“Food given by another person is only a throat tickler,” says an old proverb of the Maori, the original inhabitants of New Zealand. “But food gained by the labor of one’s own hand is the food which satisfies.”
This belief is what motivated Norman E. Borlaug to spark the Green Revolution nearly two generations ago. He understood that the world couldn’t feed itself through foreign-aid handouts. He knew that the solution to the problem of hunger and population growth was simply to produce more food. If farmers in the developing world planted and harvested as much as possible, they would satisfy themselves both psychologically and nutritionally.
That’s basically what happened, and Borlaug went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. It has been said that over a billion people are alive today because of his achievement.
But the effort to grow more food and better food continues. In this respect, the Green Revolution’s work is never done.
This year’s World Food Prize, which will be formally awarded on Thursday, October 19, recognizes three Green Revolutionaries who made their mark in Brazil. Their combined efforts transformed the Cerrado, a vast land of arid brush, into fertile farmland that today produces more than half of Brazil’s soybeans, coffee, and beef.
The Cerrado’s very name suggests the nature of the struggle: In Portuguese, Brazil’s language, “Cerrado” signifies a closed and inaccessible land. It surely was that half a century ago. When I was there 15 years ago, it was just beginning to develop.
In 1955, only 200,000 hectares of land in the Cerrado were arable. Today, that figure is more than 40 million hectares. That’s like taking a place about half the size of tiny Rhode Island and expanding it to an area larger than all of Iowa.
Borlaug has called the development of the Cerrado “one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century, which has transformed a wasteland into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.” He has also expressed his hope that the technologies that forever changed the Cerrado will transfer into agriculturally challenged sections of Colombia and Venezuela, and then perhaps into central and southern Africa.
The winners of this year’s World Food Prize are A. Colin McClung, an American who studied the Cerrado’s complex soil and figured out how to make it fertile; Alysson Paolinelli, a former Brazilian minister of agriculture who helped create the financial infrastructure necessary for farmers to move into the Cerrado and prosper; and Edson Lobato, another soil expert who built upon McClung’s pioneering work. This is the first time the World Food Prize has been shared three ways.
Their story shows how much farmers have to gain when they use science to improve their productivity and work with government officials to build an economic and political environment in which agriculture can thrive.
Yet the main way these techniques spread is through farmers talking to each other. When one farmer tells another about his experience with a certain seed, or a farmer spots his neighbor using a new fertilizer or pesticide–that’s how agricultural progress spreads.
And that’s why Truth About Trade and Technology is sponsoring a day-long, farmer-to-farmer global roundtable on Wednesday, October 18, as a part of the World Food Prize celebrations. We have 24 farmers from 17 countries scheduled to participate. They include Dramane Diasso, a cotton farmer from Burkina Faso; Jeff and Marilyn Bidstrup, who run a 5,000-hectare operation in Australia; and Luiz Marcos Hafers, a coffee grower from the Cerrado in Brazil.
Conversation will focus on how access to technology, including biotechnology, and free trade can help farmers flourish in the 21st century as the Green Revolution turns into a Gene Revolution and looks for ways to repeat the miracle of the Cerrado in other parts of the world.
Our hope is that each of them will come away with a better understanding of the common challenges they face as farmers–as well as with ideas that they can take back to their home countries and apply to their unique problems. Food given by another person may be a throat tickler, but knowledge is another matter entirely. From it, great things may grow.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer, member emeritus of the World Food Prize Board of Advisors and past president of the American Farm Bureau. Mr. Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)