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On The Brink Of A New Agricultural Revolution?

Tony Boys's picture

An article quoting Dr Brian Keating speaking at the Australian Society of Agronomy Conference under the title "On The Brink Of A New Agricultural Revolution" says:

"In a keynote address to the Australian Society of Agronomy Conference, the Director of CSIRO's Agricultural Sustainability Initiative, Dr Brian Keating, said there is evidence that rates of increase in agricultural productivity are easing both in Australia and overseas."

The full article.

That doesn't sound like a "revolution"... The article then states that...

"With the United Nations predicting the world population to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050 and with dramatic changes in food consumption patterns associated with economic development in Asia, there is an urgent need to face up to the challenge of doubling food production over the next 50 years."

Uh, huh. World population now about 6.72 billion.

UN 2007 World Population Revision says the world population in 2050 is likely to be:

Median variant: 9.191 billion

Low variant: 7.792 billion

Personally, I'll put my money on the low variant.

How cheery do we feel about economic development in Asia to 2050 and the "dramatic changes" it will bring in food consumption patterns?

We then read...

"We are going to need a 'revolution' in agricultural productivity over the coming decades to meet these challenges - particularly in terms of the efficiency with which we use land, water, nutrient and energy resources in agricultural production," Dr Keating said.

Well, we could be adding a little over a billion people and we could have a food consumption revolution in the direction of eating less animal protein. That's just as probable a prognosis for 2050, isn't it? In that case, productivity might have to increase, but production would not necessarily have to. So I agree with the mentioned efficiencies, but the article doesn't say very much about how Dr Keating thinks they will be achieved, except to say that, "he is optimistic that agricultural science and industry innovation is up to these challenges."

That's reassuring. Since in a world where apalling hunger and mass over-consumption of food exist almost side by side one of the most serious problems is how to distribute food more equitably, perhaps we could also come up with some social policies to deal with this issue. If not, even if we double the food supply by 2050, what's going to prevent a doubling of the number of starving while we get a doubling of the obese at the same time?

Dr Keating might benefit from a reading of The Final Energy Crisis (2nd Ed.), published recently, as he will find that he really should introduce a few more variables into his equations in order to get a more realistic approximation of where humanity is headed this century.

Comments

Another Green Revolution? Heaven forbid!

I worked at one of the CGIR group institutes (ICRISAT) for four years in the eighties. I am an Anthropologist. I simply could not believe how many of my fellow scientists saw the Green Revolution as a great success story. I think they just hired a few token Anthropologists at these institutes to appease the funding agencies who were getting flack over the negative social consequences (increased social stratification, creation of a landless class that created vast slums near urban areas). The economists at the institute clearly regarded me with no great favor and it was mysterious to me just what they were actually trying to find out. They used words that did not mean what I thought they did.

Gradually a staggering realization burst upon me: all of these people, the entire collection of scientists, viewed all the indigenous subsistence economies within the semi-arid tropics, as unsatisfactory and in need of "improvement" so they could generate numbers to bring up the GNP of the nation state in which they found themselves.

And it was all top down. Nobody questioned that the scientists at these various institutes were daily striving to produce more high yielding varieties of sorghum and millet than anything the farmers had. No one questioned that the scientists could dream up much more suitable more economically advantageous seeding, agronomic, and cropping practices. The fact that this meant that a couple of Indian plant geneticists were sitting at a research station in the middle of the Sahel working through their trials of shorter sorghum and millet. the first thing I learned when I went to the villages was that there the sorghum plants were at least ten feet tall. They wanted them that tall, since they wanted to be able to feed their livestock as the rainy season past and other grazing became scarce, by having them browse through the fields, nibbling off all but the top leaves and the grain.

The second thing I learned was that each village had at least one farmer with a green thumb who was always seeking out new varieties to experiment with. One man had actually ridden his bicycle all the way over to a village in Mali to get a single head of millet for his plant breeding experiments. No one at the research station was even aware of this and when I told them about it they dismissed the potential of work done by ignorant farmers.

I think that there are perfectly good local subsistence economies out there that have been chugging along meeting the needs of the people well enough for reproduction and stability. the infant mortality was a bit high by western standards, but it resulted in very modest population increases which were usually curtailed by occasional droughts. They knew this and took it into account in their targets for food production. Many, many of the farmers were proud to show me granaries filled with grain from up to five previous harvests. This was especially the case when the farmer was also a head of a family lineage. In that kind of social position they needed to plan ahead not only for their own household but also the households of sons, younger brothers and cousins, nephews and even grandsons' families. The popular misconception is that all of Africa is filled with people whose economies are failing them. This is simply untrue.

Tony Boys's picture

Thanks Helga,

It's so good to hear from someone who has actually walked the Earth in the villages. A friend of mine, Francis Ferguson, has done interesting work with the Karen in northern Thailand which suggests that the Karen would do far better if the government would simply leave them alone. It would be even better if the govt would try to assist the Karen on their own terms and not let all the modern concepts of development and economy get in the way, but that isn't going to happen just yet... You can reach Francis at:

pgazknyau[AT]yahoo.co.jp

He can then point you to his documents and so on.

Greetings Helga,
I was pleased to just read yours and Antony's exchange about Another Green Revolution. And, I'm thinking you may enjoy watching our new short film, A Thousand Suns, about the Gamo people in Ethiopia and how they've been living sustainably for 10,000 years, until now, when their way of life is being threatened by the introduction of 'new' Green Revolution technologies and initiatives from the West. Please go to http://www.globalonenessproject.org if you are interested in viewing the film online or ordering the DVD (free of charge).
Best regards,
Alan Zulch
Global Oneness Project
Email: alan@globalonenessproject.org