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Old Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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Default Green lessons

Green lessons

By Bina Shah

NORMAN Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, died recently in his Dallas home. He was known as the man who saved a billion lives from starvation.

His scientific research saw the development of high-yield crops, including the revolutionary dwarf wheat variety. His wheat research in Mexico led to the implementation of his innovations all across Africa and Asia.

For his work in saving the world’s populations from hunger, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Medal of Honour, and the Sitara Imtiaz, Hilal-i-Imtiaz and honorary degrees from several South Asian universities on this side of the world.

Borlaug is a particularly revered figure in South Asia because his dwarf spring wheat strains were sent to both India and Pakistan in the 1960s, under a programme organised by the US Department of Agriculture. Both countries were facing starvation and famine during the height of the tensions between the two nations, and it was this threat that forced the Indian and Pakistan governments to override bureaucratic channels hampering the implementation of Borlaug’s research.

The story of how Pakistan managed to double its wheat yields, from 4.6 million to 7.3 million tonnes in a mere five years, is a fascinating one; the holdups and obstacles provide insight into how fraught Pakistan’s relations were with the world, even back in what we perceive as less tumultuous times. Three spelling mistakes, for example, in the Pakistan treasury’s bank draft payment for the wheat seeds resulted in Mexico refusing to honour the $100,000 cheque; Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time sent a telegram to Borlaug which read: “I’m sorry to hear you are having trouble with my cheque, but I’ve got troubles, too. Bombs are falling on my front lawn. Be patient, the money is in the bank ...”

Borlaug’s life deserves to be revisited not just because of his death, but because of the lesson that we learned through his life: when it comes to increasing agricultural productivity, we can either choose to cultivate more land, or we can try to increase the productivity of the land already under cultivation. Borlaug’s work in the 1960s meant that millions of acres of forestland was saved from destruction; this is called the Borlaug Hypothesis, and has not been without its share of criticism.

His opponents claim that his programmes not only introduced an alarming amount of genetic mutation and chemicals into farming, but also changed subsistence farming into high-yield corporate farming that causes an unequal distribution of food between rich and poor, foists American capitalism onto countries struggling with the issue of land reform and reaps large profits for American agricultural corporations (Alexander Cockburn, Corporate Interests Keep World’s Poor Hungry).

Why is this relevant in 2009? Because the hottest debate in Pakistani agriculture today is on the issue of corporate farming. It’s claimed that huge firms from several Middle Eastern countries have shown interest in leasing out vast tracts of Pakistani farmland in order to grow food for their populations. Just the other day, Federal Minister for Food and Agriculture Nazar Muhammad Gondal released a press statement that Pakistan has eight million hectares of land that can be used for corporate farming in order to “stabilise the national economy and ensure food security”.

The country that seems to be the most interested in pursuing this is Saudi Arabia, but so far there’s been little evidence that they have made any headway in the matter. With the influence that they yield over our politics, though, it’s not hard to envision a future in which they extend that influence to our agricultural policies too.

Those who feel that corporate farming is the wave of the future in Pakistan are clearly not listening to the country’s landowners who remain staunchly convinced that the leasing of corporate land to foreign countries would spell disaster for the agricultural sector of Pakistan. A nightmare scenario would see all those eight million hectares of land leased out to foreign governments and all the country’s precious resources — including labour, electricity and water — being poured into the foreign-owned corporate farms, while the Pakistani people go hungry.

Even if the government is able to implement the suggestion of Khair Mohammed Junejo, former federal food and agriculture minister, who stated on television that corporate farming could be taken up in a limited manner, utilising only those tracts that were not being cultivated at present, there’s no end to the horrible afflictions that could come out of the Pandora’s Box — neglect of Pakistani farmland, corruption, kickbacks, starvation, drought — once an ambitious government takes the first steps in this direction.

If you think ‘feudalism’ is bad, wait until you see the horrors that vast-scale corporate farming will visit upon a country that is weak in infrastructure and governance and that lacks the ability to enforce any kind of protective measures against pushy foreign investors.

But the most vital element in this debate is that while we can twist figures to show that Pakistan either has enough food to feed its population or lacks enough food to make it into the next 50 years, we can’t escape the fact that we will almost certainly run out of enough water in the next 30 years. No amount of statistical wizardry or number-fixing can outdo the reality of barren lands, rising silt tables, the Indus River reduced to less than half of its mighty size.

We still haven’t yet resolved the issues of dam-building, the supply of adequate and safe drinking water to our villages, the integrity of our coastal areas. If we don’t figure this out, we’ll die of thirst before we starve to death, no matter what kind of agricultural system we decide on.

If Norman Berlaug were alive today, I imagine he’d advise the Pakistani government to increase its productivity by the use of any and all safe technological innovations, rather than relinquishing ownership of our precious land to any foreign interests. That way we could export our surplus crops to any country that needed them, and retain our dignity in the process. Losing our forests and jungles, giving up our already meagre water resources and surrendering our agricultural sovereignty is too high a long-term price to pay for the glittering gold of short-term gain.

The writer is a novelist.
Life is a tale told by an idiot...
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