Getting the Short Straw

Your excellent article on the good work being done by ECHO (“Ending the Hunger Season,” by Fred Bahnson, August 2011) was marred by its stringent [implied] criticism of the millions of small family farmers who feed the world, of whom I am one. Norman Borlaug, whom you cite, reduced the height of wheat from over five feet to two feet and thereby brought about a trebling of yields. Rice breeders followed his example, and with these far more efficient plants the world’s farmers have been able to keep the world’s exploding, meat-eating, urban dwelling population alive for the past 50 years. A return to the traditional plants would spell hunger for billions.

Borlaug did not produce “hybrid varieties” (of which seed has to be bought every year). He produced plants of which farmers could keep their seed and pass it on to their neighbors. Neither do these plants “suck massive amounts of nutrients from the soil”; because of their short size, they are almost twice as efficient at converting plant nutrients into grain. It is the world’s 3.5 billion urban people who “suck massive amounts of nutrients from the soil” and flush them down their toilets. Farmers are forced to find some alternative source for the nutrients they have lost; in the quantities now involved, only fertilizer can meet that need for most of us.

We have kept billions of people alive in the face of an unprecedented population explosion and have fed the billions of animals which they demand. This has involved us and our families in increased work, risk, expenditure, and worry.

Can the world go on feeding itself in this way? Of course not! By midcentury there will be 10 billion people, most draining the world’s soil nutrients down their toilets at a speed it will be impossible to replace as the supply of the phosphate rock and potash salt, on which we now draw as a replacement, runs out. With the help of short-strawed varieties, farmers have kept billions of people alive until some quite new way is found of feeding this huge, meat-eating, urban population. People like ECHO are helping in that task; it is going to need many more like them.

Stephen Carr
Malakamu Village, Zomba, Malawi

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