Food MythBusters — Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

8 11 2012

Last week we explored the arguments being used against sustainable agricultural practices being able to feel the world – and that only more of the “green revolution” concepts will do.  The biggest players in the food industry—from pesticide pushers to fertilizer makers to food processors and manufacturers—spend billions of dollars every year not selling food, but selling the idea that we need their products to feed the world.  Food MythBusters is dedicated to  leading the fight against the corporate control of our food system and showing a way to a world where we all have just good food – they want to change the common preconceptions we have about food.

Founder Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, educator, and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Named one of TIME magazine’s “Eco” Who’s Who, Anna’s most recent book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.

Food MythBusters first film is designed to address the common belief that sustainable agriculture cannot feel the world.

Feed the world, or protect the planet?

31 10 2012

Did you know that July 11, 1987 was the very first “World Population Day”? [1]   World Population Day was designed  “to track world population and bring light to population growth trends and issues related to it”.  That year, the world’s population was 5 billion – a result of about 200,000 years of population growth – and 24 years later, we had added 2 billion more.  Now 150 babies are being born every minute and the United Nations forecasts world population to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I think you can easily google all the nightmare scenarios that this crushing population burden can have on our lives.  One question which continues to be very controversial is how we’re going to feed 9 billion people, when today nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. The United Nations warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. [2] But with agricultural land dwindling while more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?

Since the 1950’s, we’ve been able to increase food production significantly through the “magic” of the “Green Revolution”, which increased yields through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, expansion of irrigation,  and genetic engineering.  The Green Revolution is a known quantity, and big chemical companies have lots at stake in ensuring that it continues down the same ol’ path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops, even though the world is different now.    Farmers continue to use a lot of chemicals, because there is no coast assigned to environmental externalities, and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned, according to Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State Univeristy. [3]

But in the world of the 21st Century,  growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production and 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 – a vicious cycle.

The data on yields, 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).

This food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the problem and different ways of solving it.  One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For this group, the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The other group argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?” The second group often proposes the tenants of organic agriculture as a way out of this crisis.

There is much skepticism and sometimes even outright opposition to sustainable agriculture. The popular belief is that switching to organic agriculture will almost certainly result in lower production, which couldn’t possibly be a way to feed 9 billion people.  Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, sums up this view nicely by saying that going organic would require more land, and though not bad, per se, it is not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.[4] And The Economist, in a special report on “feeding the World”, said “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”[5]

Why am I obsessing about agriculture?  Agriculture and food production are the base of life and the economy and have multiple functions in creating healthy societies. It is at the center of addressing challenges like hunger and poverty, climate change and environment, women’s wellbeing and community health, income and employment. We certainly need to look beyond black/white, either/or options and find creative solutions to this crisis.

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe one approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology is: farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.[6]  And agroecology  works (please see reports in the footnotes section below)[7]:

  • More food is produced.
  • Fewer inputs are required – meaning reduced expenses.
  • Soil fertility is improved.
  • Rainfall is captured and managed better.
  • Pests are managed better.
  • Greater income is generated.
  • Farming systems are diversified and produce synergistic benefits.
  • Farms and communities are more resilient to climate change and shocks such as hurricanes, droughts and food or fertilizer price spikes.
  • Carbon is sequestered in soils rich in organic matter and the integration of trees into farming systems.
  • And farmers and their organizations use their skills, knowledge and creativity to learn and manage the process. These women and men are the innovators and leaders creating healthy farming systems for their communities and countries.

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. “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.

Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, states that “it’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, profitably, with far fewer chemicals. …Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to”.[8]   He cites a study published by Iowa State University, in which researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer. The longer rotations produced no downside at all – yields of corn and soy were better, nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides were reduced by up to 88%, and toxins in groundwater was reduced 200-fold – while profits didn’t decline by a single cent.  There was an increase in labor costs (but remember profits were stable), so “it’s a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons.”[9]

Mr. Bittman goes on to say :

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

I think this study is a good example of agroecology principles.  Mr. Bittman goes on to say:

When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Can you argue that less synthetic chemical use would not be a good thing?  This is big business, and naturally the food system will need big investors to effect any changes.  But some are waking up.  One investor who sees the need for change is Jeremy Grantham,  chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co, LLC, who says:  “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)  “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”[10]

[1] Adwell, Mandy, “World Population Day…2011”, The 9 Billion,

[2] Vidal, John, “Food Shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists”, The Guardian, August 26, 2012.

[3] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012


[8] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bittman, Mark, “A Banker Bets on Organic Farming”, New York Times, August 28, 2012

Promise for the future

7 07 2011

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Green Revolution, and the problem of feeding 9 billion people.

With respect to the Green Revolution, opinion is still divided as to how to assess its impact.   Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya (a movement of 500,000 seed keepers and organic farmers) said that the Green Revolution:

(has) led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts. The beneficiaries have been the agrochemical industry, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners.

The “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution have become mechanisms for breeding new pests and creating new diseases.[1]

As Frederick Huyn notes, in his essay “Green Revolution” the only thing the Green Revolution achieved was “low yield from high ideals”.[2]   Yet there are those who credit the Green Revolution with helping to avoid mass starvation.

And as Juergen Voegele, director of agriculture and rural development for the World Bank, pointed out: “We already have close to one billion people who go hungry today, not because there is not enough food in the world but because they cannot afford to buy it.”[3]  An interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine pointed out that the poor, even if they have the money to buy food, sometimes use their money to buy other things instead, such as cell phones or televisions.[4]

So it’s a complicated formula.

Last week’s post introduced the argument that agriculture simply must reduce its environmental footprint.  So the question remains: what is the future of agriculture?  How can we feed people on Earth and still have a livable planet?

I like the suggestion that we have to learn from each other.   Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says:  “You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto, but neither paradigm can fully meet our needs.”  So some are calling for what is being called a “resilient hybrid strategy” to meet these challenges – a sort of third way between industrialized agriculture and organic.   We can all take lessons from each other – the organic camp need not see “technology” as anathema, and conventional agriculture shouldn’t dismiss organic principles out of hand.  We should ditch the rhetoric and create new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a truly sustainable agriculture.  These might include precision agriculture, mixed with high-output composting and organic soil remedies; drip irrigation, plus buffer strips to reduce erosion and pollution; and new crop varieties that reduce water and fertilizer demand.  On the production end, finding agreement on what the science writer Paul Voosen recently described as “a unified theory of farming” is unlikely. But finding ways to break down either-or thinking and foster traditional agricultural methods or advanced technologies where they fit best is clearly feasible.[5]

It will be much more challenging to own up to what our individual choices mean in terms of food availability – and to change them.

We think there should be four key components in this effort:

1)    Make food a human right.

2)    Science must play a key role.

3)    Agriculture will need to be regionally controlled and locally adapted, and governments should sponsor crop and genetic research.

4)    Adopt agroecology – includes frugal use of water, minimizes use of external inputs and sequesters carbon.

Skeptics will say that you simply cannot grow organic crops and have comparable yields to those of conventional crops which have been “protected” by pesticides and boosted by synthetic fertilizers.  Yet many studies are showing that, with patience, they indeed can yield comparable – or better – results.[6]   But the biggest gains in an effort to triple agricultural production on today’s global farm acreage may come from improvements in crop genetics and wasteful, inefficient farming and food management practices.

One key part of this strategy must be to use genetics to our advantage.  According to Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford Univerity, “Genetic modification is analogous to nuclear power: nobody loves it, but climate change has made its adoption imperative.”

Humans have been improving production through genetic selection since agriculture began. For 99 percent of history this process was rather hit or miss and based on farmers saving seeds and saving animals.  Then Mendel discovered how genetic traits were passed along, and we’ve been able to build on that knowledge to create hybrids which are more productive than their counterparts.  These age-old techniques can now be complemented, supplemented, and perhaps supplanted by an assortment of molecular “tools” that allow for the deletion or insertion of a particular gene or genes to produce plants (animals and microorganisms) with novel traits, such as resistance to briny conditions, longer “shelf-life,” or enhanced nutrient content. A change in a plant’s genetic sequence changes the characteristics of the plant. Such manipulation of genes—genetic engineering—results in a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Both “traditional” biotechnology and “modern” biotechnology result in crops with combinations of genes that would not have existed absent human intervention. A drought-resistant crop can be developed through “traditional” methods involving crosses with resistant varieties, selection, and backcrossing. Modern biotechnology can speed up this process by identifying the particular genes associated with drought resistance and inserting them directly. Whether developed through traditional or modern means, the resultant plants will resist drought conditions but only the second, genetically engineered one, is a GMO.

The problem is that today most plant genetics research is conducted by corporations rather than by governments.  These companies focus on crops that offer the biggest short-term commercial return – such as “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn.   And in order to protect their intellectual property, the seeds available are sterile, so farmers are required to buy new seeds each year.  This has led to the outright prohibition of GMO organisms in most organic standards.  There remains widespread public opposition to the technology in many parts of the world.

Yet the promise of genetics research (non tethered to corporate bottom lines) is compelling.  According to Jason Clay, a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund,  the biggest genetic gains in the future will probably come from working on tropical crops that have been ignored to date, such as cocoa, yams, sorghum, millet, cassava, peanuts, sugarcane and sunflower.[7]  This work would focus not only on increased production but also disease and drought resistance or tolerance, dwarf traits so that tree crops could be harvested with less labor and for longer, and more marketable traits.

In looking at the overall factors involved in agricultural production (land, labor and capital) – it’s clear we have an abundance of both labor and capital.  But we’re reaching the limit of how much land and water we can use to produce food, as the conversion of natural habitat for food production continues unabated:  the FAO estimated an additional 121 million hectares will be converted to crop production in order to meet demand for agricultural commodities by 2030.[8]  Future gains must come from increased efficiency rather than expansion.[9]

Governments must take a more active role – by sponsoring research in genetics or crop science, for example, or by stepping in to support farmers so they won’t feel they have to sell their land to investors.  In the past two years alone, as many as 50 million acres of land around the world have changed hands from locals to foreign investors [10].  It seems that climate change is pushing viable farmland northward due to higher temperatures.  It’s creating new farming opportunities on previously marginal land.  As a result, multinational investors and sovereign wealth funds  are purchasing significant amounts of land in these marginal locales because local farmers are generally poor, and see it as a good way to make quick cash.[11]  Investors from various parts of the world, including rising powers such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea and Wall Street banks, such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, are trying to corner the market on the world’s ever decreasing farmland. All of these investors are betting that population growth and climate change, droughts, desertification and flooding will soon make food as valuable as oil.

Time’s a-wasting – let’s roll up our sleeves and work together.  We really don’t have any room for half measures or for blinkered self-interest.

But because I’m an eternal optimist, I have to look on the bright side, so will end with a passage from Indur Goklany, assistant program director on technology and science policy at the Department of Interior:

Until the start of the Industrial Revolution, mankind was poor, hungry, illiterate, constantly at the mercy of disease and the elements, and short-lived; child labor was the norm; and one’s life opportunities were predetermined by sex and parentage. Today, despite an octupling of the world’s population, mankind has never been wealthier, better fed, less hungry, better educated, longer-lived and healthier; less constrained by caste, class, and sex; and 75 percent of global population is no longer mired in absolute poverty. This progress was enabled by economic development and technological change driven by cheap energy — all made possible by institutions underlying individual economic freedom. To extend this progress to a larger share of humanity and those not yet born, even as the world’s population increases, what matters most is to continue to nourish or, if necessary, develop these institutions.[12]

[1] Shiva, Vandana, “The Green Revolution in the Punjab”, The Ecologist, Vol 21, No. 2, March-April 1991

[3] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[4] Banerjee, Abhijit and Buflo, Esther, “More than 1 Billion People are Hungry in the World”, Foreign Policy, May/June 2011, page 67.

[5] Revkin, Andrew C., “Varied Menus for Sustaining a Well-Fed World”, January 2011.

[6] Vasilikiotis, Christos, “Can Organic Farming Feed The World?”,

[8] Ibid., Page 14

[9] Ibid., Page 14

(10) Funk, McKenzie, “Capatalists of Chaos: The Global Land Grab”, Rolling Stone, May 2010.

[11] “Genetically Modified Seeds Will Not Solve the World Hunger Crisis”,

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

    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

    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,

[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,

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:

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,

[4] Church, Norman, “Why our food is so dependent on oil”, Energy Bulletin, April 2005,

[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,

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Rosset, “Lessons From the Green Revolution, March/April 2000

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