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Back ‘Welcome New Realism’ With Research Funding

Dennis T. Avery Bridge News

The Senate Agriculture Committee and environmentalist Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute both think the world needs more high-yield agriculture and more research funding to get it.

Both now agree that research to raise crop yields is good environmental insurance for the planet.

The Senate committee recently announced a bill that would appropriate nearly $1 billion in additional funds for agricultural research over the next five years. That would boost the federal government’s long-stagnant spending on agricultural research by about 10 percent.

The proposed increase is no surprise. The committee has long believed in agricultural research.

Worldwatch’s Lester Brown, however, has been the most famous critic of high-yield farming. He made himself famous by warning that the Green Revolution had produced only an “illusion of progress,” rather than improved the world’s food security. (Apparently, he wanted to make population control sound more urgent).

Now, Brown writes in a recent issue of Worldwatch that the world is underinvesting in agricultural research:

“There are still many opportunities for raising grain land productivity in most countries. … Future food security also depends on a sharp increase in investment in agricultural research.”

Farmers and environmentalists thus agree that additional agricultural research is critical in helping the world stabilize its population and keep its wildlife for the 21st century.

Food security - for which a higher crop yield is the best proxy all over the world - helps reduce birth rates. It helps convince parents that their first two or three children will live to adulthood. Countries that have raised their crop yields the most have also brought down their birth rates the most, even in Africa. Higher crop yields have thus helped bring births per woman in the Third World three-fourths of the way to stability in the past 30 years.

Higher-yield agriculture is even more directly important for a world that will have to supply more than twice as much food in the 21st century to a peak population of 8.5 billion affluent people.

Vegetarianism is alive and well as a personal statement for individuals - but it has utterly failed as a strategy for saving the world’s wildlife habitat.

Only about 2 percent of Americans are full vegetarians - and virtually all of them get key nutrients from dairy products. Environmentally, there is no difference between beef cows and dairy cows.

That leaves only higher-yield agriculture as a humane strategy for conserving wildlife.

Jim Downey of the Australian Conservation Foundation (Australia’s largest environmental group) says getting more food from the land we’re already farming is the most critical element in the whole wildlands equation.

High-yield agricultural research doesn’t even cost much! The U.S. has been spending only about $1.8 billion per year for farm science in recent years. That’s less than we spend on subsidies to our sugar growers!

The international farm research network that produced the ongoing Green Revolution has been costing only about $300 million per year.

Yet look at what we’re getting:

Two nonfamous Mexican researchers have recently produced a biotech breakthrough that could double crop yields on one-third of the world’s arable land by helping plants overcome aluminum toxicity in the soil.

World corn yields are still rising by 2.8 percent per year, just as they have since 1960, thanks to a host of research and engineering developments. At this moment, corn breeders are trying to get corn plants that will thrive in “corn forests” of 100,000 plants per acre (five times current planting density).

Rice researchers are trying to breed rice with 25 percent more yield by putting more of the plant’s energy into its seeds and by genetically inserting resistance to viruses, diseases, insects and drought.

Only about one-third of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops actually turns into plant growth. Raising that percentage would produce more grain and less leaching of fertilizer into the environment.

Vaclav Smil, from Canada’s University of Manitoba, says, “It would be very surprising if biotechnology did not produce as much gain in farm productivity in the next 50 years as plant breeding has in the last 60 years.”

Plant breeding, he notes, has been credited with more than half of the world’s increased food production in that period.

The yield gains have come mainly from professional research. Farmers are hard workers and good managers, but most of the improved seeds, machines and protective chemicals came from the experimental farms and laboratories.

The opposition to high-yield farming and agricultural research funding has come mainly from those environmentalists who feared that producing more food would simply mean more population growth. Lester Brown has been their leading spokesman. But his new position, that the world does need higher-yield farming and more farming research to get it, signals a welcome new realism among conservationists.

If Brown and the Senate Agriculture Committee both agree on the urgent need for higher farm yields, who would stand against it?

Brown warns that even with a concerted, worldwide effort to increase grain yields, current trends might pull the rate of increase in world grain yields below 1 percent per year. (The average from 1960 to 1990 has been 2.1 percent.)

After reading Brown’s article, I think Sen. Richard Lugar’s agriculture committee may not have gone far enough. We should just go ahead and double federal funding for agricultural research. The cost of the “insurance” is ridiculously low when compared with the environmental resources we might otherwise lose.

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