The 2000-2001 World Resources Report found that environmental damage, much of it to agricultural land, could have devastating implications for human development and the welfare of all species. The report, prepared by the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute, shows that humans have become a major force of nature, largely because of the success of science-based technologies in extracting the earth's resources without proper concern for the environmental consequences. Science, though, has a crucial role to play in helping us avoid the impending catastrophe that is partly of its own making. Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the need for science in developing sustainable agricultural systems.
To understand why this is so it is first necessary to see that change in agricultural systems, like all technology change, is an evolutionary process. People, as a result of the pressures they face and the opportunities they see, generate new ideas, things, and ways of organising themselves. If these novelties work well then others adopt them and they spread. Agricultural change is built up of many replications of this novelty generation, selection and diffusion process, just as we've evolved through countless natural selection iterations.
The main role of science in agriculture has been to help us generate novelties that allow us to produce more with less land and less effort. Results have been spectacular. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a grouping of 16 international agricultural research institutes, is best known for starting the Green Revolution of rice and wheat in Asia. In the thirty years from 1971 to 2000 the improved crop varieties produced by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) have helped raise average rice and wheat yields by 2.3 and 1.65 times respectively, helping to feed an Asian population that...
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