Some half a century ago in the arid hills 30 miles north of Mexico City, an American agronomist and humanitarian, Normal Borlaug, developed the hybrid seeds and new ideas that became known as the “green revolution.”
Borlaug and other scientists would pass on to nations in South Asia the high-yielding varieties of grains that averted starvation among one billion people.
Today, the world needs a new “green revolution.” I heard about it at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center where Borlaug did decades of work before winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. That's a new bioscience facility at the center above.
I was there on a different matter but fell into conversation with Kevin V. Pixley, an American who is the director of the genetic resources program.
Here’s the key takeaway: The world population now is 6.8 billion people. By 2050, estimates say it will hit 9.2 billion. But by 2050, the developing world will need 60 percent more wheat and twice as much corn. Yes, double. Demand will soar.
“Not only is population growing but, thankfully, poverty is declining,” Pixley explained. “So what happens in India when people start to have a little more expendable income? Well, first of all they want to eat a little more dairy products. They want to eat more chicken, in the case of India. If you go up to China, they want to eat more pork and more beef.
“Those foods – the dairy products and the meat products – require several times more grain than a human (does). If I feed myself on maize and soybeans, I can eat a few kilos a week. But if I’m eating beef and chicken, those beef cattle use many kilos to produce one kilo of beef. So you need a lot more food to maintain a higher standard of diet, which of course is desirable. We want this to happen. But it does imply a lot more food than if you’re eating a basic diet of basic grains.”
But guess what? It’s harder than ever to produce more food. Water tables are falling, extreme weather is increasing, climate change is coming, and new pestilent diseases have emerged.
“We have a new epidemic in Kenya, maize lethal necrosis. We have a new disease of wheat in Brazil called wheat blast, which is completely new,” said Thomas Lumpkin, the director of the maize and wheat center.
Lumpkin laid out what may happen if scientists can’t bring about a new green revolution: “Failing to meet it will be disastrous for millions of people. … We have all the ingredients for a new global food crisis, even a political crisis.”
“We’ve already seen how high wheat prices fueled the revolutions in the Arab world – in Libya, in Egypt. I’m sure you can remember the 2007 tortilla crisis here in Mexico. The world must grow more food with less inputs, with less land, with less water, with less labor, with less fertilizer.”
Lumpkin cited the “enormous challenge” of meeting greater demand for grains. If a new green revolution comes about, it is likely to sprout from the high-tech laboratories and 200 scientists at this agricultural center in Texcoco, in the arid plains north of Mexico City.