A leader needed for next green revolution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

No winner of the Nobel Peace Prize could claim to have saved as many lives as the late Norman Borlaug. The high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties the American pioneered in the 1960s in response to a looming population crisis earned him the title 'father of the green revolution'. His work is estimated to have prevented at least 250 million people in the developing world from starving to death. Another such catastrophe is at hand and the world urgently needs an inspirational leader with similar innovative thinking to pull it clear.

The potential stresses are worse than those of four decades ago. UN projections put the world's population at 9 billion by the end of the century, an increase of 2.5 billion from present levels. Global warming could exacerbate the strains on dwindling land, food and water resources. Africa is already threatened - one-third of its 200 million people do not have enough food and clean water.

Perversely, Borlaug is blamed by some people for the world's circumstances. The population would be lower were it not for his work, they argue. His support for genetically modified plants is criticised by environmentalists. Such thinking ignores basic rights and the value of technology to resolve global challenges.

Another green revolution is sorely needed. Conventional plant breeding, irrigation and artificial fertilisers were the fundamentals of the one that Borlaug kick-started, but many fear they can now only deliver incremental advances. Borlaug's belief that genetically modified crops hold the answer is shared by many scientists but this technology remains highly controversial. Still it is clear that the next step has to be a combination of better plants, sustainable farming methods and improved infrastructure.

Borlaug was pressing the case for greater attention to the world's problems into his 95th year. His message was that with dedication, the issues were well within our control. A determined advocate was lost with his death on Saturday. A leader for the next green revolution has to step forward. It is to be hoped that soon another agricultural scientist will win the Nobel Peace Prize.