Green Revolution part 2

22 06 2011


“It is well that thou givest bread to the hungry, better were it that none hungered and that thou haddest none to give.”
– St. Augustine

Last week we posted Josh Viertel’s article about the false premise that Deutsche Bank and Monsanto used in finding ways to feed the world’s burgeoning population and end hunger.  They focused on increasing crop yields:   Monsanto wants to use genetically modified crops and Deutsche Bank wants to invest in industrial agriculture in the Third World and shift the emphasis to commodity agriculture.

But Mr. Viertel says:

 Hunger is not a global production problem. It is a global justice problem. We need to increase global equity, not global yields. There may be profit to be made in exporting our high-tech, input-reliant, greenhouse-gas-emitting agricultural systems to the developing world. But let us not pretend it will solve global hunger or address climate change. After all, high-tech, input-reliant, commodity agricultural is a major cause of global hunger and climate change.

That’s a lot to swallow.  Let’s look at how today’s high tech agriculture can be considered a major cause of hunger, and then we’ll look at why hunger can be considered a global justice problem.

With regard to the oft repeated accusations that commodity agriculture has resulted in an increase in global hunger, I think  Sharon Astyk’s article in the online Energy Bulletin, (click here to read it)  is so important  that I’ve reproduced most of it below:

While the Green Revolution increased grain yields, it also cut back on other food sources. For example, among rice eating people, the pesticides required for the cultivation of the miracle rices produced in the 1960s killed fish and frogs that provided much of the protein in the diets of rice eating people, resulting in, as Margaret Visser points out in Much Depends on Dinner, “…the sadly ironic result that ‘more rice’ could mean ‘worse nutrition.’ The same can be said of the loss of vegetables often grown in and at the edges of rice paddies. The famous “golden rice” that was supposed to alleviate blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency, a common problem among poor people who have little but rice to eat, ignored the fact that one of the reasons for the decline in Vitamin A consumption was that nutritious vegetables and weeds traditionally grown or harvested with rice were no longer available.

The same is true of food grown in the US, in our very own breadbasket. As our corn and wheat and soybeans were produced by larger and larger farms, with more and more industrial equipment, we began to stop producing other, smaller crops that were less amenable to industrialization, but that made up a significant portion of people’s diets. For example, virtually every farm family in the US had a garden in the first half of the 20th century, and most of those gardens produced most or all of the family’s vegetables. Since we’re talking about a time when 1/3-1/5 of the US population lived on farms,  that is an enormous quantity of produce. The significance of gardens is easy to underestimate, but it would be an error to do so. During World War II, 40% of the nation’s produce was grown in house gardens. The figures were higher in Britain during the same period. In the late 1990s, a study done by the Louisiana Extension service suggested that the average house vegetable garden produced $350 worth of produce. Food produced in gardens was a significant part of our dietary picture not so very long ago, and much of it was lost to industrial agriculture, either directly, in the consolidation of family farms, or indirectly, through agricultural subsidies that made purchased food often nearly as cheap as growing your own, and even social policies that encouraged suburbs to become places of lawns, not vegetable gardens.

House gardens in rural areas, urban centers, and suburbs are another casualty of the Green Revolution – the artificial cheapness of food, created by industrial, subsidized agriculture in the second half of the 20th century drove the house garden out of existence. We went from producing 40% of our produce to less than 3% in home garden over four decades. And it would be a mistake to see “produce” as watery vegetables like lettuce, and thus believe that few of our calories came from our gardens – among the vegetables lost were dense calorie crops like potatoes and sweet potatoes, which can substitute for grains in the diet.

Going back to what the Green Revolution, and its ugly step-child globalization did to the American farm family – the exhortation by Earl Butz (Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford) to “get big or get out” in the 1970s, and the systematic farm policies that favored large commodity growers and regional specialization cut back enormously on the quantity of food we produced. Small farmers in the 1940s might have raised corn or wheat as their central crop, but they also grew gardens, had an orchard, raised some pigs for sale and milked a house cow. The loss of all that food value, spread over millions of farm families, was a significant one. A farmer might have tapped his sugar maple trees and sold the syrup, and would probably have sold some eggs. He might also have sold a pig to a neighbor or had a calf butchered and shared the meat. The industrial commodity farmer rarely does these things, and in many cases, the area that permitted them – the woodlot, the barn, the chicken coop have been removed to allow unhindered access to more acres. In a bad crop year, a farmer might have planted a late crop of sunflowers for oil seed, lettuce or something else, which is also not calculated into our total consumption. In many cases a family member might also operate a small truck garden and sell produce locally – even children did this routinely.

All these are foods that were removed from the food stream, and this systematic deprivation over millions of households represents an enormous loss of total calories produced.

The economic pressure of farms to specialize also took its toll. Joan Dye Gussow, in This Organic Life documents that in the 1920s, Montana was self-sufficient for 75% of its produce, including fruit. Now Montana is one of the harshest climates in the US and has very little water, comparatively speaking, and yet this was possible in part because the economic pressure of big business had not yet persuaded small farmers that they couldn’t grow fruit effectively in Montana, but should leave it to Washington and Florida. None of us know how many calories were lost this way, but it is almost certainly an enormous quantity. And this systematic removal in the name of efficiency and specialization happened all over the world to one degree or another.

All this is particularly important because of the urgent distinction between yield and output. Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has documented that industrial agriculture is, in fact, more efficient in terms of yield. ( That is, when five acres of soybeans and five thousand acres of soybeans are compared, you get more soybeans per acre by growing 5000 acres.)  But when you compare output – that is the total amount of food, fertility and fiber you get from small scale polyculture farms (that just means farms where you grow a bunch of different things, not a single commodity), the five acre farm comes out not just ahead, but vastly ahead in per acre output. It isn’t just that five acres are more productive in terms of total output, they are often hundreds of times more productive (Rosset, www.mindfully.org/Farm/Small-Farm-Benefits-Rosset.htm). Rosset’s figures are not in dispute, as Rosset points out here:

Surveying the data, we indeed find that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the “inverse relationship between farm size and output”. Even leading development economists at the World Bank have come around to this view, to the point that they now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity. (Note:  to read why Dr. Rosset sees small-farm agriculture as providing a productive, efficient and ecological vision for the future, click here.)

And the difference in total output rises further when you talk about garden models. A half acre garden is often tens or hundreds of times more productive than the same acreage in industrial agriculture. The displacement of house and farm gardens by industrial agriculture represents a dramatic loss in important food crops due to the Green Revolution. On a given acre of land, the Green Revolution might have increased rice or wheat yields by several times, but since the garden, henhouse and berry bushes that could have been on that acre would have been many times more productive in total than what was granted to us by fertilizers and hybridization, what we are experiencing is a net total loss, not a gain in many cases.

In the US, during most the last 50 years, we have had enormous grain surpluses, mostly of corn, and as Michael Pollan documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, industrial food production has been challenged to keep finding new ways to use our spare corn up. Processed foods are all sweetened with our extra corn, made of processed corn, or of meat from corn fed to livestock. And we have seen a rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease – all associated with high meat, low vegetables, processed food diets. We kept raising our yields, at the cost of our outputs, and our diets came to reflect that – we ate fewer kinds of vegetables and fruits, and fewer of them. To a large degree, what happened was that we gave up foods that we did need to be healthy and have good, varied, tasty diets, and replaced them with a couple of grain crops that we did not particularly need more of, and we harmed ourselves doing so.

I cannot find a single reliable number about how much food was lost to us, worldwide by the Green Revolution. It may never be possible for us to find out what we lost to industrial agriculture, and I will make no claims that I know precisely. If someone can locate such a number, I’d be fascinated. But there is no question that it was enough food to feed millions, maybe even billions of people. And we must, in our analysis of what the Green Revolution cost us, also recognize that we lost an uncertain, but enormous quantity of future food, mortgaging the future to overfeed the present.

As I said, I don’t know whether in the net the Green Revolution gave us more food or not. But it is absolutely clear that it did not give us the enormous increases in food that were claimed for it. And it may well be that all of us experienced a loss of nutritious food, or food value. It is manifestly the case that not only may we not need industrial agriculture to feed us, we may well be better off without it.

In looking at the second issue, global hunger as a social justice problem, we need to remember that in order for farmers to be successful during the Green Revolution, they required the optimal use of irrigation, intensive use of fertilizers, rich soil and proper pest control with chemical pesticides.  These prerequisites, coupled with the increased use of machinery, meant that many peasant farmers were simply too poor to afford the expensive irrigation equipment, the fertilizers and the inordinate amounts of pesticides required.  As a result, these peasant farmers and agricultural laborers were less able to afford the food which was being produced in ever-greater quantities.

These high-yielding varieties allowed the wealthy upper-class owners of farms to prosper, as they were the only group actually able to achieve the advertised high-yields. This eventually led to increased polarization and a widening of the social and economic gap between the lower and upper class of developing nations.

“Introducing any new agricultural technology into a social system stacked in favor of the rich and against the poor-without addressing the social questions of access to the technology’s benefits-will over time lead to an even greater concentration of the rewards from agriculture, as is happening in the United States.”[1]

Why can’t poor farmers compete:

  •  Many poor farmers were tenant farmers, with little money to buy the seeds and fertilizers required.  They couldn’t even begin to buy fertilizer and other inputs in volume; big growers can get discounts for large purchases.
  • Poor farmers can’t hold out for the best price for their crops, as can larger farmers whose circumstances are far less desperate.
  • In much of the world, water is the limiting factor in farming success, and irrigation is often out of the reach of the poor. The new high yielding varieties of seeds required reliable sources of water, which in most of the world meant irrigation.  Canal irrigation favors those near the top of the flow. Tubewells, often promoted by development agencies, favor the bigger operators, who can better afford the initial investment and have lower costs per unit.  As well as being expensive, in some cases where inappropriate schemes were used salinization became a problem.
  • In areas where there was an increase in mechanization there was an increase in unemployment as tractors displaced workers.  This lead to migration to the cities, causing urban problems.  Those farmers who tried to take on the new technologies became heavily in debt, leading to increased stress and in some instances suicide.
  • Credit is also critical. It is common for small farmers to depend on local moneylenders
    and pay interest rates several times as high as wealthier farmers. Government-subsidized credit overwhelmingly benefits the big farmers.
  • Most of all, the poor lack clout. They can’t command the subsidies and
    other government favors accruing to the rich.

When conducting agricultural research, scientists must consider the diverse, complex and risk-prone conditions under which small-scale farmers strive to produce. This inability by scientists to understand the ecology of farms in developing countries was clearly one of the key reasons behind the failure of the Green Revolution[2].

Furthermore, scientists and politicians must empower the small-scale farmers with the ability to influence and direct modern agricultural research, as they are the only people to know how to use and to manipulate their local environment most efficiently. All the textbooks and the laboratory research in the world cannot substitute first-hand knowledge and experience.

The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and most importantly, the hungry got hungrier:  The World Bank concluded in a 1986 study of world hunger that a rapid increase in food production does not necessarily result in food security – i.e., less hunger.  Current hunger can only be alleviated by “redistributing purchasing power and resources toward those who are undernourished,” the study said.  In a nutshell, they stated that if the poor don’t have the money to buy food, having more food available won’t help.

We’ve come to see that without a strategy for change that addresses the powerlessness of the poor, the tragic result will be more food and yet more hunger.

More next week…


[1] “Lessons from the Green Revolution”, Institute for Food & Development Policy, April 8, 2000, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html

[2] Huyn, Frederick, “Green Revolution”, Environment, Sustainability & Health ACT, http://www.saharov.com/eshact/Research/GreenRevolution/tabid/124/Default.aspx








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