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Another Green Revolution or people will starve
Debora MacKenzie/Commodity Online |
May 02, 2008 15:51 IST
Fund another Green Revolution -- or people will starve.
That's the message from heads of several international farm research institutes galvanised by the food price crisis.
Scientists who run three of the world's leading international agricultural research labs say the worldwide surge in food prices is a predictable result of the neglect of agricultural research over the past two decades.
They say the only way to prevent further price hikes, starvation and political instability is to fund more research into increased crop yields.
World food prices have been rising since 2000, but this sped up slightly in 2007, then sharply in early 2008. High prices have hit the urban poor especially hard, and led to food shortages, riots and demonstrations worldwide.
"We don't see this as a surprise," says Bob Zeigler, head of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Ba�os in the Philippines. "We've seen this coming for years. Basically, we're victims of our own success."
IRRI is part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a network of international agricultural research institutes started in the 1960s. CGIAR largely brought about the "Green Revolution" of high-yield crops that ended famine in much of the developing world. Zeigler and the heads of two other CGIAR institutes spoke to journalists on Tuesday about the crisis.
As a result of the Green Revolution, Zeigler says, "food prices fell, and governments thought they would stay that way forever, and our problems with food supply were over." During the 1990s funding for research aimed at maintaining and increasing crop yields fell steeply, he adds.
But demand for food kept rising, with growing world population and prosperity. For a while the grain mountains could cope with demand and prices stayed low, says Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC.
But since 2000 stocks have plummeted, and prices are rising as a result. Meanwhile, growth in yields of grain per hectare of farmland, which climbed steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s, have slowed, until wheat and maize yields are now rising at only 1-2 per cent per year -- and in some places rice yields are steady or are even falling.
"That is just too low to meet increasing demand," says Zeigler. "That's why we're eating more than we're producing."
The resulting increase in food prices was purely a product of supply and demand until the end of 2007, says von Braun. Then price rises caused "hysteria", panic buying and speculation, causing rice to soar from $300 a ton in December 2007 to more than $1,000 this week.
Meat and dairy prices have also risen, but this needn't be all bad news, says Carlos Sere, head of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
Smallholders who feed their animals crop residue and forage rather than grain can take advantage of the price increases to boost their income and raise themselves out of poverty. But those farmers also need research and better technology to keep their animals healthy and to feed them efficiently.
Government subsidies for biofuels have added to recent price rises. Von Braun wants a moratorium on biofuels made using food such as maize and oilseeds, and says countries should stop adding to market instability with policies that discourage food trade.
"Most of all we need to invest in science and technology, and in measures that improve small farmers' access to markets," he says. "We need yield increases of 3-5 per cent per year for the next 15-20 years."
Zeigler points to IRRI research to improve fertiliser management and limit post-harvest losses that is "ready to go" but is not being used because countries have cut back on services that gets new technology to farmers. In other areas, he says, "we don't have the knowledge on the shelf now to deliver the yield increases we need."