Agricultural leaders at the recent World Food Prize conference in Des Moines, Iowa expect that demand for food worldwide will double by 2050. This increased demand presages changes for the rural areas throughout the world that will be tasked with meeting this increase in consumption.
The world has just experienced a doubling of farm productivity. The Green Revolution, arguably led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug who pioneered the development of high yield strains of grain and corn, allowed the world to avoid the Malthusian population crises predicted by Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb.
While agricultural productivity has increased greatly these gains have been accompanied by significant environmental costs. Methods of food production have changed – where the family farm once dominated, now the corporate farmer drives the majority of production.
Al Gore levied a wide-ranging critique in Earth in the Balance:
“Although the Green Revolution produced vast growth in Third World food production, it often relied on environmentally destructive techniques: heavily subsidized fertilizers and pesticides, the extravagant use of water in poorly designed irrigation schemes, the exploitation of the short-term productivity of soils (which sometimes leads to massive soil erosion), monocultured crops (which drove out diverse indigenous strains), and accelerated overall mechanization, which often gave enormous advantages to rich farmers over poor ones.”
This reshaping of agriculture can properly be seen as reshaping the rural world since 38% of the world’s land is dedicated to agricultural production. Recent surveys have shown that 40% of the world’s agricultural land is “seriously degraded.”
This new green revolution promises to bring with it another wave of massive change. Patricia Woertz, chairman, president and CEO of the international agriculture heavyweight Archer Daniels Midland said that up to $83 billion in investment in developing nations would be necessary to “improve transportation, processing and storage facilities to handle tomorrow’s larger harvests.”
The organic and SLO food movements that have gained popularity in the last 30 years may be viewed as a backlash against some of the agricultural practices adopted in the last century. The incredible productivity gains of modern agriculture are undeniable but it is an open question as to whether similar gains might have been achieved at a lower cost to the environment and rural societies.
We again face the collective challenge of engineering a massive increase in agricultural productivity. The solutions that are chosen will have a significant impact on rural places and persons. Will this second green revolution learn the important lessons offered by its predecessor? Given statements by corporate and government leaders at the World Food Prize conference there appears to be some consensus on the need for a different balance moving forward.
Woertz said that, “We would need to continue to develop regionally appropriate practices to improve water utilization. We also need to improve crop nutrients and pest control and getting desired gains with minimal environmental impact.” Gerda Verburg, the agriculture secretary from the Netherlands, agreed, “If we want a second green revolution we need to modernize agriculture by combining the best farm knowledge with the best ... science as well as promoting good land and water stewardship.” Former World Food Prize Winner & current cochair of the UN Millennium Task for on Hunger, Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has called for a merger of economics, ecology, technology & social equity in order to meet the coming challenges; “Our ability to face these challenges… will depend upon our ability to harmonize organic farming and the new genetics.”
Such a merger will be an ongoing challenge. It will require balancing public and private interests in the face of growing corporate involvement (and some would say capture and control) in agriculture. Solutions will have to manage a potentially less resilient world, one that could be on the brink of climate change; as well as ensuring that demand for food is met and the people of the world get fed. Somewhere in that mix the interests of rural persons and rural environments will come in to play.