With lofty grain prices forcing an estimated 100 million people toward severe hunger, a food summit in Rome this week may help boost emergency relief. But the world faces a long-term crisis in supply, one that needs the same devotion – and results – of the Green Revolution four decades ago.
It was largely American investment in agricultural science that drove the productivity revolution of the 1960s and '70s, creating new varieties of rice, wheat, and other crops – and prevented mass starvation. But success in higher yields led to complacency and a decline in research for further – and now necessary – gains, especially in less-arable lands.
And in hindsight, US leadership was largely driven by concern during the cold war to keep poor countries from going communist.
Now the world again faces a food shortage, reflected in a nearly 70 percent price rise over the past two years. The productivity gains of the past simply aren't enough to feed an additional 3 billion people by 2050. And the crisis has become acute because of a convergence of factors: a rapid rise in oil prices, droughts caused by climate change, a rising Asian demand for grain-fed meat, and the diversion of land to produce corn ethanol.
With US attention largely diverted to domestic concerns, the June 3-5 food summit is a critical test of whether a collective global leadership can push big reforms in how the world feeds itself.
A second green revolution would need to go beyond recent science in genetically modified (GM) seeds. Poor farmers often can't afford the high prices charged by companies that own rights to these seeds. And in many nations, especially in Europe, consumers remain unnecessarily wary of GM food. Despite advances in GM crops over the past decade, world crop yields have risen at about half the yearly rate since 1990 as they did during the two previous decades of the Green Revolution.
A first step would be to recognize the revolution's mistakes. It relied too much on the assumption of cheap oil and on farmers' ability to afford expensive pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The easy gains in productivity were also based on building massive irrigation systems.
A smarter revolution will need to consider many more variables, such as global warming, new types of nonpetroleum energy, and better ways of watering (such as drip systems). Finding silver bullets in farm science must now give way to scattershot approaches, often tailored to local conditions.
Those countries that need higher crop yields will also need to adjust to new types of assistance. Aid now focuses on reviving, not restricting private markets. Donors expect long-term accountability in results. Strings will be attached, such as demands to remove trade barriers and divert more government resources to rural areas.
A recent forecast of a 60 percent rise in food prices over the next decade should serve as a wake-up call about recent declines in agricultural investment – and barriers to trade in farm products, such as subsidies to rich farmers in the West. But who will jump on this tractor and drive in the direction it needs to go?