Twice before, our species has been saved from starvation by science. But as we move towards a planet of eight billion people, we are in uncharted territory. Let’s hope a new Norman Borlaug is waiting in the wings.
Shortly after Malthus made his grim prediction, we saw the first Agricultural Revolution – the systematic application of science and technology to farming. New varieties of crops, an understanding of crop rotation and the development of mechanisation saw yields soar. Hunger was also averted by the development of a global trade in food, spurred by the advent of steam ships and refrigeration.
Still, the population kept rising – but along came a saviour in the form of Norman Borlaug, one of the most important human beings ever to have lived. Hitler will always be famous for killing millions; yet Dr Borlaug, an American food scientist, saved billions, and yet relatively few of us have heard of him. In the 1960s, he bred new varieties of wheat and rice and other crops, a breakthrough now called the Green Revolution. If it hadn’t been for him, then Asia and perhaps South America would have seen serious famine in the 1970s.
Now we are reaching the limits of the Green Revolution.
The “Green Revolution” that lifted millions out of hunger is threatened by a fungus re-appearing in wheat and now the emergence Superweeds.
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.
Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.
But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”