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.

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Pesticide residues in cotton fibers

19 05 2011

We’re often asked if there are traces of pesticides in conventionally grown natural fibers – because people make the assumption that if pesticides are used on the plants, then there must be residuals in the fibers.  And because the chemicals used on conventional cotton crops are among the most toxic known, such as aldicarb ( which  can kill a man by just one drop absorbed thru the skin) and endosulfan (thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa), as well as a host of confirmed carcinogens[1],   that seems a reasonable cause for concern.

But that question misses the whole point, as we’ll explain.

According to the modern agricultural industry,  cotton agriculture uses integrated pest management (IPM) systems to promote cotton’s environmental stance (author’s note:  reduction of costs doesn’t hurt either).

As the result, the use of chemicals on cotton crops is down:  On average “only” 20 lbs. of pesticides are applied to an acre of cotton today – as opposed to about 40 lbs. in the past. 

IPM is a great advance on the part of agriculture to use biological controls.  But 20 lbs. per acre is still a lot of really bad chemicals being used.  So the Bremen Cotton Exchange,[2]  on behalf of the industry, has sponsored a series of tests which were carried out by the Hohehnstein Research Institute  according to Oeko-Tex 100 Standard (also known as Eco Tex).  They tested for 228 possible substances including:

  • Formaldehyde
  • PCP
  • pH Value
  • Heavy Metals
  • Defoliants

All the test series confirm that the treatment and use of pesticides in cotton production, according to their report,  “does not pose any hazard for the processor of the raw material and none at all for the end consumer.”  This is the industry’s position, based on the test results from their studies.  On the other hand, there are other studies that do find pesticide residues in cotton textiles –  of nine different organochlorine pesticides at levels of 0.5 to 2 mg/kg.[3]  So there seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether there are pesticide residues in the cotton fibers or finished cloth.

But there is not much difference of opinion in the fact that pesticide residues pollute our soils.    Many different studies have found pesticide residues which pollute agriculture soils in various parts of the world. [4]

“Pesticide Residues in Soil & Water from Four Areas of Mali”, From Journal of Agricultural, Food & Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, issue 1, 2007

And just recently,  Science News reported that children exposed in the womb to pesticides have lower IQs than do kids with virtually no exposure.  According to Science News:

“Three new studies began in the late 1990s and followed children through age 7. Pesticide exposures stem from farm work in more than 300 low-income Mexican-American families in California, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and their colleagues report. In two comparably sized New York City populations, exposures likely trace to bug spraying of homes or eating treated produce.”

Among the California families, the average IQ for the 20 percent of children with the highest prenatal organophosphate exposure was 7 points lower compared with the least-exposed group.

“There was an amazing degree of consistency in the findings across all three studies,” notes Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And that’s concerning, he says, because a drop of seven IQ points “is a big deal. In fact, half of seven IQ points would be a big deal, especially when you see this across a population.”[5]

There is no dispute about the fact that cotton crops are grown using many millions of pounds of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  And research shows that extensive and intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances wreak terrible havoc on soil, water, air and many, many living things – such as in the study cited above.

So what is the point that’s being missed?  Because conventional agriculture – despite advances in IPM – uses so many chemicals which are bad for us, shouldn’t the crops be grown organically?  That cuts to the chase –  in organically raised crops, there would be no toxic residues in the fibers, nor would the chemicals be wreaking havoc on our soils, water and air.  So the question of whether there are pesticide residues in the fibers becomes moot.  And though the United States and other countries might have banned the use of some chemicals, such as DDT, they’re still in use in parts of the world.

We’ve often touted the benefits of organic agriculture, and this seems to be yet another.  We think organic farming is so important that we’ll spend some time on the subject in our next few posts – because there are some who say that organic farming is just not the answer.  Are we between a rock and a hard place?


[1] Five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals. All nine are classified by the U.S. EPA as Category I and II (dangerous chemicals).

[2] The purpose of the Bremen Cotton Exchange is “to maintain and promote the interests of all those connected with the cotton trade”.

[3] Zhang, X., Liao, Q and Zhang, Y, “Simultaneous determination of nine organochlorine pesticide residues in textile by high performance liquid chromatography, SEPU, 2007, 25(3), 380-383.

[4] http://www.scribd.com/doc/55465538/Insecticide-Residues-on-Cotton-Soils ALSO: Journal of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, Vol 1, Issue 1, 2007; “Pesticide Residues in Soil and Water from Four Cotton Growing Areas of Mali, West Africa   ALSO: Luchini, LC et al., “Monitoring of pesticide residues in a cotton crop soil”, Journal of Environmental Science and Health, January 2000, 35(1): 51-9  SEE ALSO: http://www.bashanfoundation.org/ivan/ivanmapping.pdf