Last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution.
In 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work on breeding high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat. Mexico adopted them — and in 1970, wheat yields were six times what they had been in 1950.
In 1965, India and Pakistan, then on the brink of widespread famine, began growing the high-yield wheat. Over the next 30 years, wheat yields in India tripled. The same happened with high-yield rice strains that had been developed in the Philippines.
Borlaug, who died in 2009, directed the wheat improvement program of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, which goes by the Spanish acronym Cimmyt. The research headquarters is a 78-hectare spread of land a half-hour drive from Mexico City.
Today Cimmyt researchers grow and test new varieties of corn, or maize, along with the wheat. Their purpose is to contribute to a new green revolution — this time for Africa.
The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is still debated today. The bumper yields came not only from new strains of wheat, but also from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers, who had lived for millenniums using the seeds they grew, now had to purchase them to get these gains. Buying seeds and fertilizer, of course, was easier for the wealthy than the poor. And vast planting of only a few varieties reduced biodiversity.
But Mark Rosegrant, the director of the environment and production technology division at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said that small farmers did, with some lag, adopt the new technologies — the record yields they saw others achieve convinced them to buy the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. They also benefited all along from a newly revitalized rural economy, higher wages and lower food prices.
Most important, the Green Revolution’s critics have no good answer to what would have happened to Asia’s exploding population, already hungry, absent the doubling of yields. The Green Revolution saved a billion people from starvation. (For a concise summary of the debate see this short paper (pdf)).
What will happen to Africa? It is not only possible to get more maize from every acre planted, it is necessary. Africa cannot feed itself while getting only a quarter of its potential yields.
The Green Revolution failed in Africa for reasons that remain major obstacles today. Absent research, roads, storage, extension capacity, credit and subsidies — high-yield maize will produce little, or its gains will go only to wealthier farmers. But when governments invest in agriculture, dramatic gains are possible.
Read the full, original article: A Green Revolution, this time for Africa
- “Honoring of Green Revolution’s Norman Borlaug ignites ideological skirmishes,” Genetic Literacy Project
- “Biotechnology is panacea for Africa’s green revolution,” Ghana Business News
- “India’s GM crop success,” National Post