National Geographic : 2014 Oct
42 national geographic • october 2014 grain prices fell, the average Asian consumed nearly a third more calories, and the poverty rate was cut in half. When Borlaug won the No- bel Peace Prize in 1970, the citation read, “More than any other person of this age, he helped pro- vide bread for a hungry world.” To keep doing that between now and 2050, we’ll need another green revolution. There are two competing visions of how it will happen. One is high-tech, with a heavy emphasis on con- tinuing Borlaug’s work of breeding better crops, but with modern genetic techniques. “ The next green revolution will supercharge the tools of the old one,” says Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto and a winner of the presti- gious World Food Prize in 2013. Scientists, he argues, can now identify and manipulate a huge variety of plant genes, for traits like disease re- sistance and drought tolerance. That’s going to make farming more productive and resilient. The signature technology of this approach— and the one that has brought both success and controversy to Monsanto—is genetically modified, or GM, crops. First released in the 1990s, they’ve been adopted by 28 countries and planted on 11 percent of the world’s arable land, including half the cropland in the U.S. About 90 percent of the corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Americans have been eating GM products for nearly two decades. But in Europe and much of Africa, de- bates over the safety and environmental effects of GM crops have largely blocked their use. Proponents like Fraley say such crops have prevented billions of dollars in losses in the U.S. alone and have actually benefited the environ- ment. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that pesticide use on corn crops has dropped 90 percent since the intro- duction of Bt corn, which contains genes from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that help it ward off corn borers and other pests. Reports from China indicate that harmful aphids have decreased—and ladybugs and other beneficial insects have increased—in provinces where GM cotton has been planted. The particular GM crops Fraley pioneered at maintain that lead in the 21st century, or will a global catastrophe beset us? The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 the world’s population will grow by more than two billion people. Half will be born in sub-Saharan Africa, and another 30 percent in South and Southeast Asia. Those regions are also where the effects of climate change—drought, heat waves, extreme weather generally—are expected to hit hardest. Last March the Intergovernmen- tal Panel on Climate Change warned that the world’s food supply is already jeopardized. “In the last 20 years, particularly for rice, wheat, and corn, there has been a slowdown in the growth rate of crop yields,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton and one of the authors of the IPCC report. “In some areas yields have stopped growing entirely. My per- sonal view is that the breakdown of food systems is the biggest threat of climate change.” Half a century ago disaster loomed just as ominously. Speaking about global hunger at a meeting of the Ford Foundation in 1959, one economist said, “At best the world outlook for the decades ahead is grave; at worst it is frighten- ing.” Nine years later Paul Ehrlich’s best seller, The Population Bomb, predicted that famines, especially in India, would kill hundreds of mil- lions in the 1970s and 1980s. Before those grim visions could come to pass, the green revolution transformed global agricul- ture, especially wheat and rice. Through selec- tive breeding, Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, created a dwarf variety of wheat that put most of its energy into edible kernels rather than long, inedible stems. The result: more grain per acre. Similar work at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines dra- matically improved the productivity of the grain that feeds nearly half the world. From the 1960s through the 1990s, yields of rice and wheat in Asia doubled. Even as the continent’s population increased by 60 percent, Tim Folger’s last feature was the September 2013 cover story on sea-level rise. This is photographer Craig Cutler’s first article for the magazine.