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The green revolution revisited

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The specter of widespread famine loomed large in the third world in the early 1960s. Explosive population growth was straining food supplies in developing countries, forcing many governments to import substantial amounts of grain. By draining scarce foreign exchange to pay for food, many developing nations slipped further into debt and found it increasingly difficult to keep abreast with the growing appetite for food.

Then in the mid-1960s, new, high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice were developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRIe in the Philippines. They promised to alleviate the worsening food shortages cropping up in various parts of the third world.

What is the balance sheet on the green revolution now that results and criticisms have accumulated for some 15 years?

The outstanding feature of the new breeds of wheat and rice is their ability to respond favorably t fertilizers. To tailor these crops to modern farming conditions, breeders altered the architecture of the plants to make them smaller. Unlike many traditional varieties the new semi-dwarf wheats and rices do not grow tall and collapse after fertilization. Equipped with a shorter stem , the plants channel more effort into producing seed rather than straw.

The semi-dwarf wheats were first unveiled in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent in 1966. Within a decade, the area planted to the improved varieties shot up to 30 million hectares. Now half of all the wheat planted in the third world is sown to the semi-dwarf varieties. And the improved breeds of rice now cover one quarter of the rice planted in developing countries.

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