Fighting World Hunger: Shaping Phase II of the Green Revolution


Location: Hesburgh Center Auditorium, Hesburgh Center for International Studies

Margaret Carroll Boardman is a Reilly Center visiting scholar. This talk is cosponsored by the International Development Research Council.

Abstract: The U.N. World Food Program estimates that one sixth of the human population suffers from lack of nutritious food. Population experts predict that by 2050 the world population will increase from 6 to close to 9 billion. Not only will world hunger increase but it will be magnified as certain areas of the world deplete their groundwater resources.

What role will biotechnology play in addressing world hunger and water shortages? It offers promises of increased yields and decreased use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, water, pesticides and insecticides. Drought tolerant, herbicide-resistant, and virus-tolerant crops could lead to a healthier environment and reduce deforestation as it would not require the clearing of additional farmland. Biotech proponents assert that this technology can save millions from starvation and this effort should not be derailed by precautionary concerns that can be addressed through regulation.

Critics point out that biotechnology has the power to get out of hand and destroy the ecosystem of the world as we know it. They raise concerns about creating “super” weeds and insects that are immune to insect-resistant and herbicide-resistant crops. They fear the loss of biodiversity as GM (gene-modified) crops cross-pollinate with heirloom crops, negatively impact soil organisms, and wipe out non-target insects. They oppose the spread of a monoculture of GM crops on a global basis noting that if they fail, the rate of starvation would be significantly worse than current predictions. Lastly, they point out that the GM crops have not been properly tested and could result in human health concerns including allergies, fertility issues, possible mutations or yet unknown diseases.

 This is not the first time that international development policy makers have used controversial technology to save millions from starvation. From the 1940s through the 1980s, during Phase I of the Green Revolution, the Center for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and its affiliated research centers worked on developing wheat hybrids and transferring them to Asia to avoid large-scale famine. The new hybrids required high uses of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, and water but did save the lives of millions.

 International development policy makers have learned from Phase I of the Green Revolution and commenced Phase II in the 1990s with a new emphasis on sustainable development that includes the voice of developing nations. The first international treaty of Phase II was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) passed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The second was the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety passed in 2000, which regulates the trade of living organisms and sets biodiversity assessment targets. The third is International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture passed in 2001, which furthers the regulation of biotechnology by placing extensive international seedbanks collected by CGIAR during Phase I of the Green Revolution under the authority of the UN. Members to this third treaty have access to these genetic resources, including 64 basic food staples. These three international treaties provide an international regulatory framework for the use of biotechnology to fight hunger. They also diminish the control that private multi-national corporations may have over new biotechnology innovations, opening the possibility that in the future, non-profit international development organizations can use biotechnology to create GM crops that will solve world hunger.