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A Sustainable Green Revolution

June 10, 2008
The Washington Post last week called for “a greener revolution” that would restore the world’s ability to feed itself at widely affordable prices. “The next green revolution must be ‘greener’ than the first; it must achieve higher production through the wisest possible application of scarce resources.

The Financial Times of London also called for “a second green revolution” that would help grow more food on the same amount of land. The paper’s editorialist called for richer countries to spend more development aid on helping less developed countries boost agriculture. Specifically, the paper pointed out, “Biotechnology holds the promise of plants that not only resist pests and disease, but convert scarce water and nutrients into food with great efficiency. One of the biggest obstacles to their development and use has been the resistance of European consumers and governments to genetically modified crops.”

At the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s High Level Conference on Food Security, USDA Secretary Ed Schafer promoted the use of biotechnology to increase production of food. The final declaration adopted at the end of the conference declared, “We urge the international community, including the private sector, to decisively step up investment in science and technology for food and agriculture.” It did not specifically mention biotechnology though. The document does call for “in-depth studies … to ensure that production and use of biofuels is sustainable in accordance with the three pillars of sustainable development and takes into account the need to achieve and maintain global food security.”

There are many efforts to ensure that agricultural production for biofuels meets sustainability goals. See, for instance, the industry-led Council for Sustainable Biomass Production, which seeks to “identify the core economic, environmental, and social issues that must be addressed in working towards a sustainable solution for large-scale deployment of biomass products and crops serving as feedstock for refineries.”

There are also continuing efforts to roll back the biofuels mandates by groups, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who would sacrifice long-term gains in agricultural productivity for short-term gains on food prices. The GMA states that US biofuels policy “is the one factor in the food inflation equation that Congress can actually control.”.

But the USDA has made clear that opportunities to expand technology for agriculture is also something that Congress and the administration can influence.