The green revolution revisited

By , Nigel Smith, associate professor of geography at the University of Florida, has had more than a decade of field experience in the third world.

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?

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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.

The brush-fire speed with which the modern varieties of wheat and rice spread has greatly improved the food picture for several hunger-ridden countries.

India, for example, had been importing some 6 million tons of grain per year before the mid-1960s. Since then, however, cereal stocks have accumulated in spite of several drought years. The tripling of Indian wheat production between 1965 and 1980 was achieved mostly through higher yields; it helped to feed the 190 million people that were born in that country during those years.

Bangladesh, with 90 million inhabitants squeezed into a country the size of Wisconsin, has managed to come within a few hundred thousand tons of feeding itself thanks largely to the improved strains of rice and wheat.

And the Philippines, a chronic importer of rice for decades, became self-sufficient in the cereal by 1970 and a net exporter a decade later because of the widespread adoption of the semi-dwarf rices.

The impressive strides several developing nations have made in boosting food production have nevertheless triggered concern for the ecological stability of their farmlands. The replacement of a mosaic of traditional crop varieties by modern breeds increases the danger of massive crop failure because of a heightened susceptibility to diseases and pests. But the adoption of semi-dwarf varieties of cereals in developing countries has no provoked any major disruption of food supplies owing to insect or disease attack. although it is true that the early generations of high-yielding rice varieties, particularly IR-8, were vulnerable to pests, the vastly increased yield normally compensated for the damage.

The Rice Institute, working in association with national programs, has since developed a series of modern rices within much greater resistance to pests and diseases. To accomplish this task, institute scientists draw from a germ plasm bank containing over 50,000 different rices collected in dozens of countries. The hundreds of crop varieties employed by peasants in the third world are an important source of material for the germ plasm bank.

Social critics of the spread of modern varieties in cereals in developing countries have suggested that the new seeds have benefited the prosperous farmers at the expense of the rural poor. Although larger farms usually adopt the new varieties first because they are more inclined to take risks, the small-scale cultivators usually follow suit within a few years. In India, for example, over half the farms planted to the semi-dwarf wheats are under 10 acres. And in Mexico the holdings sown to the improved wheats are mostly in the 250-1,000-acre range, which is hardly excessive considering that most of the irrigated farms are on what was once barren desert.

The accelerated supply of food generated by the unleashing of modern varieties in the third world has opened up new jobs in service industries, such as marketing, thus creating new wealth. Furthermore, food prices have been dampened by the stepped-up production of cereals, a bonus for the rural and urban poor. Low-income groups in developing nations frequently spend three-quarters of their income on food, so a spurt in the cost of basic staples can push a large segment of the population over the brink of malnutrition.

In short, the widespead adoption of high- yielding varieties has not eliminated hunger in all regions of the third world, but famine would be rampant over wide areas if they had not been utilized.

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