Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Green Revolution no boon for hungry in hot climates

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We have plenty of reasons to curse our cold climate, with its short summers and seemingly endless, brutally cold winters -- this past year being a notable exception.

But when it comes to keeping the crops Prairie farmers grow in good, usable condition until they reach the customer, a few dry, cold months simply can't be beat.

Although there is plenty of evidence showing how quickly a stored crop can deteriorate in heat and humidity, it would have to get a lot colder than we've ever experienced to see a quality loss due to a Prairie winter.

Farmers here still must monitor their crops in storage to ensure insects haven't moved in or rapid changes in temperature haven't caused their crops to sweat, which attracts mould. But by and large, the climate here gives them a huge advantage when it comes to quality preservation.

By comparison, consider the dilemma facing authorities in India these days, where bumper harvests, thanks to government production incentives, have combined with a lack of storage to cause major losses to rot. State warehouses can store only 63 million tonnes and current government-owned stocks are sitting at 82.4 million tonnes. Plus, farmers have just harvested another record crop.

A Reuters story this week notes brimming granaries prompted India to lift a four-year-old ban on exports in September, but wheat is still being stored under tarpaulins.

Lack of infrastructure makes it logistically easier for authorities to dump the surplus on the export market -- even if it takes subsidies of up to $100 per tonne to do it -- than get it to the 500 million poor in a country where nearly half the children under age three are underweight or stunted due to malnutrition.

It's a tragic twist in the ongoing debate over the Green Revolution, the 1960s initiative for which American Norman Borlaug received a Nobel Prize. With the best of intentions, U.S. and Canadian researchers introduced improved genetics, fertilizers and pesticides to help India produce more of its own food and avert a pending famine.

It has since become clear that while the concept was remarkably successful at increasing production, it hasn't meant the end of hunger. Without the necessary infrastructure, market mechanisms and storage to help get the food to the people who need it, India -- like many countries in hot, humid climates -- has routinely been confronted with surplus production and a lot of losses due to waste.

And when it resorts to exports to clear up the stockpiles, the increased supply dumped on world markets drives down prices for farmers everywhere.

The world can't afford this. Non-renewable resources are being consumed, and greenhouse gases are being generated to produce food that never gets eaten. Wastage is just as high in our society, where food is so deceptively cheap we buy more than we can eat before it spoils.

"Many of the breakthroughs in food production are literally being wasted because food that should be filling hungry mouths is often spoiled before it can be consumed," Digvir Jayas, a professor in biosystems engineering and the University of Manitoba's vice-president of research and international development, says in a recently published article.

We have heard repeatedly we must increase production from 50 to 70 per cent if we are to feed nine billion people by 2050. Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was spouting that line less than two years ago.

But a newly released FAO report noted the world can feed itself with less food output than previously forecast if it turns to sustainable farming, cuts waste and stops excessive consumption. It said "bold policy decisions" are needed to cut food losses and waste that amount to 1.3 billion tonnes a year, roughly one-third of the world's food production for human consumption.

There's the rub. A commitment to less waste requires policy in a world that increasingly follows the money.

And right now, the money -- pretty much everything from the research to how producers get paid -- is based on boosting production.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 B10

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