Agroecology and the Green Revolution

30 06 2011

The promise of the Green Revolution was that it would end hunger through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering.   The reasoning goes like this:  the miracle seeds of the Green Revolution increase grain yields;    higher yields mean more income for poor farmers, helping them to climb out of poverty, and more food means less hunger.  Dealing with the  root causes of poverty that contribute to hunger takes a very long time – but people are starving now.  So we must do what we can now  –  and that’s usually to increase production. The Green Revolution buys the time Third World countries desperately need to deal with the underlying social causes of poverty and to cut birth rates.

Today, though, growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production; food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution –  is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products. More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied, along with more pesticides; irrigation water requires more energy to pump; and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water.  And the data on yields, and fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems)  supports these allegations.  A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  says the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods is a dependence on fossil fuels.  “The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides,” Pollan says. “That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility.”

So is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis?  As Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, describes it:  the good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; the bad news is that there isn’t a lot of money to be made by doing so.[1]

It has become clear that agriculture has to shrink its environmental footprint – to do more with less.  The world’s growing demand for agricultural production must be met not by bringing more land into production, with more gallons of water, or with more intensive use of inputs that impact the environment, but by being better stewards of existing resources through the use of technological innovation combined with policy reforms to ensure proper incentives are in place.[2]

A massive study (published in 2009)  called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”  concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.  As the report states:  “business as usual is no longer an option”.[3]

Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has this to say about the Green Revolution:

      In the final analysis, if the history of the Green Revolution has taught
      us one thing, it is that increased food production can-and often does-go
     hand in hand with greater hunger. If the very basis of staying
     competitive in farming is buying expensive inputs, then wealthier farmers
     will inexorably win out over the poor, who are unlikely to find adequate
     employment to compensate for the loss of farming livelihoods. Hunger is
     not caused by a shortage of food, and cannot be eliminated by producing
     more.

    This is why we must be skeptical when Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, and
     other chemical-cum-biotechnology companies tell us that genetic
     engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry. The technologies
     they push have dubious benefits and well-documented risks, and the second
     Green Revolution they promise is no more likely to end hunger than the
     first.

    Far too many people do not have access to the food that is already
     available because of deep and growing inequality. If agriculture can play
     any role in alleviating hunger, it will only be to the extent that the
     bias toward wealthier and larger farmers is reversed through pro-poor
     alternatives like land reform and sustainable agriculture, which reduce
     inequality and make small farmers the center of an economically vibrant
     rural economy.

We began this series a few weeks ago with statements from several people who said that organic agriculture cannot feed the world.  Yet increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts  are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.  This new way of looking at agriculture is called agroecology, which is simply the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals.   The term is not associated with any one type of farming (i.e., organic, conventional or intensive) or management practices, but rather recognizes that there is no one formula for success.  Agroecology is concerned with optimizing yields while minimizing negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”,  which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature.  The report demonstrates that agroecology,  if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.  “To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says De Schutter.  “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity, and communication technologies, to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education. Additionally, it notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks.

De Sheutter goes on to say: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” Instead, the report says the solution lies with smallholder farmers. Agro-ecology, according to De Sheutter, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.”

The majority of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers, capable of growing food but currently not growing enough food to feed their families each year. A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), but an increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell.

As an example of how this process works, the UN report suggests that “rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise”. For example, in Kenya, researchers and farmers developed a successful “push-pull” strategy to control pests in corn, and using town meetings, national radio broadcasts, and farmer field schools, spread the system to over 10,000 households.

The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, “a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests.” In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot![4]

Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks.  If you read the  story by Justin Gillis in the New York Times on May 5, which discusses the effects climate change is having on crop yields, this can only be a good thing.

Significantly, the UN report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. “For example,” the report says, “it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons.” Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.

States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.  The flood-tolerant rice mentioned above was created from an old strain grown in a small area of India, but decades of work were required to improve it.  But even after it was shown that this new variety was able to survive floods for twice as long as older varieties, there was no money for distribution of the seeds to the farmers.    Indeed, the distribution was made possible only through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

American efforts to fight global hunger, to date, have focused more on crop breeding, particularly genetic engineering, and nitrogen fertilizer than agroecology. Whereas the new UN report notes that, “perhaps because [agroecological] practices cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of research.”   The U.S. aggressively promotes public-private partnerships with corporations[5]  such as seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and BASF; agribusiness companies Cargill, Bunge; and Archer Daniels Midland; processed food companies PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and Kraft Foods; and the retail giant Wal-Mart.[6]

We need to look closely at all options since there is so much at stake.  To meet the challenges listed above, perhaps we need what Jon Foley calls a “resilient hybrid strategy”.   Foley, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way:

I think we need a new kind of agriculture – kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems…. Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable, and scalable agriculture?[7]

The New York Times article pointed out the success of a new variety of rice seeds that survived recent floods in India  after being submerged for 10 days.  “It’s the best example in agriculture,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. “The submergence-tolerant rice essentially sits and waits out the flood.” (8)

But this path raises many concerns – for example, genetically modified seeds are anathema to much of Europe and many environmentalists.   And so far, genetic breakthroughs such as engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Michael Pollan, who says the  major problem with GMO seeds is that they’re intellectual property.   He is calling for an open source code  (i.e., divorcing genetic modifications from intellectual property). De Sheutter sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which “uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.”

So what can be done?


[2] 2010 GAP Report, Global Harvest Initiative, http://www.globalharvestinitiative.org

[3] Synthesis Report: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”, 2009

[6] Richardson, Jill, “Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World’s Hungry:  Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture”, March 13, 2011

[7] Revkin, Andrew, “A Hybrid Path to Feeding 9 Billion on a Still-Green Planet”, New York Times, March 3, 2011,

(8)  Gillis, Justin, “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself”, New York Times, May 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp





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





The Green Revolution

9 06 2011

Last week we promised to explore the Green Revolution.

The term “Green Revolution”  was coined in the 1960s to highlight a particularly striking breakthrough in yields, which is the traditional way to measure agricultural performance  – in tonnes per hectare, bushels per acre or whatever.  Farmers have been trying to improve yields by improving seeds through experimentation since the beginning of time – they’d keep seeds from the biggest, highest, most vigorous plants to sow the next spring.  These seeds are the product of thousands of years of experimental plant breeding by millions of farmers across the world. The crops that humanity has painstakingly bred (sometimes from wild plants) are the kernels of our civilization.

The Green Revolution is a term used to describe a tremendous boom in agricultural productivity based on high-yielding varieties (HYV’s)  of crops (beginning with wheat, but also including rice and corn) which were developed in the 1940’s.  With a big boost from the International Agricultural Research Centers created by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the “miracle” seeds of high yielding varieties quickly spread around the world.  By the 1970s, the term “revolution” was well deserved, for the new seeds – accompanied by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and, for the most part, irrigation – had replaced the traditional farming practices of millions of Third World farmers as well as those in the United States. [1]

Much of the reason why these “high yielding varieties” produced more than traditional varieties was that they were more responsive to petrochemical fertilizers. To produce their high yields, the new seeds required far more fertilizer than traditional varieties could absorb.   Fertilizer – inducing a demand for it, supplying it, teaching farmers to use it and putting it to work – is one key to the Green Revolution[2].  In fact, some people say the term “high-yielding varieties” is a misnomer, because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the seeds, however, is that they are highly responsive to certain key inputs such as fertilizers and irrigation water. They say the term “high responsive varieties” is more appropriate.

Global Fertilizer use from 1975 - 1995

Global Fertilizer use from 1960 - 1995 FROM: http://lepo.it.da.ut.ee/~olli/eutr/html/htmlBook_4.html

There is yet another aspect of the Green Revolution which tied agriculture to the petrochemical industry:    by developing high yield varieties of crops, farmers chose to grow these seeds only – so  only a few species of (for example) rice were grown.  In India for example there were about 30,000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, today there are around ten – all the most productive types. By having this homogeneity the crops were more prone to disease and pests because there were not enough varieties to fight them off.   In addition, because of their narrow genetic base, they’re inherently more susceptible to pests, so monocropping  provides a large and often permanent niche for pests, turning minor diseases into epidemics.   In order to protect these new varieties, more pesticides and insecticides were used, so pesticide use grew as well.  During 1970 – 1990, global pesticide use more than doubled, from 1.3 to 2.9 million tons per year[3].

Thus agriculture became inextricably tied to the petrochemical industry, because these new seeds wouldn’t grow well without petroleum-based fertilizers  – and they also required additional labor.  These inputs increased farmers costs:  the  high yields of IR-8 (a new rice seed) was four times as costly to grow as ordinary rice because of the fertilizers, pesticides and additional labor required.

Irrigation also played a large role in the Green Revolution.  It changed the areas where various crops can be grown:   For instance before the Green Revolution, agriculture was severely limited to areas with a significant amount of rainfall, but by using irrigation, water could be stored and sent to drier areas, putting more land into agricultural production – thus increasing nationwide crop yields.

The basis of the Green Revolution is the belief that technology increases output.  But while agricultural output increased dramatically as a result of the Green Revolution, the energy input to produce a crop increased even faster[4].   The Green Revolution has increased energy inputs in agriculture to levels around 50 times those of traditional agriculture[5]. To give you an idea of how energy intensive modern agriculture has become, to produce one kilogram of nitrogen for fertilizer requires the energy equivalent of 1.4 to 1.8 liters of diesel fuel.  This equates to the energy content of 15.3 billion liters of diesel fuel, or 96.2 million barrels.(6)

Yet the energy inputs have continued to increase without a corresponding increase in crop yields – so modern agriculture must continue to increase its energy expenditures simply to maintain current crop yields.  And what will we do when the oil runs out?

What has the Green Revolution accomplished?  Nobody denies it was a screaming success in terms of yields:  over  a twenty-year period between 1970 and 1990, average yields of corn, rice and wheat more than doubled; as a consequence there was an 11% increase (on average) in food per person because of these increased crop yields.[7]

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution seems to be over:  Disturbingly, for the first time since the Green Revolutionm, crop yields are growing more slowly than population – in other words, growth in population and demand for food have both slowed down, but crop yields have slowed even more.  Between 1961 and 1990, wheat yields were growing by about 3% per year.  From 1990 to 2007, wheat yields grew by only 0.5%.   In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yields grew steadily during the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and have been dropping gradually ever since.  Long-term experiments conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in both Central Luzon and Laguna Province confirm these results. Similar patterns have now been observed for rice-wheat systems in India and Nepal[8].  In West Java, a  23 percent yield increase was virtually canceled by 65 and 69 percent  increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.[9]

In the Punjab, the crowning success of the Green Revolution, yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Over-irrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab.  Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves:  so many people now take the train from the Malwa region in India to the cancer hospital in Bikaner that it’s now called the Cancer Express.[10]  Daniel Pepper, writing in US News and World Report , reported  on the toxic consequences of the Green Revolution among Indian farmers, to read it click here.

One additional aspect of the Green Revolution was brought to life in the blog by Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, in which he states a false premise taken for fact by proponents of a new Green Revolution :

A year ago I sat in a room at the Earth Institute at Columbia surrounded by executives from big food companies. One of them, I believe from Unilever, clicked to a slide that read “The solution to global hunger is to turn malnutrition into a market opportunity.” The audience—global development practitioners and academics and other executives—nodded and dutifully wrote it down in their notebooks; I shuddered. The experience stayed with me and I haven’t gotten over it. Last month, I had a flashback.

On a Tuesday evening I sat in a room on the 44th floor of a building in the financial district of lower Manhattan with representatives from General Mills, Monsanto, Dean Foods, Deutsche Bank, and the Rainforest Alliance. We were there to speak to institutional investors—the hedge fund managers, bankers, and others who invest in big food companies—about sustainability and food. In particular, we were there to talk about how sustainability and hunger issues may give these companies both exposure to risk and access to opportunity.

It was not your average sustainable food panel discussion. Reflecting back on it, three things jump out at me. The first was a false premise that is taken for fact. The false premise:

Both Deutsche Bank and Monsanto made it clear that they are basing their business strategy on answering a simple question: How will we feed the world in 2050, when the population reaches over 9 billion and global warming puts massive strains on our resources?

The answer for Deutsche Bank:   increase yields by investing in industrial agriculture in the developing world, with an emphasis on technology;  put lots of capital into rural land to shift subsistence and local market agricultures to commodity export agriculture.

The answer for Monsanto:  increase yields by decreasing resource dependence using genetically modified crops.

Sounds good on paper, but Josh Viertel says it’s based on a false premise.  What is the false premise?  Tune in next week.


[1] “Lessons from the Green Revolution”, Food First, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html

[4] Church, Norman, “Why our food is so dependent on oil”, Energy Bulletin, April 2005, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/5045

[5] Fenderson, Adam, “The Read Green Revolution”, New Matilda//Energy Bulletin, July 26, 2006

(6)  Pfeiffer, Dale Allen, “Eating Fossil Fuels”, from The Wilderness Publications, http://www.copvcia.com.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Rosset, “Lessons From the Green Revolution, March/April 2000 http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/greenrevolution.pdf

[10] Bourne, Joel K. Jr., “The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty”, National Geographic,  June 2009.





How much is enough?

1 06 2011

Last week I talked about the fears associated with feeding a world population of 7 billion – let alone 9 billion – and mentioned that there are those who see organic agriculture as a niche market, unable to provide the calories needed for those 9 billion.  The topic is extraordinarily complex, and we can only begin to review various components that figure significantly in the equation.  For those interested, I highly recommend the report published by The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London, entitled “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”.  The executive summary can be downloaded here.

To begin our exploration, let’s figure out how much food we’re talking about.  How much is enough?

The answer may surprise you.

Today, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)[1],   the world is producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (which is around 2,100 a day).  Indeed, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, stated on the Atlantic Food Channel that in 2008, globally, we grew enough food to feed over 11 billion people.  We grew 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.[2]  Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted on the way, farmers are already producing much more than is required (to feed everyone in the world).  If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical or biological one.[3]

Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) put it eloquently: “In 2008 more food was grown than ever before in history. In 2008 more people were obese than ever before in history. In 2008 more profit was made by food companies than ever before in history. And in 2008 more people went hungry than ever before in history.”  But why are people going hungry if we have enough food to feed them?

Amartya Sen,  Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3 million people died from starvation and malnutrition, was not caused by a shortage of basic food – indeed, India was exporting food during the time that millions of its citizens were dying.  It was, rather, caused by a bunch of other factors[i].  The primary reason, though, was that the poor couldn’t pay for their food:   India was experiencing an economic boom which raised food prices, thereby raising the cost of food beyond the means of millions of rural workers whose wages didn’t keep up.

And the price of our food keeps going up:  In early January, 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, The FAO announced later that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent – then in February they reached the highest level ever recorded.[4]

So if we accept Dr. Sen’s conclusion that food prices are the cause of hunger, what can be done to lower them?  That answer – surprise! – is also extremely complex, including political conflict, poverty, harmful economic systems, and yes, climate change.  To simplify things we’ll just look at one facet of the argument that goes like this:  “ if output can be increased then food prices will moderate”.

How do we increase output enough to moderate food prices AND to feed an additional 2 billion people?  It’s not an impossible task:  according to the FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.” [5]  But it means changing the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed – all in a world constrained by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.  But producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.[ii]

In the past, if more food was needed farmers just cleared more land, or they went fishing. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only about 9%[6].  In recent decades, agricultural land that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management.  Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely.  Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority.  Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures[7].

So we’re going to have to produce more food on the same amount of land  – probably less.   And fishing doesn’t seem to be an answer:  Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 [8].  How to achieve that is hotly debated between those who support conventional agriculture (more and better technology) and those who think organic agriculture is a better way to deal with the long term problems created by this food crisis.  You can’t argue the point without knowing a bit about the Green Revolution, since conventional agriculture looks to that model to support its argument.  And that’s next week’s blog.


[3] “Feeding the World”, The Economist

[4] Brown, Lester, “Why world food prices may keep climbing”, Guardian Environment Network, http://www.guardian.co.uk

[5] “Feeding the World”, Ibid.

[6] J. Pretty, Agricultural Sustainability: Concepts, principles and evidence.  Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol Sci 363, 447 (2008).

[7] J. Fargione, J Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, P. Hawthorne, Land Clearing and the biofuel carbon debt, Science, 319, 1235 2008).


[i] The government at the time was not a democracy, and the rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.  Dr. Sen believes that shortfalls in food supplies will not cause famine in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts.  So the famine was a combination of a myriad of factors:  wages, distribution, even democracy.

[ii] For more on this topic, see “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”, The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London








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