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Plant a second Green Revolution

A global food summit is a test of leadership in pushing research on higher crop yields.

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With lofty grain prices forcing an estimated 100 million people toward severe hunger, a food summit in Rome this week may help boost emergency relief. But the world faces a long-term crisis in supply, one that needs the same devotion – and results – of the Green Revolution four decades ago.

It was largely American investment in agricultural science that drove the productivity revolution of the 1960s and '70s, creating new varieties of rice, wheat, and other crops – and prevented mass starvation. But success in higher yields led to complacency and a decline in research for further – and now necessary – gains, especially in less-arable lands.

And in hindsight, US leadership was largely driven by concern during the cold war to keep poor countries from going communist.

Now the world again faces a food shortage, reflected in a nearly 70 percent price rise over the past two years. The productivity gains of the past simply aren't enough to feed an additional 3 billion people by 2050. And the crisis has become acute because of a convergence of factors: a rapid rise in oil prices, droughts caused by climate change, a rising Asian demand for grain-fed meat, and the diversion of land to produce corn ethanol.

With US attention largely diverted to domestic concerns, the June 3-5 food summit is a critical test of whether a collective global leadership can push big reforms in how the world feeds itself.

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