Skip to main content

In the face of population growth, environmental degradation

Ranking as one of the world's greatest scientific and social achievements, the Green Revolution saved millions from starvation in the 1960s and 70s. Now, faced with increasing population growth, environmental degradation and problems of hunger, Cornell University scientists believe the future is bleak.

Scientists are hoping to gather $100 million over the next five years for an international program, "Global Research on the Environmental and Agricultural Nexus (GREAN) for the 21st Century." This initiative -- a new GREAN revolution -- is the outcome of the Taskforce on Research Innovation for Productivity and Sustainability, an international group led by Cornell and the University of Florida.

It plans to deploy American and international scientists on long-term, agricultural research projects aimed at solving this planet's most pressing problems.

Environmental questions and growing population provide unrelenting strain on natural resources. "With the large numbers of people, the pressures of survival are encroaching on every part of the world," said Ronnie Coffman, Cornell associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a member of the Taskforce that produced the report and co-chair of the committee that drafted the proposal.

With a large portion of the world population under age 15, Coffman said, finite resources combined with young, growing populations present a dilemma:

Demand for food in developing countries will more than double by the year 2025 and triple by 2050, according to the report. Globally, 1.3 billion people live in poverty now, with 75 percent of those located in rural areas. Experts predict that by 2050, the Earth will need to support 4.3 billion more people, 95 percent of whom will be living in what are now developing countries.

"The first Green Revolution increased real income and improved nutrition for the poor, enhanced productivity, increased global trade and preserved large expanses of land unsuited for cultivation from deforestation," according to the report, which was funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. "The U.S. was amply rewarded for the Green Revolution. They helped transform countries once dependent upon U.S. food into large and growing markets for American products."

Scientists from Cornell and the University of Florida have gathered an ad hoc coalition of about 20 universities to promote the GREAN initiative with scientists around the world. "Countries that we once thought of as developing are really our global partners," Coffman said. "With partnering countries, there are tremendous scientific resources out there. But many good scientists are languishing, lacking the resources and the collaborators to be truly effective." Technologies that were barely a blip two decades ago facilitate global collaborative research today, potentially reducing research redundancy. Thus, research money would go farther, playing on the strengths of all the partners.

If adopted, the proposed GREAN organization will consist of agriculture research specialty areas such as soils, water, forests, as well as biodiversity and climate change. The initiative is hoping to obtain support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USAID, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and from regional development banks. Most of the agriculturists involved in GREAN realize that allowing just the United States to feed the world would be wrong. Most idled farmland in the industrialized world is of marginal agricultural value, according to the GREAN proposal. To be good global citizens, the industrialized nations must help the developing countries use their own land more effectively, since many of the poorer nations would not be able to pay for imports anyway. Increasing agricultural productivity means increased income and food security for all.