Growing Pains, continued

Norman Borlaug

India and Pakistan were headed for famine in the 1960s, until University of Minnesota alumnus Norman Borlaug created higher-yield wheat varieties. Winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug died Sept. 12, 2009, at 95.

Green Revolution: Part 1

The roots of Paap’s modern farming mostly began in the 1940s. The world population was booming and people worried it wouldn’t be possible to grow enough food. The old solution to making more food had always been to cultivate more land. But by the 20th century, most of the best land had already been cultivated—and adding in the marginal and less fertile land wasn’t very effective.

Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute, says researchers were predicting widespread famine. “There were books written about that when I was in university, [which said] we should give up on Asia because there was no way they could possibly feed themselves.”

Earlier in the century, chemists had unlocked processes crucial to increasing crop yields: synthetically fixing nitrogen into fertilizer.

In the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation began investing in research to increase crop yields even further. They started in Mexico with wheat. Norman Borlaug, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to solve the food crisis, bred stronger, pest-resistant, higher-yielding wheat that turned Mexico from a net importer of wheat in 1943 to a net exporter by 1958.

Researchers tried to do the same with other staple crops around the world. By breeding better seed varieties and improving agricultural practices, rice yields have doubled or tripled across Asia in the past 40 years.

“Yields were very low for rice in Asia,” Zeigler says, and efforts to improve them with fertilizer weren’t helping. “Farmers put fertilizer on crops, and they wouldn’t respond, they would just grow tall and leafy and then fall over and rot.”

He says the IRRI got to work on breeding “rice varieties that were relatively short, so that when we added fertilizer, instead of growing tall, they added more grain.”

As yields improved, the price of rice dropped, making food more affordable. And the increased yields improved profits for farmers, which helped develop the rural economy and helped more children go to school.

Higher yields have decreased environmental pressures as well. “By increasing our yields, doubling and tripling, we have reduced the amount of land that’s required to produce the food we need,” says Zeigler. “It’s pretty clear in Asia that the great increases in productivity in rice have taken pressure off the most fragile land.”

For example, the practice of growing upland rice on steep slopes, where you can get a lot of soil erosion, has dropped off. “In some of the most environmentally vulnerable areas, we’ve seen a reduction of agriculture because production in more favorable lands is much higher,” says Zeigler.

This is the same revolution that has happened in the United States, where the entire economy of agriculture has changed radically. As corn, wheat and soy yields have increased, prices have dropped, which means the average profit per acre has stayed around $50 per acre since the 1950s, says the Department of Agriculture’s Scheffert.

Over that same period, the American cost of living increased dramatically, as did the cost (and sophistication) of the tools needed to farm at modern levels. That meant farms had to be bigger to make a living, and because the better technology lessened the manpower required, it was possible to boost farm size.

And thus, you end up with the story of the Paap farm, which has tripled in size in the past century. Or even Miller’s farm, about 400 acres of corn and soybeans, which he attends to on weekends and evenings while also working full-time as the director of research and commodity services at the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Agricultural researchers like Stanley Wood of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research come to a conclusion perhaps startling to those who decry modern agriculture’s impact on the environment: “This increase in productivity has actually saved huge amounts of land from conversion [to agricultural use],” says Wood.

In fact, about a billion hectares of land has avoided being converted.

“If you think about what the yields of cereals were in the early ’60s, and if you look at the world’s production of food now, if we took the yields and applied them to production today, we’d require more land than is on the planet to feed everybody,” says Wood. “We’d need five times as much land.”

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