Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
Here's a piece I wrote for a Times supplement published
yesterday in print, not available online.
In the twentieth century, the world population quadrupled. By
the 1960s, it was growing at 2% a year. Yet, unlike the nineteenth
century when the prairies, pampas and steppes had been brought
under the plough, little new land was available to grow human food.
Some in the western world began to suggest that food aid to the
poor was only making the population problem worse. The ecologist
Paul Ehrlich forecast famines `of unbelievable proportions' by
1975; the chief organizer of Earth Day, 1970, said it was `already
too late to avoid mass starvation'; a professor in Texas said that
by 1990 famines would be devastating `all of India, Pakistan, China
and the Near East, Africa'.
Why did this not happen? Why was India a net exporter of food by
the mid 1970s? Why did China never revisit the horrors of Mao's
famines? Why has famine virtually disappeared from Africa except
where foolish dictators cause it? Why has the growth rate of the
world population halved to 1%?
It is not fully true to say that the answer to these
questions is `Norman Borlaug', but it is not entirely false either.
Borlaug was an American biologist who bred new varieties of wheat
in Mexico in the 1950s. By deliberately crossing `dwarf' varieties
from Japan with other strains, he soon had a wheat plant that not
only put more of its energy into grain and less into stalk, but
also could withstand heavy applications of synthetic fertilizer
without collapsing. Borlaug then fought, like a tiger, against
bureaucratic obstacles to get his wheat varieties tested in India
and Pakistan and to open those countries up to fertilizer imports.
The result was a rapid transformation of wheat yields on the Indian
subcontinent, known as the green revolution, which was then
emulated elsewhere and with different crops.
Consider the effect of this not just on famine, but on
wilderness. We currently feed nearly seven billion people by
farming about 38% of the land surface of the planet. If we wanted
to feed that many people by using the techniques, varieties and -
mostly organic - fertilizers of the 1950s, we would need to
cultivate roughly 84% of the land surface. There goes the rain
forest, the national parks, the wetlands. The intensification of
agriculture has saved wilderness.
It has also defused the population bomb. The best way of cutting
population growth - paradoxically - is by preventing famine. When
child mortality drops, people have fewer babies. Birth rates are
now dropping so fast that the population may not even go up by 50%
this century, whereas it rose by 300% in the last century. By 2075,
perhaps sooner, world population will probably be falling.
Can we feed the nine billion people who will then exist on
earth? Yes. We trebled yields in the last 60 years without taking
extra land under the plough. If we did that again - by getting
fertilizer to farmers in Africa and central Asia, by cutting losses
to pests and droughts through ever more subtle genetic
manipulation, by improving roads and encouraging trade - then we
could feed nine billion better than we feed seven billion today.
And still retire huge swathes of land from farming to rainforest
and other forms of wilderness.
The two most effective policies for frustrating this uplifting
ambition are: organic agriculture and renewable bio-energy. Organic
farming means growing your nitrogen fertilizer rather than fixing
it from the air. That requires more land, either grazed by cattle
or planted with legumes. The quickest way to destroy what
wilderness we have left is to go organic. Bio-energy (growing crops
to make fuel or electricity) takes food out of the mouths of the
poor. In 2010, the world diverted 5% of its grain crops into making
fuel, displacing just 0.6% of oil use yet killing an estimated
192,000 people by tipping them into malnutrition through higher
food prices. We should stop such madness now.