The Green Revolution is now struggling to survive the Gene Revolution. Between 1970 and 1990, plant researchers built on the examples of Norman Borlaug and Henry Beachell and created more productive crop varieties using traditional hybridization techniques. Food supplies stayed ahead of burgeoning populations – just barely. But in the 2000s, increases in yields slowed as private seed companies took over the research initiative using genetic modification techniques. The companies began patenting genetic advances and so poor farmers around the world could no longer afford the best varieties. The public institutions supporting the Green Revolution have had their funding cut. As a result, a short “food crisis” exploded in 2008 fueled by slower increases in yields, higher oil prices and higher food costs. There was a renewed threat of starvation.

The organization that coordinates Green Revolution research was founded in 1971. CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, was founded by the World Bank, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and several industrialized nations. The organization funnels money from the founders and other developed countries to plant research and then distributes the resulting seed varieties to farmers around the world.

A global network of CGIAR plant research centers worked to increase yields for a growing variety of plants and animals, breed resistance to evolving diseases and pests, and to help farmers in developing nations market their produce. For two decades in the late 20th century, world food supplies grew faster than the population, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

University of Nebraska Lincoln agronomy professor Don Lee (left) says that plant breeders and programs like CGIAR form a worldwide network of scientists who keep genetic diversity alive by collecting and preserving seeds from thousands of plant species
. “I think that’s a really cool type of plant science,” Don says, “to travel the world and find new genetic resources that will be beneficial to us.”

But better food, better medicine and better infrastructure meant the people began living longer and enjoying better lifestyles. Those factors changed dietary preferences worldwide. More and more people around the world wanted to eat more and more grains and more and more grain-fed meat. That put pressure on farmers and on prices.

In addition, the plant varieties that fueled the Green Revolution required steady supplies of water and fertilizers. As the 20th century ended, more and more governments found it difficult to continue to subsidize irrigation projects or to supply cheap fertilizers. Yields suffered. Many critics argued that CGIAR’s concentration on only a few staple crops supported by modern chemicals and irrigation forced out farmers of indigenous crops.

In response, CGIAR broadened its research activities and began projects to help small, poor farmers market their crops better and feed their local populations.

It’s trying to do more with less money. In recent years, CGIAR’s budget has remained stagnant at around $340 million. Governments like the U.S. also support agriculture through other foreign aid programs, but funding for agricultural foreign aid dropped by half between 1980 and 2006. Here are the numbers, adjusted for inflation and exchange rates –

  • Wealthy nations, as a group, cut their ag donations from $6 billion a year in 1980 to $2.8 billion in 2006.
  • The U.S. cut agricultural support to poor nations even more from $2.3 billion to only $624 million a year — 27 percent of the previous level.

These changes have had an impact on several specific areas around the globe.

India has seen its population rise faster than agriculture can keep up, and the Green Revolution has stalled out. Between 1968 and 1998, cereal grain production more than doubled. But recently, the Indian government stopped expanding irrigation projects, cut back on loans to farmers and slashed budgets for research. Thirsty hybrid crops have caused water tables to drop by 100 feet in some areas. Irrigated farms are reverting back to relying on unpredictable rains.

In addition, farmers don’t make much money because their produce have to go through a long and inefficient supply chain before it reaches any of the 1.1 billions Indian consumers. The average farmer received less than 20 percent of what the consumer pays according to a World Bank study.

India could be a large exporter of food because it has a large area of arable land. Instead, they are importing commodities like lentils, peas and vegetable oils, major sources of proteins and calories in the Indian diet.

In Africa private foundations are becoming the most important agencies working for agricultural development. The Rockefeller Foundation – the original source of money for the Green Revolution in Mexico – has been joined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in making African agriculture a top priority.

The Green Revolution never reached Africa. The reasons include political turmoil and a diverse indigenous agricultural system. In India and Mexico, there were dominate staple crops of wheat and rice, and so concentrated plant breeding programs were very effective. In Africa, the staple crops include sorghum, cowpea, cassava, maize and half-a-dozen other crops. Also, there are large variations in altitude, rainfall, plant diseases, insect infestations, erosion problems and poor soils to contend with.

The program officers at the Rockefeller and Gates foundations recognize that no society has moved a large portion of its population out of poverty without a sustained improvement in its agriculture. So, in 2005, the two foundations expanded a seed development program and committed funds that could reach $500 million.

But these private efforts may not be enough.

In 2008, worldwide food prices shot up. Oil prices shot up to above $100 a barrel and that made it more expensive to produce and transport food around the world. Oil prices also increased prices for biofuels like ethanol and encouraged farmers, in the U.S. particularly, to sell their corn to ethanol plants. Corn prices went up and livestock feeders passed the costs on to consumers.

Around the world, people in emerging economies were changing their diets, eating more meat and prepared foods. It takes 700 calories’ worth of animal feed grains to produce a 100-calorie piece of meat, so dietary changes contributed to greater demand for grains. And in 2007 and ’08, there was a run of bad weather in agricultural areas around the world.

As a result of all these factors, global food prices increased by 83 percent between 2005 and 2008, according to the World Bank. In the U.S. the overall increase was much less – only 5 percent – but prices on items like eggs and milk shot up even more than global prices.

Food riots broke out in poor countries in the spring of 2008. In Haiti, for instance, people were digging through garbage for food. Anger boiled over into riots in the streets, and the prime minister was dismissed from office.

By 2009, of course, the food crisis had been overwhelmed by the global economic crisis. Food prices dropped back a bit as more and more families had less and less money to buy food. Farmers were again under pressure to survive and poor families were under threat of starvation.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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