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Italian farmer Giuseppe Oglio shows how millet grows with weeds at one of his plantation in Belcreda Gambolo, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Milan in northern Italy November 6, 2009. (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/REUTERS)
Italian farmer Giuseppe Oglio shows how millet grows with weeds at one of his plantation in Belcreda Gambolo, 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Milan in northern Italy November 6, 2009. (ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/REUTERS)

Agriculture

The fight over the future of food Add to ...

To be sure, the Green Revolution had its downsides - environmental damage, to name one. In India, for example, water tables are drying up and the soil has been degraded by pesticide and fertilizers. The movement also contributed to the rise of big commercial farms at the expense of small holders, fuelling resentment from its early days at what critics see as the "corporatization" of food.

But millions of people were saved from starvation, and the movement's architect, Norman Borlaug, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

With their populations soaring, however, India and China - not to mention most of Africa - still face challenges, especially as climate change exacerbates environmental problems that have already slowed growth in food production.

IFPRI, part of a global network of agricultural research centers, said last month lower yields due to climate change would cut "calorie availability" for the average consumer in a developing country in 2050 by 7 per cent, compared with 2000.

Higher temperatures reduce crop yields while encouraging pests and plant diseases. For almost all crops, South Asia would experience the largest declines in yields. IFPRI said rice output in the region would be 14 percent lower than if there were no climate change.



With genetically modified seeds we will lose our varieties of colored corn. There will be no more purple corn, black corn, white corn. Above all, we will be condemned to buy seeds from companies like Monsanto. It's not sustainable. It's a real risk for the well-being of these communities.


"India sorely needs another Green Revolution," said Kushagra Nayan Bajaj, joint managing director of Bajaj Hinduthan, India's top sugar producer, which is importing raw sugar after a drought hit the domestic cane crop.

But a second green revolution would face a strong counterinsurgency, even in a place like India that benefited so profoundly from the first one.

"The point is that chemicals destroy the sustainability of productivity in the long run ... Yes, a second green revolution is indeed very essential - the very need of the hour. But it should not be the same kind of green revolution that the first was," said P.C. Kesavan, a fellow at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, set up by the father of India's Green Revolution.

Economists and scientists in India are demanding a raft of policy initiatives, including allowing genetic engineering, which its proponents argue does the same job as traditional plant hybridization, only quicker and more efficiently.

India has so far allowed GM seeds only for cotton, which has boosted productivity, but suggestions of allowing such seeds for edible crops have always evoked strong protests.

It's a similar story in Mexico, where Mr. Borlaug started his pioneering research in the 1940s at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program. Mexico issued permits last month for the first time for farmers to grow genetically modified corn.

Considered by many the cradle of corn, Mexico is home to more than 10,000 varieties, used to make the classic tortilla, a staple of the Mexican diet. Corn was first planted in Mexico as many as 9,000 years ago and the grain was adapted by Spanish conquerors in the early 1500s and eventually spread to the rest of the world.



It is a much more complex and difficult world than Borlaug faced, but we have much more powerful tools than he had, and we need to start testing those and deploying those.


Mexico faces the same dilemmas over GM corn as do many developing countries - balancing consumer fears with the need to grow more food.

"We see corn as our cultural heritage, our legacy. For us it's not just a question of food, but about conserving our traditions," said Celerino Tlacotempa, who works for an organization of native Nahuatl farmers in the southern mountains of Guerrero state.

"With genetically modified seeds we will lose our varieties of colored corn. There will be no more purple corn, black corn, white corn," Mr. Tlacotempa said. "Above all, we will be condemned to buy seeds from companies like Monsanto. It's not sustainable. It's a real risk for the well-being of these communities."

At the same time, other Mexican farmers in the north of the country have been cultivating GM seeds smuggled over the border from the United States for some time, attracted by the crops' greater resilience to drought and pests and higher yields.

Tomas Lumpkin, director of CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center that Borlaug started in Mexico, said the country now imports about half of the corn it consumes. With climate change and other pressures, he said, it was vital to raise production using all tools available.

"It is a much more complex and difficult world than Borlaug faced, but we have much more powerful tools than he had, and we need to start testing those and deploying those," he said.

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