Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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Source: The Futurist, Sept 2000 v34 i5 p16.

Title: Clash of Trends: Disappearing Water vs. Super Farms.(Brief Article)
Author: Dan Johnson

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 World Future Society

Can biotech and improved farming methods save water supplies?

Fresh water is becoming scarcer around the world, and this adverse environmental trend could cause global food prices to soar.

But there is a countertrend at work: Rapidly improving agricultural technology, including the development of new varieties of rice and other food plants through genetic engineering, offers new hope for offsetting a potential food crisis. And yet much of the public, including environmentalists, are pressuring governments to adopt new regulations in response to fears of genetically modified foods.

Here are three perspectives on the situation:

* Lester R. Brown, board chairman of the Worldwatch Institute, says that falling water tables in China may soon push food prices higher around the world. "Since 1965," he notes, "the water table under Beijing has fallen by nearly 200 feet." The diversion of irrigation water from agriculture to China's cities and industries, along with the depletion of aquifers, could soon force China to import massive amounts of grain from the United States.

China has abandoned a future of grain self-sufficiency, Brown believes, and the increasing demands of its nearly 1.3 billion people will soon move the country ahead of Japan as the world's largest grain importer. The resulting market disruption could trigger a steep rise in world food prices.

[Graphic omitted]* Geographer Vaclav Smil regards China's water shortages, high population, declining farmland, pollution, and ecosystem degradation as "realities that weaken its food production capacity." However, Smil's assessment of the country's agricultural future is far from gloomy: He views the current inefficient and wasteful Chinese food system as a problem waiting to be solved.

"Even a relatively modest effort to eliminate these failures would go a long way toward securing adequate food for coming generations," Smil writes in Feeding the World, an analysis of global food prospects for the mid-twenty-first century.

Smil points out that realistic water fees could alleviate the problem of wasteful irrigation, and better management of fertilizer application could raise yields considerably.

China also has opportunities for reclaiming farmland and for multicropping--yielding three harvests of stable crops and up to five harvests of vegetables per year. And more-effective storage practices could limit the enormous postharvest losses that now plague China.

"There do not seem to be any insurmountable biophysical reasons why China should not continue feeding itself during the next two generations," writes Smil. He favors a combination of management changes that emphasize the efficient use of water and fertilizer, as well as greater investments in agricultural research.

* Agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug also favors more-efficient agriculture. Unlike Smil, however, who makes no argument in favor of or opposed to bioengineering per se, Borlaug believes we would be foolish not to pursue biotech research and development for increasing food supplies.

Borlaug has been testing farming practices in Africa through the Sasakawa Africa Association since 1984. Well known for breeding the high-yield dwarf wheat that launched the "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1960s, Borlaug argues that biotechnology is essential to future global food security.

"We have to have this new technology if we are to meet the growing food needs for the next 25 years," says Borlaug in an interview in Reason magazine. Borlaug views some genetically engineered crops--such as an herbicide-resistant strain of maize--as especially suitable for use in zero-tillage cultivation in Africa, which, like China, faces enormous challenges in feeding future populations. Biotech innovation and an improved highway infrastructure are key to boosting African crop yields, he argues.

Borlaug contends that people should not fear biotechnology, because crossing genetic barriers between plant species already occurs in nature--as in the transfer of chromosomes between wild grasses that created durum wheat. Biotech allows researchers to more rapidly incorporate resistance against insects, disease, and drought into plants than is possible through conventional crossbreeding.

"I believe we have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance of biotechnology to the general public," says Borlaug, who cites several environmental advantages to the new technology.

"If we grow our own food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of their plant and animal diversity," says Borlaug.

He also suggests that biotech crops--such as corn and cotton made resistant to specific insect pests through the BT toxin gene--can thrive without the dousing of insecticide that now kills a wide range of insects.

In recent decades, conventional crossbreeding has boosted the rice yield in Asia and led to drought-tolerant varieties of rice. Researchers at Monsanto have announced that they could have a complete genetic map of the rice plant by 2003. Such breakthroughs will have a huge impact on global food prospects, Borlaug concludes.

"With the technology that we have now available, and with the research information that's in the pipeline and in the process of being finalized to move into production, we have the know-how to produce the food that will be needed to feed the population of 8.3 billion people that will exist in the world in 2025," says Borlaug.

Sources: Lester R. Brown, Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036. Telephone 1-202-452-1999; Web site

Feeding the World by Vaclav Smil. MIT Press. 2000. 360 pages. $32.95. (Order online at

"Billions Served: An Interview with Norman Borlaug" by Ronald Bailey, Reason (April 2000), Reason Foundation, 3415 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Suite 400, Los Angeles, California 90034. Telephone 1-310-391-2245; Web site

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