WASHINGTON — When Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal wrote has classic 1968 study of Asia, ``Asian Drama,'' he warned that India would have trouble feeding more than 500 million.
Today India feeds 900 million and even produces a small surplus.
India's agricultural miracle was the result of the ``green revolution,'' which combined advanced seeds, irrigation, and fertilizer to produce enormous increases in global food production. But with the green revolution now largely spent, food experts and the heads of foreign aid agencies from around the world were gathered in Geneva yesterday and today to ask, ``What next?''
``We've had a good track record in the past but success is by no means assured - the challenge is huge,'' says Ismail Serageldin, vice president of the World Bank for Environmentally Sustainable Development and chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of 16 agricultural research centers.
Today's meeting takes place against a background of sobering statistics. Despite advances in agricultural research, 700 million people are still chronically hungry. Two billion more people will be added to the human family in the next 20 years, most of them in the world's hungriest nations in Africa and South Asia.
Moreover, the traditional means of expanding food supplies have largely run their course. Little new land can be irrigated. Soil in many countries has reached the limits of its capacity to absorb the nutrients in fertilizer. An Ireland-sized chunk of farmland is being lost to soil erosion each year. The worst-affected nations have little money available to buy surplus food off the world market.
Meanwhile, there is little new land available to expand agricultural production, except at the expense of tropical forests, most experts believe.
The only way to produce enough food for Earth's burgeoning population without destroying the environment is to increase yields. The question on the table in Geneva is just how to do this. One potential way, experts say, is to genetically engineer crops to create strains that can resist pests, disease, cold, and salt. But the results of bioengineering may be 20 years off.
The meeting is exploring a more modest strategy to expand global food supplies, a two-pronged strategy that has already had encouraging results. One prong is to help farmers in poor countries improve their farming practices. They can be taught how to ``harvest'' scarce rainfall, for example, or how to ``alley-crop'' fields with trees that can supply needed nitrogen to the soil. The other prong is to speed traditional cross-breeding to develop crop strains that produce higher yields. One result is a new breed of ``super rice'' that increases yields up to 25 percent.
Although agricultural research is pushing against biological and environmental limits, the downward trend in per capita food production during the 1980s has been reversed over the past two years, producing tentative hopes that food output can keep pace with population growth.
``There will not be as big a jump as in the green revolution,'' Mr. Serageldin says. ``But we have not reached the biological limits of plants yet. Instead of another big jump, look for systematic small steps that could cumulatively bring about very significant change.''
Such hopes could be dashed if aid for agricultural research continues to decline. This aid has dropped from $13 billion to $12 billion in recent years, while resources from commercial banks have been cut in half.
``My answer [to the current budget-cutting fever in Washington] is simple: In a time of fiscal stringency, focus money where you get the maximum return,'' says Serageldin.
He also says the rate of return on investments in agricultural research have been 100 percent or more, many times larger than investments in other types of research.