Believe it or not, the principal danger to biodiversity and wildlife habitat in the new millenium will be neither population growth nor pesticide use, but the plows of low-yield farmers. Surprised? Well, prepare to be surprised again.
It’s commonly asserted that the planet is “running out of food,” and that population growth will soon lead to widespread starvation. The truth is that we can feed the world’s population. We can feed them all as the planet’s population peaks at around 8.5 billion in the year 2035. We can even feed them a vastly improved diet, and we should be able to do it all without destroying a single acre of wildlands. But we can’t do it without increased support for basic research on high- yield farming techniques. Only through intensive farming techniques can we feed the world’s population without requiring the conversion to farmland of vast new areas of wilderness.
Such techniques got their start in the years after World War II, in a story that marks one of private philanthropy’s most remarkable—but little known—accomplishments. Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations founded agricultural research institutions in Mexico and the Philippines. It is no exaggeration to say that in the next several decades, the new crop varieties developed by these institutions probably saved over a billion people from starvation (and spawned, in the process, a worldwide agricultural research network for the Third World).
The high water mark of private philanthropy’s involvement came in 1970, when Norman E. Borlaug, an Iowa plant breeder hired by the Rockefeller Foundation, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the Green Revolution.
If At First You Succeed
But then events took an unexpected turn. No sooner had the world gained a degree of food security than fears of “overpopulation” replaced the fear of famine. Popular concern about saving the environment replaced the goal of conquering human hunger, so long sought after and so nearly achieved. Funding streams were quick to reflect this shift, as foundations and governments quickly turned their backs on the research and technology that had produced food abundance for the first time in human history. Not surprisingly, developments in agricultural research slowed considerably.
Today, agricultural research and high-tech farming are so unpopular with First World voters that the historic pioneers in high-yield farming—the U.S. land-grant universities—have seen their research budgets cut by one-third in real terms since 1960. European countries have arbitrarily banned some farm chemicals, despite a complete lack of evidence that they cause harm to people or the ecosystem. The environmentalist group Greenpeace has waged a highly effective campaign against the use of biotechnology in food, vaguely citing “unknown risks.”
Private philanthropy has been excruciatingly slow to recommit to agricultural research, and some foundations with rich histories of supporting cutting-edge research have actually turned against modern farming. The Wallace Genetic Foundation, run by descendants of Henry Wallace—the man credited with giving the world hybrid corn—is one such institution. The Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, a Wallace Foundation grantee, is now openly trying to turn the world back to low-input farming methods.
Similarly, the Michigan-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation, in the decades after World War II, provided grants to help the U.S. agricultural extension service teach high-yield agriculture to farmers and enroll millions of farm kids in yield-oriented 4-H Clubs. In recent years, Kellogg has focused instead on low-yield “sustainable” farming projects and social change in rural communities.
Pulling the Plug on Research
As high-yield agriculture became politically unpopular among First World voters, its government-sponsored aid priorities shifted away from high-yield farming toward “population control.” Formerly the world leader in high-yield farming research, U.S. government farm research funding has dropped by 30 percent in real terms since 1960, leaving most significant farm investments to be made by private firms and a few Third World governments, such as Brazil and China. Much of the shift in emphasis was caused by the anti-natalist ethic of Paul Ehrlich, whose ravings won public support and the approval of editorial writers throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1994, even as the Cairo Population conference was pledging $17 billion per year to suppress birthrates, the Third World agricultural research network (known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) was quietly going bankrupt, with donor nations unwilling to pledge the $300 million needed to keep the lights on. The World Bank stepped in on an emergency basis to keep the research alive—but ultimately, the World Bank’s own funding is hostage to First World public opinion, and that public opinion shows no sign of changing in the near term.
Yet the world’s human population is rapidly stabilizing [see article page 18, by Nicholas Eberstadt]. Births per woman in the Third World have plummeted from 6.5 in 1960 to 3.1 today, which translates to a drop of more than 75 percent in the rate of population growth in essentially one generation. The First World is already at 1.7 births per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. Italy and Germany are at 1.2. Current population projections by the UN project a peak population of about 8.5 billion people, achieved in about 2035 and followed by declines.
The reasons for declining fertility include affluence (through trade); urbanization (because of additional off-farm jobs); contraceptive technology (which people don’t use until they want smaller families)—and the food security fostered by the Green Revolution. What is more—and you wouldn’t know this by listening to the population scaremongers—but in general, countries that have raised their crop yields the most are the ones which have reduced fertility rates the quickest, in part because food abundance gives parents an increased assurance that their first few children will make it to adulthood.
Saving Wildlands with High Farm Yields
In the turmoil over population control and pesticides, few people have noticed the single indisputable environmental benefit that high-yield farming has delivered to the world—extra room for wildlife. According to my own (peer reviewed and published) estimates, in the years since 1960, higher crop yields have saved 15 million square miles of land from being cleared for low-yield farming—equal to the combined land area of the United States, Europe, and South America.
Additional wildlands have been protected by the increased productivity of today’s highly bred and confinement-raised livestock and poultry, and by food processing that lets farmers plant crops where yields are highest, and then transports them to wherever the consumers happen to live.
Tripling farm yields—again—on current farmland would save virtually all of the world’s wildlands from the plow. Similarly, putting 5 percent of the wild forest area into high-yield trees would save the other 95 percent of the forests from logging. All told, such high- yield conservation techniques represent the only proven way to permanently preserve the world’s wildlands.
But are there higher yields to discover? Recent discoveries show enormous potential. The original Rockefeller wheat and maize research station in Mexico is completing a major new re-breeding of the wheat plant that it says will raise potential world wheat yields by at least 50 percent. The new plants have yielded up to seven tons per acre; any yield over three tons is considered very high, and the world average is less than two tons per acre.
In another major breakthrough with potentially enormous consequences, two researchers from a small Mexican institute have recently discovered a biotech solution to the problem of aluminum toxicity, which cuts yields by up to 80 percent on much of the tropical world’s arable land. The researchers took a naturally occurring gene for citric acid production from a bacterium, and inserted it in crop plants. The gene causes plant roots to secrete citric acid, blocking the uptake of aluminum ions and allowing the crops to grow unimpeded.
In addition, last year, Cornell University researchers, using biotechnology, have identified key productivity genes from wild relatives of crop species. These “wild relative genes” are too distant for normal cross-breeding, but researchers have spliced them into modern crop varieties and have already produced a 50 percent yield increase in tomatoes, and a one-third gain in rice yields.
Consider The Alternatives . . .
The alternatives to high-yield farming would be deadly for the environment. In fact, you can ruin a Yuppie’s whole day by pointing out that organic farming yields only about half as much per acre as mainstream farms, after factoring in land needed to produce organic fertilizer, the need to allow fields to lay fallow, and high losses to pests. More organic farming equals more land taken from nature for crops.
Traditional peasant farmers manage only one-tenth to one-hundredth the yield per acre of a modern farmer. If the world’s future food production were left to slash-and-burn farming, we could expect to lose half of the remaining tropical forests in the next several decades. That would be an irreparable loss for the world’s biodiversity (25 million of the world’s estimated 30 million wildlife species live in tropical forests. In fact, researchers have found about as many different wild species in five square miles of rainforest as we’ve found in the whole of North America.)
And finally, there is no vegetarian/vegan trend that would reduce the per-capita demand for farm output. Fewer than 5 percent of First World consumers are vegetarian, and most of them eat lots of dairy products and eggs. To save the wildlands with dietary change, we might need 50 percent of the world population to become vegans—giving up livestock products altogether— within the next 30 years. There is no likelihood of such a global dietary shift occurring voluntarily. Quite the contrary: Chinese meat demand has more than doubled over the last seven years, as that country’s citizens have begun to experience some measure of economic prosperity. India’s milk consumption has more than doubled since 1980. Both developments mean far more demand for livestock feed.
Needed: More High-Yield Farm Research
Agriculture currently takes 37 percent of the earth’s total land area. Simple math tells us that if 8.5 billion relatively affluent people in 2035 demand three times today’s farm output there literally will be no room for wildlife—unless we raise the farm yields still higher. Without another surge of First World investment in higher-yield farming, we could still lose 10 to 20 million square miles of wildlands (and millions of wild species) to low-yield farming.
Yet public antipathy to modern farming is also driving a regulatory climate that seems to glory in depriving high-yield farmers of urgently needed supplies like nitrogen fertilizer and genetically engineered seeds.
Dr. Borlaug—the Nobel laureate mentioned earlier (and the first to publish on high-yield farming’s implications for conservation), is now trying to create a Green Revolution for Africa. He says Africa could rapidly double its food output with available fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield seeds. Unfortunately, foundation-funded activists, including Greenpeace, are opposing the modest use of such “inputs” that Africa must have to save room for its unique wildlife species.
Better Farming Through Grants
Private companies have taken over some new high-yield research, especially in seed breeding and biotechnology, but the historic division of labor has been for government researchers to perform most basic research, with private companies focused on the applied research. With government funding off the table, there is serious uncertainty as to whether private companies can or will invest in enough basic science.
That question is so serious that the Rockefeller Foundation has re- entered the field, albeit in a relatively small way. The foundation has spent about $6 million per year for the last decade (a small fraction of its total grantmaking) for biotechnology programs including one for mapping the rice genome. Otherwise, Rockefeller feared, Third World food needs would be left out of the biotechnology revolution.
The Rockefeller project is tightly focused, but it is helping fund more than 300 researchers in agricultural biotechnology scattered all over the world. Mapping the rice genome will provide a basis for a range of future biotech research projects in support of increased Third World food production.
The McKnight Foundation, established by the founder of 3M, is also funding agricultural biotechnology through co-projects that involve both U.S. and Third World research institutions. McKnight is offering about $2 million per year, or 3 percent of its grant money. Not to be left out, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation recently recommitted itself to agricultural development projects in the Southern Cone of Africa.
To date, however, private philanthropic efforts have been nowhere near large enough to offset the flight of public funding from intensive farming. The Third World research centers have gone through a massive downsizing—even as research costs have dramatically increased.
What Should Philanthropy Do?
Basic research may be the single most neglected area of farm science. Foundations could assemble panels of agricultural experts to identify critical areas of basic research need, and offer competitive multi- year grants to agricultural research institutions. (The McKnight Foundation recently received more than 450 applications for nine available grants, indicating the intensity of the interest.)
A foundation not accustomed to funding research could try to help improve the public-opinion climate for high-yield farming. The David Brinkley “infomercials” for ADM offer good examples. These spots use a respected public figure to point out the human and environmental benefits of high yields. They’re positive and non-confrontational. There is also a critical need for a foundation to fund a documentary- length debate on the merits of intensive farming.
After decades of foundation support, high-yield farming has become a kind of philanthropic ghost town. Yet there’s a broad opportunity and an urgent need. Private philanthropy started the first Green Revolution. Now it’s needed to help carry forward the second one.
Dennis T. Avery is Director of the Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI) for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis. He was formerly the senior agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of State. He is the author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic (Hudson Institute). CGFI has received two small donations from the Albert N. Andreas Foundation and ADM, and Dr. Avery has served as an unpaid advisor to ADM.