A Greener Revolution

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

WORLD LEADERS assemble in Rome today for a three-day summit on the global food crisis. The sense of urgency surrounding the meeting is appropriate. With commodity prices at their highest levels in three decades, some 100 million people who had been lifted out of chronic poverty are at risk of slipping back. Famine once again threatens vulnerable countries such as North Korea. Yet, massive as it is, the short-term problem of getting food relief into the hands of the hungry is probably the simplest item on the summit agenda. Much more complex is the long-term task of restoring the world's ability to feed itself at widely affordable prices.

Expect to hear plenty of criticism of the United States and Europe for subsidizing the diversion of their crops into the production of ethanol and other biofuels. No doubt these wasteful policies have contributed to the spike in grain prices. So have bans on exports by such large food producers as India. A successful summit would produce a promise from all sides to think more about the global effects of their policies. But even then, the problem of raising agricultural productivity would remain.

Until relatively recently, producing more food was not thought to be much of a problem. Through the intensive use of high-yield crop strains, fertilizer and irrigation, the "green revolution" of the 1960s and '70s enabled many formerly food-importing countries, especially in Asia, to feed themselves and, eventually, to export surpluses. A long decline in real food prices, beginning in the '70s and ending around the turn of the century, was the result. But annual global agricultural productivity growth, which averaged 2 percent between 1970 and 1990, fell to 1.1 percent over the past 17 years. Now the world is actually running down its grain stocks.

During the era of cheap and abundant food, Western donors and multilateral aid organizations neglected agricultural research and rural development in favor of more fashionable development trends. This made perverse economic sense, since returns on rural investment were likely to be modest as long as food prices remained low. Today's higher prices, however, probably will persist even if ethanol and export bans disappear. This creates an opportunity as well as a need for a new surge in agricultural investment. It should be led by the United States and other industrialized countries, and it should be focused on the region -- sub-Saharan Africa -- where the greatest untapped potential lies, and which has so far benefited least from the green revolution. A Zambian farmer, for example, produces only about a third as much corn per acre as his Chinese counterpart. Because of higher oil prices, it will be expensive to depend heavily on fertilizer, machinery and irrigation. That means that the next green revolution must be "greener" than the first; it must achieve higher production through the wisest possible application of scarce resources. For all the misery caused by higher food prices now, they hold out the promise of greater food security in the future, if the world's leaders seize the moment.

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