America's Greatest Generation, coming of age before and during World War II, was admonished to leave no spinach behind by parents who warned, "Children are starving in Europe."
Boomers, postwar babies, were similarly taunted to eat food young children normally take a scunner to with the phrase, "Children are starving in India and China."
I'm not sure to which region of the world parents of generation X & Y children turned to convince kids that empty dinner plates were a sine qua non to a meal's conclusion, except perhaps war zones such as Sudan or Rwanda. The last two decades have produced few if any mass starvations that were not driven by war.
Developing nations' starvation-free status is a relatively new phenomenon. It only came about since the 1960s as a result of the so-called Green Revolution. Developed nations could not stand idly by as their farmers produced abundant surpluses, while Asian and African children perished for lack of rice or bread. So they exported irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, high-growth seeds, and a panoply of agricultural techniques that allowed Indian, Chinese, and other farmers in starvation-ravaged states to increase yields exponentially. But the same Green Revolution that kept the world fed lo' these past three decades is starting to splinter if not pulverize.
National Public Radio has aired a fascinating two part series on India's Green Revolution and its downward spiral toward brown.
The first part tells the tale of the Punjab region, India's wheat and rice belt, where the water table has been so depleted by the vacuum of increasing irrigation, it threatens to collapse, possibly quickly:
The state's agriculture "has become unsustainable and nonprofitable," according to a recent report by the Punjab State Council for Science and Technology. Some experts say the decline could happen rapidly, over the next decade or so.
The second piece describes India's so-called cancer train, which carries some 60 people from a farm town in Punjab on an overnight journey to India's closest government-run cancer treatment hours and hours away:
People say they never used to see so many cancer patients in this farm region. Cancer was considered an urban disease, suffered by people who lived in cities choked with industry and pollution. But research by one of the most respected medical institutes in India recently found that farming villages using large amounts of pesticides have significantly higher rates of cancer than villages that use less of the chemicals.
Before the Green Revolution, it was fashionable to blame overpopulation for mass starvation. The explanation fell out of favor as the Malthusian claims in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb proved wrong. Perhaps Ehrlich was just 40 years too early with his book, as the Malthusian catastrophe argument seems closer to reality now than four decades prior. This time, overpopulation combined with global warming (which is of course a product of overpopulation) may produce the next generation of food shortages.
A report released last month by the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) warns climate change's effect on global commodity yields could have devastating effects on developing countries, where rainfall is already dangerously low. Food policy experts predict that by 2050, effects of climate change will cut global rain-dependent maize (corn) yields by 17 percent and irrigated rice yields by a fifth-as populations continue to surge. The IFPR is using these data to press for agriculture's representation at a United Nations meeting on climate change later this year in Copenhagen.
Perhaps man will be wily enough to sidestep, yet again, the looming specters of starvation and climate change. There are plenty of scientists who believe we ae too far down the path to reverse much of the damage already done. Let's hope they're wrong. If not, we have only ourselves to blame for ignoring the truths of one generation and passing that ignorance on to the next.
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By Bonnie Erbe