“Modern supercrops will be a big help. But agriculture can’t be fixed by biotech alone.”
National Geographic’s October issue contains an in-depth article, “The Next Green Revolution” on how plant biotechnology will be one part of a multifaceted solution to feeding a rapidly growing population in the face of climate change.
Climate change and population growth will make life increasingly precarious for small farmers in the developing world – and for the people they feed. For most of the 20th century humanity managed to stay ahead in the Malthusian race between population growth and food supply. Will we be able to maintain that lead in the 21st century, or will a global catastrophe beset us?
The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 the world’s population will grow by more than two billion people. Half will be born in sub-Saharan Africa, and another 30 percent in South and Southeast Asia. Those regions are also where the effects of climate change—drought, heat waves, extreme weather generally – are expected to hit hardest.
Last March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world’s food supply is already jeopardized:
“In the last 20 years, particularly for rice, wheat, and corn, there has been a slowdown in the growth rate of crop yields,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton and one of the authors of the IPCC report. “In some areas yields have stopped growing entirely. My personal view is that the breakdown of food systems is the biggest threat of climate change.”
Norman Borlaug was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate. He received his B.S. in Biology 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties.During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations.
These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in which the citation read, “More than any other person of this age, he helped provide bread for a hungry world.”
To keep doing that between now and 2050, we’ll need another green revolution. There are two competing visions of how it will happen. One is high-tech, with a heavy emphasis on continuing Borlaug’s work of breeding better crops, but with modern genetic techniques.
“The next green revolution will supercharge the tools of the old one,” says Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto and a winner of the prestigious World Food Prize in 2013. Scientists, he argues, can now identify and manipulate a huge variety of plant genes, for traits like disease resistance and drought tolerance. That’s going to make farming more productive and resilient."
Monsanto is not the only organization that believes modern plant genetics can help feed the world. Late on a warm February afternoon Glenn Gregorio, a plant geneticist at the International Rice Research Institute, shows me the rice that started the green revolution in Asia.When the green revolution began in the 1960s, it was before the revolution in molecular genetics: IR8, the first miracle rice, was bred without knowledge of the genes that blessed it with high yields. Breeders today can zero in on genes, but they still use traditional techniques and ever more complex pedigrees. That’s how they’ve created rice varieties adapted to rising sea levels—including Swarna-Sub1, popular in India.
However farmers farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, do not see genetically modified crops as the best solution right now to combat the affects of climate change. Nigel Taylor is a geneticist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. There he and other researchers are in the early stages of developing genetically modified cassava varieties that are immune to the brown streak virus. Taylor is collaborating with Ugandan researchers on a field trial, and another is under way in Kenya. But only four African countries—Egypt, Sudan, South Africa, and Burkina Faso—currently allow the commercial planting of GM crops.
"In Africa, as elsewhere, people fear GM crops, even though there’s little scientific evidence to justify the fear. There’s a stronger argument that high-tech plant breeds are not a panacea and maybe not even what African farmers need most...
"When I ask Janet Maro, an organic famer in Tanzania, if genetically modified seeds might also help those farmers, she’s skeptical. 'It’s not realistic,' she says. How could they afford the seeds when they can’t even afford fertilizer? How likely is it, she asks, in a country where few farmers ever see a government agricultural adviser, or are even aware of the diseases threatening their crops, that they’ll get the support they need to grow GM crops properly?"
BIO encourages you to Tim Folger's The Next Green Revolution in its entirety.