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India and the next Green Revolution

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted December 20, 2010

Until recent decades, India was famous for its famine, not its computer industry. India's dense population and erratic monsoon rainfall put it constantly at food risk—with a crop failure about every seven years. Two crop failures in a row often meant famine and sometimes there were three bad years in a row. During the Great Famine of 1876–78, five million Indians starved and another 6–10 million died of related dysentery, cholera, and opportunistic fevers.

When Britain ruled India (from the mid-1700s to 1947) the Brits were regularly blamed for India's famine death tolls. However, India's population in the late 1800s was about 300 million—ten times larger than Britain's. India's land base also was vastly greater than Britain's. There was no way the farmers of either country could raise yields enough in those primitive farming days to accumulate big buffer stocks of grain against the next drought. Nor could large grain stocks have been stored successfully against the rats and fungi in the grain bins of the time. Fumigation and fungicides wouldn't arrive until much later. Famines just came and receded to come again; a cruel fact of Nature.

Fortunately, since 1960, India has adopted Green Revolution seed-breeding, improved its irrigation, and carefully used pesticides and fertilizers. All have helped to boost yields per acre. Modern storage keeps the grain and rice safe as a buffer against monsoon failure. As a result, India today feeds 1.2 billion people, and even exports modest amounts of food.   

Tomorrow, however, India's farmers will have to do the Green Revolution all over again. The world population will peak at perhaps 9 billion affluent people in 2050. India itself is set to become the world's most populous country, with at least 1.3 billion people and an enormous middle class.

India's population has nearly stopped growing, but they're consuming far more milk, ice cream, chicken, eggs, and goat meat as their incomes rise. McDonalds' features a "muttonburger with special sauce." Thus India will need to double its crop yields per acre, again. Never mind that there is no more cropland to clear, and that they're already using the high-powered seeds, pesticides and fertilizers of modern technology. Their irrigation water has largely been mobilized already. A second Green Revolution is sorely needed. 

I spoke recently to a high school audience in Vapi, a small city in southern India. I congratulated the kids on their home city being a production center for the famine-defeating fertilizers and pesticides. During the question period, one bright young man told me in glowing terms about his neighbor's farm, which produces organic sugar cane at a premium—for sale in Canada!

This is a good question. You could say that India has outsmarted the West. They're using DDT to keep malaria rates low and pest-resistant genetically-modified cotton to stop the insect risk to their textile industry. Now, they're skimming a premium off the West's chemophobia.

However, India's kids, despite their terrifying famine history, still don't seem to understand the link between high-yield farming and having enough to eat. For the future, organic sugarcane really means a few farmers catering to rich foreigners at the expense of their fellow citizens.

This particular school is well-placed to be the intellectual breeding ground for tomorrow's agricultural scientists and researches who may very likely uncover the answers for the second Green Revolution. One thing is certain; the solution will not be a return to traditional "organic" farming unless 1.3 billion Indians prefer famine to health and prosperity. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net




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