The Economist economizes on the truth about plant breeding

by Luigi Guarino on September 21, 2009

There is a puzzling paragraph in the latest issue of The Economist. Well actually there’s a lot of puzzling paragraphs in the latest Economist, but the one I’m talking about is not in the finance or economics sections. And it is puzzling not so much because of what it says, but because of what it leaves out. Here it is in full. It appears in an article on the effect of climate change on developing countries.

This kind of increasing unpredictability would be dire news at the best of times: hit by drought and flood, the land becomes less productive. It is compounded by another problem. The higher-yielding, pest-resistant seed varieties invented in the 1960s were designed to thrive in stable climes. Old-fashioned seeds are actually better at dealing with variable weather—but are now less widely used. Reinstituting their use will mean less food.

What follows is a long paragraph which starts by saying that “[i]n India the gains from the Green Revolution are already shrinking because of local pollution, global warming and waning resistance to pests and disease…” and ends by quoting a World Bank study to the effect that because of climate change and population growth agricultural productivity will have to rise by 1.8% per annum for the foreseeable future. But there’s nothing in between, or indeed anywhere else in the article, about the importance of plant breeding in ensuring that increased productivity.

Now, many people see the value of moving landraces (or “old-fashioned seeds,” if you must) around, in particular from hot places to ones which are not so hot now but will soon be, for evaluation purposes — and more. And there may be some sense in which landraces are “better at dealing with variable weather” than modern varieties. But I don’t think anyone is seriously contemplating “reinstituting their use” on a massive scale in an effort to adapt agriculture to climate change.

What is needed — and urgently — if adaptation is to have much of a chance is effective breeding programmes, and landraces will be one of the sources of genetic material that these programmes will require, along with crop wild relatives and others. Shame The Economist didn’t say that more clearly.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment