By W.A. Wijewardena
We were at a conference with a number of experts on agriculture who chose to discuss the current global food situation. Attention was paid to the need for raising food production individually in each country and globally as a whole.
The fear which overwhelmed people in the 18th century that the population growth would outpace the global food production leading to massive food shortages and famines was once again expressed. “Fortunately for the globe, a Malthusian type disaster didn’t take place, because new technology, mechanisation and commercialisation of agriculture in early to mid 20th century, especially in North America, Western Europe and Australia, resulted in the production of more food output per hectare and per agricultural worker. So, though the world population doubled between 1950 and 2000, there was no food shortage. Credit goes to the first green revolution in 1950s and 1960s. But, it now appears that the glamour of the first green revolution has started to fade away,” one expert said.
“True. Agriculture has been one of the lowest growing sectors in the world throughout the history.
That is because its output is demanded more or less in constant amounts and the land limitation imposes a severe constraint on using more extensive farming to raise output.
As a result, when industry and services rose at around 6 to 8 percent year after year, agriculture grew at less than 2 percent during the last 250 years.
Hence, we have now come to a limit whereby we can’t raise food production to feed the growing world population in number as well as in higher income. When we are temporarily hit by droughts, floods, pests or other natural causes, we come across serious imbalances between the demand for food and its supply,” another expert noted.
A third expert offered this view. He said, “As an off-shoot of the first green revolution, countries like India and China which have the largest number of mouths to feed were able to raise food production gradually and avert famine.
Remember that the Bengali famine of 1943 killed more than 3 million people and the Chinese famine of 1962 killed more than 20 million people.
In both these countries, such a vast spread destruction of human beings due to famine is unlikely to occur in the near future. But, it could occur globally in isolated pockets. To avert it, we have to go for a second green revolution.”
Now the audience too got interested in the subject and participated actively in the discussion.
“A second green revolution is the need of the day. But, would it be similar to the first one? Especially, in the use of technology and farming organisation?” one of them questioned. It was time for the experts in the panel to answer. “No, the second green revolution should be different from the first one.
When we had the first one, we didn’t have concerns like environment and global warming, so, we could pursue food production goals without being disturbed by other considerations. But, today, global pressure groups are very powerful.
They want both, more foods and friendly environment at the same time. So, our strategies should be acceptable to these pressure groups which have assumed the responsibility of saving the mankind from the ill effects of economic development.”
“If that’s the case, what would be the features of this second green revolution?” another in the audience asked.
The same expert answered. “We’ve to produce more, but by using less natural resources. Agricultural lands are in competition with the demand for other industrial, commercial and social uses.
We cannot prevent them from being used for those more deserving uses. Water resources are in short supply.
Hence, agriculture throughout the globe has to economise on the use of water. It has to choose crops that use less water.
Fertiliser and pesticide application has already been challenged on the ground of environmental hazards they bring in. Agricultural workers are leaving farms and there’s a shortage of labour. So, the new strategy should take notice of all these constraints and still produce a bigger output per hectare,” he said.
“So, the challenge of feeding the world population is more serious than we think.” The same member from the audience exclaimed his concern. “Precisely. Because of the labour shortage, we still have to mechanise agriculture. Fortunately with the advanced electronic and information technology, we have more efficient machines now.
But the crops are yielding less output. To solve that, we’ve to go for genetic engineering in a massive way.
In other words, genetically modified or GM foods have to be accepted as a natural thing rather than rejecting them. If we continue to reject them, the choice is to accept famines and widespread deaths.
Which one is better?” the expert placed the diabolical choice before the audience.
“But they say that GM foods are harmful,” a member from the audience, said raising the concerns of the society. “Biologically, every species is subject to genetic modification. But it takes a long period and we don’t notice.
What’s done in this scientific genetic modification is that it’s accelerated and, therefore, we do notice the change. If GM foods are harmful, then what we eat as natural foods is also harmful, because they too have undergone genetic modification on their own.
So, the main pillar of the second green revolution is the widespread use of genetic engineering to raise the output per hectare and per agricultural worker.
Remember this was exactly what was achieved in the first green revolution too through mechanisation, commercialisation and use of high-yielding crop varieties.
So, a repeat of the first one with GM foods as the main pillar is the need of the day,” the expert concluded.