TCS Daily

High Yield Heroes

By Dennis Avery - April 30, 2002 12:00 AM

A remarkably broad coalition of international heroes -- including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates - is calling for sustainably higher yields of crops and forest products in the crucial 50 years just ahead.

The coalition kicked off their effort at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Its members say that we cannot save the forests and wild species, let alone end global hunger, if we rely on low-yield production of food and wood. They recommend no particular technologies, but note world harvests of food and forest products must double by 2050

I call the coalition members heroes because they're willing to put their enormous reputations behind politically incorrect strategies. They argue for intensive farming and tree plantations. They are concerned about traditional, low-yield farming systems, and letting trees burn instead of becoming timber. Most of all, they agree that high yields are vital for humanity and the planet.

The leader of the new coalition is Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Iowa plant breeder who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Green Revolution. He and his fellow researchers saved a billion people from starving during the 1960s. But Borlaug was also the first to note (in 1986) that the higher crop yields saved billions of acres of wildlands from being plowed down for low-yield food. Today, the total of wildlands saved by high yield farming has risen to at least 12 million square miles (not acres), equal to the total land area of the United States, Europe, and South America. (Or 3,400 Yellowstone National Parks.)

The second Nobel Peace Prize laureate to join the conservation coalition is former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who won in 1986 for his Central American peace efforts. Today, he serves as an ambassador for the FutureHarvest network of internationally funded Third World agricultural research centers. He says 2 billion people live in or near the Third World forests that are home to three-fourths of the world's wildlife species --and the only way they can feed their families is to burn more forest and hunt more wild animals for bushmeat. Higher-yield research in biology, ecology, chemistry, and technology is the only way to give these poor people better opportunities. Yet FutureHarvest's global research budget last year was a paltry $340 million.

The other coalition leaders:

Former U.S. Senator George McGovern is currently an "ambassador to the hungry" for the United Nations. He says the world for the first time has the science and the financial power to finally end hunger -- and world population growth is rapidly tapering off, so there's no longer any fear that high-yield farming will produce an overcrowded planet. But without higher yields, McGovern warns, we'll pit the food needs of malnourished African kids against the preservation of Africa's unique wildlife. He also fears more genocide (as in crowded Rwanda, where one million people hacked each other to death in 1994) and more support among poor Moslem farmers for suicide bombers.

Patrick Moore of Canada was a co-founder of Greenpeace, but now rejects that group's anti-science confrontations. Moore reminds us that wood is the most environmentally friendly building material, and the most renewable. (He asks: "Where is the Green Steel and the Green Concrete?") High-yield tree management can support economic growth and literacy for all the peoples of the world -- and retain more biodiversity than a narrow fixation on wild forests alone.

Eugene Lapointe is a former secretary-general of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and now president of the World Conservation Trust. He favors "wise use" harvests of wildlife -- where the earnings will produce more of the wildlife. For example, he wants African villagers to share in revenues from tourists and licensed elephant hunters -- so the villagers will have a stake in stopping elephant poachers.

James Lovelock, the famous British chemist-philosopher who authored the Gaia Hypothesis, believes the whole earth is a living organism -- rocks, seas, atmosphere, and living organisms. He says we cannot manage the planet because we can't manage what's really important -- the tiny stuff like plankton and soil bacteria. However, we should avoid doing damage, such as clearing the tropical forests to plant corn and cassava.

Dr. Per Pinstrup-Anderson won the 2001 World Food Prize for his long-term projections of world food and cropland requirements. He's been documenting the slowing surge of world population -- along with the soaring Third World demand for resource-costly foods like meat, milk and fruit.

These high-yield heroes invite agriculturists, foresters, and true conservationists all over the world to stand with them, by co-signing the "Declaration in Support of Protecting Nature with High-yield Farming and Forestry."

Dennis Avery is director of the Center for Global Food Issues, which hosted Tuesday's news conference with Borlaug, Moore and LaPointe.

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