better and more sustainable ways of providing the nutrients we all need to survive.
And the issue is not only that of how we grow and what we grow. We are or soon will be at peak oil. That commodity is essential for the maintenance of our current system of growing food, and humanity cannot afford to have so much of what may be a dminishing resource used wastefully in powering of inefficient means of personal transportation. That is an additional pressure on the ability of the world to feed its people. A meaningful national energy policy would recognize many concerns of our current approach - air pollution, paving over of land causing runoff rather than recharging underground water source, financial transfers to oil-producing nations, the military costs of assuring access to a regular supply . . . but to these we also need to recognize the threat to the world food supply that our extravant consumption of petroleum represents. And in world in fear of hunger, regardless of the reasons that cause that fear, is a world that will be unstable. And an unstable world threatens us all.
Read the Borlaug. And perhaps each of us can consider our own part in the global interconnection of feeding us all. Perhaps then we can ensure that our political discussions do not ignore issues such as this?