The War on Hunger in Global Scale

  January 17, 2024   Read time 5 min
The War on Hunger in Global Scale
Ten thousand years ago the first farmers gathered suitable grasses, transported them to the home site, and began to clear land to grow them. Thus they both selected the best genes for human food production and created the environment in which they could thrive.

This simple innovation gave rise to civilization as we know it and from it farming rapidly expanded from less than a tenth of the Earth’s land area in 1700 to more than 40 percent today. However bountiful the new source of food, it was also rather unreliable, affected by weather, disease, and competition from weeds, insects, and pests. The advent of scientific crop breeding in the late nineteenth century, based on the ge ne tic discoveries of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, provided the first true counter to this unpredictability and began to deliver the more secure food supplies on which the rise of industrial civilization depended. Coupled with improved fertilization and methods of weed and pest control, yields of wheat— for example— rose from 1–2 tonnes (1.1–2.2 U.S. tons) per hectare in the late nineteenth century to around 7–8 tonnes (7.7–8.8 U.S. tons) in advanced farming countries with reliable climates by the early twenty- first. From the 1970s on, the international agricultural research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) spread similarly dramatic gains in yields of rice, maize, grain legumes, potatoes, and other crops throughout the developing world, enabling once- hungry nations such as India, China, and Mexico to grow all their own food.

Few, if any, of the quiet heroes who achieved these remarkable feats for us all are house hold names.3 Perhaps the best known is the late Norman Borlaug, one of the fathers of the high- yielding dwarf wheats that are said to have nourished more than two billion people since their development, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his achievements. In 1962 M. S. Swaminathan— another giant among those who have fed the world— arranged to bring Borlaug and his wheats to India and began, quietly, to refute skeptics such as Paul Ehrlich, who in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb had argued that the country could not possibly feed itself: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. . . . In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Yet, by 1974, barely six years after the distribution of highyielding wheat and rice varieties, India was meeting all its own basic food needs.

When the Green Revolution began, one in three of the world’s people faced hunger or died from the diseases associated with it. By the early twenty- first century this had fallen to one in eight (or 850 million)— still an unacceptably high toll in human suffering and a number that grew again with the food crisis and global recession. The Green Revolution’s major achievements included • spectacular increases in yields and production of rice in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, • dramatic improvements in both quality and yields of corn, • a major increase in the world wheat harvest, • farmed fish that grow 60 percent faster, • many new varieties of beans, lentils, cowpeas, and pigeonpeas that yield more and resist disease better, • increased food security and reduced malnutrition for hundreds of millions in developing countries, • a platform for economic development in countries such as India and China, and • a return of about 17:1 on every dollar invested in research.

A major food crisis had been averted and a road out of poverty created for billions. The Green Revolution was not without downsides, however, coming under fire from critics for its unintended impacts on the environment and on social inequity— issues that have been addressed in recent programs, which have a far greater focus on microeconomic factors and the needs of smallholders and women, who make up the majority of the world’s farmers.

The outstanding success of the Green Revolution in dispelling the Malthusian nightmare of the late twentieth century in most regions other than Africa also contained the seeds of its own undoing— the paralyzing complacency and neglect of agricultural science and technology on which to build the next great leap in food output. Over the ensuing years, the public effort put into maintaining and increasing food production began to decelerate and, in some countries, even to contract.

For the past quarter century, the brainpower required to feed humanity has been shrinking in relation to the global population and its needs. In local field research stations, in national agriculture departments, in universities, colleges, and research centers, and in the international agricultural research endeavor, funding has been cut or allowed to erode, labs and field stations have been closed, and promising research programs have been terminated. Many of the scientists who fed the world have quit in anger, sorrow, or disappointment, have been fired, or have retired, while recruitment has fallen off. The power houses of agricultural knowledge— the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, and Australia— have turned away from agri- science in pursuit of other technological El Dorados. A report by Alex Evans for Britain’s Royal Institute for International Affairs says that between 1980 and 2006 the proportion of the world’s aid bud get spent on agriculture dwindled from 17 to just 3 percent. “Total aid spending on agriculture fell 58% in real terms over the same period,” it added.

Support for the global effort to lift food production in developing countries has been stagnant for thirty years (see figure 4). Even in the food- insecure giants China and India, research efforts in other fields have eaten into that devoted to agriculture. The resulting dilapidation in the enterprise that feeds the Earth has disheartened a generation of young would- be agricultural scientists, especially in developed countries where many universities and colleges of agriculture could not find enough students willing to fill the places they were offering.7 A gaping deficit in the river of knowledge and technology on which farmers depend to maintain growth in food production has opened up, which could take de cades to fill. Speaking of the causes of the food price crisis, Tom Lumpkin, the director general of CIMMYT, said: “We have ourselves to blame. Our leaders did not focus on the food security of their grandchildren. They only saw the next election campaign coming. The world has a real shortage of leaders who read history books and understand global trends. Now we don’t have the research or training to do what is needed.”

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