Farmers Can Feed the World: Better seeds and fertilizers, not romantic myths, will let them do it

Factor in growing prosperity and nearly three billion new mouths by 2050, and you quickly see how the crudest calculations suggest that within the next four decades the world’s farmers will have to double production.

A few weeks before his death in 2009, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug wrote a short essay for the Wall Street Journal, which begins:

Earlier this month in L’Aquila, Italy, a small town recently devastated by an earthquake, leaders of the G-8 countries pledged $20 billion over three years for farm-investment aid that will help resource-poor farmers get access to tools like better seed and fertilizer and help poor nations feed themselves.For those of us who have spent our lives working in agriculture, focusing on growing food versus giving it away is a giant step forward.

Given the right tools, farmers have shown an uncanny ability to feed themselves and others, and to ignite the economic engine that will reverse the cycle of chronic poverty. And the escape from poverty offers a chance for greater political stability in their countries as well.

But just as the ground shifted beneath the Italian community of L’Aquila, so too has the political landscape heaved in other parts of the world, casting unfounded doubts on agricultural tools for farmers made through modern science, such as biotech corn in parts of Europe. Even here at home, some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only local organic food. People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the world’s hungry—25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.

Unfortunately, these distractions keep us from the main goal.

(…) We already can see the ongoing value of these investments simply by acknowledging the double-digit productivity gains made in corn and soybeans in much of the developed world. In the U.S., corn productivity has grown more than 40% and soybeans by nearly 30% from 1987 to 2007, while wheat has lagged behind, increasing by only 19% during the same period. Lack of significant investment in rice and wheat, two of the most important staple crops needed to feed our growing world, is unfortunate and short-sighted. It has kept productivity in these two staple crops at relatively the same levels seen at the end of the 1960s and the close of the Green Revolution, which helped turn Mexico and India from starving net grain importers to exporters.

Please read the entire essay.