Searching for sustainable and environmentally safe food production systems to feed the growing population of the world
Twenty years ago, and in the face of growing populations and food shortages in South Asia, the world’s spirits were boosted by news of India’s and Pakistan’s seemingly sudden success in launching the “Green Revolution.” Both these countries introduced highly productive varieties of wheat and rice, employing new methods in the use of more and better chemical fertilizers, improved irrigation, and pesticides. As a result, countries that once feared famine began to produce enough to meet their needs, and even export.
As has happened so often, history is now repeating itself. An agricultural crisis is again looming on the horizon. But this time it has a global dimension, and policymakers worldwide must face a potentially explosive conflict of choices. New ways must be found to increase agricultural production by nearly 50 percent in the next two decades. This must be done, however, without depleting the earth’s soil and water resources, which will be needed to meet greater demands in the future.
Traditional agriculture may not be able to meet this challenge. This means that once again, international agricultural researchers and their national colleagues are being called on to play a major role in fashioning sustainable and productive agricultural systems for the planet.
Fortunately, this time, there are not 2 but 17 international agricultural research centers—all operating under the leadership of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—and another dozen centers that are cooperating with them or are in the process of being set up. Even more important, there is a qualitative change of focus in the centers’ research: increasingly, scientists are being asked by their financial backers and by the CGIAR’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), which coordinates their research, not only to develop sturdier and more productive plants but also cost-effective and labor-effective ways to protect and improve soils and conserve water. They are also giving more attention to environmental concerns by helping small farmers and farmers working on marginally productive lands. This truly represents, as the popular press has said, a “greening of international agricultural research” and of CGIAR.
What has brought all this about? There has been outside pressure, of course. But, principally, this shift has come as a healthy internal response by the international agricultural research community to some very frightening and challenging realities:
- Agricultural productivity and production must continue to accelerate at an unprecedented rate for at least the next four decades, particularly to help the poor countries of the tropics feed their rapidly growing populations.
- Chemical inputs (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) may be too expensive, unavailable, and, in the case of misused pesticides, dangerous for the farmers in developing countries. Yet, much of the increased world food production must come from these farmers.
- Very little additional irrigated land can be brought into production, barely making up for the cultivable land being lost to salinity and waterlogging.
- Too many national agricultural research and extension systems in the developing world have become underfunded, overly politicized, and hence, ineffective, over the years. These weakened systems, therefore, are not strong enough partners for the international agricultural research centers. Even some of the best national centers—in Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines—have deteriorated in the last decade as debt-ridden governments have cut support.
- Developing countries cannot rely on their most fertile lands alone for food and other agricultural produce. They must also sustain production on poorly endowed lands, where farming is often difficult because of various combinations of recurring drought, wetness, cold, steep ground, or infertile soil.