food

I was heartened to read about the work of Kenya’s Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango on preserving and promoting the cultivation of indigenous crops. Many of the plants and vegetables that were spurned by the well fed as food for the poor are making a return and are to be found in Kenya’s supermarkets and restaurants. I was also saddened to learn that the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, died last week.

Borlaug decades long passion for tackling starvation has been matched by that of Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango. He, like Professor Abukutsa-Onyango, was a plant scientist. He had seen the Misissippi Dustbowl which many believed was caused through technological farming. Borlaug thought the problem was due to too little technology and that high yield drought resistant crops could prevent future dustbowls. In 1948 at the behest of the Rockefeller Institute Borlaug was requested to help poor farmers in Mexico.

The Rockefellers had many interests in the country and the country was seething with revolutionary fervour because people were hungry. When he arrived in Mexico Borlaug despaired. Yields were low, crops had been ravaged by disease and the soil had been depleted. Over time he developed a stout strain of wheat which grew quickly and helped avert a food crisis. An essential element to the high yields was the use of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

By 1953 Borlaug had developed over 40 varieties of wheat that were drought and disease resistant. On a small patch of land he had been able to triple and quadruple the amount of wheat that could be grown. By the 1960’s Mexico’s wheat output had outstripped that of the 1940’s sixfold, turning Mexico into a country self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.

Seeing what was possible Borlaug began to argue that what was good for Mexico could be good for Africa and Asia. This was seen as controversial as it meant replacing indigenous crops with western wheat.

In 1961 with funding from the Rockefeller Institute and the Ford Foundation Borlaug established the International Rice Research Institute for Rice in the Phillipines and turned his attention to rice. The risk of famine was now threatening the Asian sub-continent as population was outstripping food production.

Borlaug’s initial attempts to persuade the Indian and Pakistani government to adopt his wheat varieties initially fell on deaf ears. The countries were bitterly divided and still at war with each other. But as a food famine loomed they soon came around and asked Borlaug for his advice. Before long they were shipping in his Mexican seed varieties by the ton.

Asian scientists began testing his wheat varieties and found they did exceptionally well. Farmers were also given aid in the form of fertilizers and by 1968 Pakistan had become self-sufficient in wheat and India followed a few years later. India had such a surplus of wheat it was having to turn schools into temporary granaries. By the 1980’s India had turned into a net exporter of wheat. The same thing was repeated in the Phillipines as farmers switched to Borlaug’s dwarf varieties. Then China followed and today it is the world’s largest producer of food. What Borlaug achieved was considered to be nothing short of a miracle and was soon dubbed the “Green Revolution”.

I was a young development worker in the Mekong Delta in 1968 when this new “miracle rice” from the Philippines arrived. Its impact in the eight villages in which I worked was as stunning as it was immediate. The four villages that were accessible by road experienced dramatic improvements, both in terms of nutrition and the well being of the people. New IR-8 rice spread rapidly as peasant farmers with small plots were suddenly able to experience both increased yields and double crops. This in turn led to tangible improvements in the quality of life: child mortality dropped; malnutrition abated; and children, especially girls, stayed in school longer.

At the same time, there was a rapid corresponding decrease in the level of armed conflict and military hostilities. It was as though the combination of new roads and new rice seed caused the roots of violent extremism to wither and disappear in a way that military action alone could not. By contrast, the four other villages, with no bridges and no road access, remained mired in poverty: the new “miracle seeds” were not put to use; children remained stunted; and warfare and political dissidence continued there unabated.

In 1970 he was honoured for his work and awarded the nobel peace prize.

He is credited with saving the lives of a billion people through creating rice and wheat hybrids which everywhere, save for Africa, were responsible for increasing food production faster than the rate of population growth. But it was this success at saving lives that led to a backlash by Malthussian environmentalists who saw population growth as the biggest threat to the earth’s ecosystems.

Borlaug too was a neo-Malthussian who believed the world was overpopulated, once saying that feeding the starving was only feeding “the population monster” and he had wanted to see governments tackle population by lowering birth rates. In his Nobel acceptance speech he said, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” Further he argued that introducing hybrid varieties to Africa would save its wild habitats because hybrid varieties could produce higher yields on less land thus preserving Africa’s wild habitats from “slash and burn” subsistence agriculture.

By the time Borlaug had begun work in Africa in the 1980’s environmental lobbyists had succeeded in persuading the World Bank and Ford Foundation to stop funding most of his African agricultural projects. The Rockefeller Institute also shied away from supporting him as it now began to concentrate on bio-technology. It was argued that tractors and intensive farming methods had no place in Africa. Borlaug’s methods had created dependence on monoculture crops, unsustainable farming practices, heavy indebtedness among subsistence farmers, and high levels of cancer among those who work with agriculture chemicals. Today environmentalists also express doubts about the long-term sustainability of farming practices encouraged by the Green Revolution in both the developed and the developing world.

Borlaug’s response was that the lobbyists “have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.”

Borlaug found his work hampered in Africa by poor transportation systems. He complained “The potential’s there, but you can’t eat potential. The transport system is miserable. We have to bring in fertilizer. And as soon as you get these little farms producing, there has to be better transport to move the excess green to the cities of those countries where there are food shortages.” Equally factors such as irrigation systems and organized economies that had led to success in Asia were lacking in Africa. Most of Borlaug’s work tended to be concentrated in the developed parts of Africa and where they were implemented yields increased.

So far so good. The conventional wisdom about world hunger is that there is not enough food to feed everybody so we must grow more. Yet globally food yields have risen since Borlaug began his work in the 1940’s and there is more than enough food to feed the world’s population. Global hunger’s cause is therefore not one of production but distribution.

Global production rose by 11% since the 1970’s but much of that transformation happened within China. Subtract China from the equation and global hunger rose by 11%.

In South America, hunger grew by nearly 20 percent despite impressive gains in output driven, in part, by improved crop varieties. Those varieties required large landholdings in order to be economically efficient, which meant that the peasants working that land had to be kicked off. Those displaced peasants migrated to the hillsides and tropical forests, doubling the area of cultivated land–in other words, the increase in food came not only through technology but also simply by having food growing on a greater area.

Part 1

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