This past week the world celebrated the life and achievements of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa, US-born plant scientist who created high-yielding wheat varieties to stave off famine.
Borlaug, who died at age 95 on 12 September, led the so-called Green Revolution that created bumper crops in once impoverished countries such as Mexico, India and Pakistan. In lauding Borlaug’s achievements, the United Nations’ World Food Programme said he had saved more lives than any man in history.
But the eulogies for Borlaug often neglected an important and perplexing fact. Despite his accomplishments, more people are hungry today than ever and that total should exceed one billion people this year for the first time, according to the United Nations.
The irony: Southern Sudanese refugees wait for food aid in the town of Yambio, the state capital of Western Equatoria. Peter Martell/AFP
How can so many people be hungry when farmers produce enough food, at least in theory, to feed every person on the planet?
The answers are complex and involve everything from US farm politics and African corruption to war, poverty, climate change and drought, which is now the single most common cause of food shortages on the planet.
But David Beckmann, president of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, boiled the causes down into one unifying theme: “a lack of give a damn.”
“It’s mainly neglect,” he said. “Political neglect.”
The yield gains of the last half-century, both in the developed and developing world, led to grain surpluses and low prices, creating a sense of complacency about agriculture and hunger.
“There was an attitude following the Green Revolution that the problem was solved," said Gary H. Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation.
So much grain was being produced so cheaply that Western leaders encouraged poor nations to buy grain on the world market rather than grow it themselves. Surplus was shipped to poor countries as food aid. But that aid system has often been ineffective in alleviating hunger in a timely way and in addressing broader agriculture problems facing impoverished countries.
Support for agricultural research in developing countries was also cut back for other priorities.
The result? While the food supply grew faster than the world’s population from 1970 to 1990, as the Green Revolution’s gains took hold, the situation has reversed itself. Productivity gains in agriculture have slowed, and since 1990, the growth rate of food production has fallen below population growth. The consequences have been particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa, where the gains of the Green Revolution have been difficult to replicate.
Few paid attention to these problems until last year, when a confluence of events caused food prices to spike to record levels. Riots erupted in many nations, and even US consumers felt pinched as prices soared.
Prices have come down in the US, but the situation in Africa remains dismal due to an exploding population and now, a severe drought that threatens millions. The World Food Programme says it is critically short of funds.
At a July summit meeting, US President Barack Obama and other leaders of industrialized nations pledged $20 billion (around Rs96,280 crore) for agricultural development in poor countries.
Activists say that some of the tools for success are within reach provided the financing and political will persist: Those tools include seeds fine tuned to local conditions, fertilizer, better roads and other infrastructure improvements.
The more difficult problems may lie within US borders. Farm programmes are among the most entrenched entitlements in Washington. But crop subsidies and America’s habit of shipping grain to the poor tends to undermine robust markets in developing countries.
Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, understood the limitations of the Green Revolution’s success. After receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, he noted that the “battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won.”
“World peace will not be built on empty stomachs or human misery,” he said. “It is within America’s technical and financial power to help end this human tragedy and injustice, if we set our hearts and minds to the task.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES