Greening the next green revolution

Kathleen Blake Bohne
27 October 2009

There is no change in our daily lives as revolutionary, or as taken for granted, as the transformation of food production in the past century. Scientific and technological advances have allowed us to feed a human population that doubled twice in the 20th century alone. While malnourishment and famine continue to haunt many regions of the world, the mass starvation feared in the 1960s and 70s has been averted. Every revolution is first a thought in a man’s mind and this Green Revolution was born in the brain of the remarkable Dr. Norman Borlaug, who passed away at age 95 on September 12th.

Dr. Borlaug’s quiet and tireless devotion to his cause was inspired by early experience with the effects of hunger. As a young man working for the U.S. Forestry Service, he met members of the Civilian Conservation Corps; these were men who had once nearly starved during the darkest days of the Great Depression. In later interviews, in the midst of the controversies inevitably born of great accomplishments, Borlaug would always bring his listeners and readers back to the core purpose of his decades of work – preventing our fellow men, women and children from suffering the pangs of hunger. In fact, some would say his singular dedication to this crusade may have blinded him to its long and short-term consequences in both the developed and developing worlds.

Borlaug’s work began in Mexico, at the behest of an unusually farsighted government concerned about the country’s increasing importation of basic crops, such as wheat. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government helped fund Borlaug’s initial research efforts through the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT). Borlaug and his colleagues created a high-yield dwarf variety of wheat; by reducing its height, the wheat could expend more energy on the production of the nutrient-rich grain. By the late 1950s, Mexico was producing enough wheat to become an exporter of the crop. This sudden transformation into a more food-independent economy was desperately needed in other developing nations; Borlaug was invited to India in 1966 to try to bring his miraculous crops to a country perilously balanced on the precipice of a massive famine.

India’s population had exploded and was quickly outstripping food production capacity. This dire situation was dramatized by Paul Ehrlich in his apocalyptic book, “The Population Bomb.” He claimed it was a “fantasy” to believe India would be able to feed herself, and essentially suggested they resign themselves to a horrific level of starvation. Ehrlich may have been a bit overzealous in his Malthusian soothsaying, but to feed its hungry mouths, India would have had to convert another 100 million acres of land into farmland using the methods available in the 1950s and 60s. Instead, thanks to the painstaking introduction of high-yield crops (initially 18,000 tons of wheat seed were imported directly from Mexico) and the accompanying fertilizers and pesticides, much of this land has been spared and India became self-sufficient in cereal production.

Borlaug’s work in India and Pakistan earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. By 1971, these countries had doubled their annual wheat production. But Borlaug’s work did not end there. Africa was his next challenge, and a daunting one. It is the only part of the world where food production has not kept pace with population growth, and where even in the 21st century, it is estimated that one third of the continent’s population suffers from hunger. Borlaug’s efforts in Africa were hindered for a number of reasons, such as lack of basic infrastructure, but also the resistance to his mission on the part of some activists and environmentalists in the developed world. High-yield crops require the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides to survive; since these hybrids did not evolve naturally, they produce grain more efficiently, but this in turn means they need more water and fertilizer since they use up soil nutrients faster. The controlled use of pesticides is also necessary though the genetically modified varieties carry genes that increase their resistance to certain diseases. Agronomists like Borlaug saw this as a positive development since it would encourage more controlled, specific use of pesticides rather than the blanket attempts made by farmers desperate to save a dying harvest from weeds or insects or fungi.

The Rockefeller Foundation distanced itself from Borlaug in his attempts to bring new farming techniques to Africa; the rising tide of anti-GM sentiment helped to make these projects politically unpalatable. But Borlaug refused to give up. With the help of a Japanese philanthropist, Riyoichi Sasakawa, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Borlaug started to apply his techniques in Ghana and Sudan. The results were as impressive as they had been in Asia, but global concerns over genetically modified food slowed the progress of this project. In an interview with Reason magazine in 2000, when asked if it was wrong to cross genetic barriers between species, Borlaug replied: “…Mother nature has crossed species barriers. Take the case of wheat. Today’s modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups came from a different wild grass. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering.” To Borlaug, not only was fear of genetically modified crops unfounded, it was dangerous to those living in the developing world since it could prevent their access to the biotechnology that had allowed the advanced industrialized nations to feed themselves – in fact, overfeed themselves – for more than fifty years.

Contemporary concerns about GMOs are often focused less on their possible harmful health effects and more on who controls their production and use. Borlaug conducted and disseminated his research with the support of governments, non-profit organizations and universities - not under the auspices of a for-profit company. In 2003, Borlaug expressed his concern about the shift from public to private-sector research in biotechnology, particularly its impact on universities and their independence (many U.S. public universities are under contract to private seed companies such as Monsanto for research). The shrinking number of large companies who monopolize the research and development of the technology behind our food supply is worrying to anyone who distrusts a lack of competition and transparency. A recent article in Scientific American noted that while some end-user agreements are necessary for protecting a company’s intellectual property rights (which are in place to foster innovation and research), today’s major agricultural technology giants not only limit what can be done with their seeds, but also who can research them. These companies therefore have eliminated the possibility of independent research being conducted on the seeds they produce and sell all over the world. This has also limited the production of more diverse genetically modified crops that could be planted in different terrains and climates. The large agritech companies focus on the production of just three crops grown monoculturally – corn, soy and wheat. Borlaug was an advocate of crop diversity since he believed maintaining and studying our biodiversity was key to the development of more scientifically enhanced crops in the future.

The Rockefeller Foundation may have avoided Borlaug and his farming strategies in the 1990s, but in 2006 they began a program in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop high-yield seeds for Africa, called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The results of programs like this one will have a long-term impact not just on Africa’s ability to feed herself, but also on improving social, economic and political conditions.

In India, there have recently been calls for a “new” Green Revolution since many farmers have given up sowing wheat and turned to more profitable export crops such as coffee or mushrooms. There is also growing concern about water tables in many parts of India and Pakistan; critics of high-yield crops point out that their thirst has dried up some regions where nearly all the available water was used for irrigation.

This brings us to the sustainability of Borlaug’s techniques. Industrial agriculture is yet one more modern activity dependent on the use of that frustrating, finite resource – petroleum. The inorganic fertilizers that have helped to feed burgeoning populations are developed using fossil fuels, and of course, the transportation of crops from farm to supermarket consumes oil as well. The close ties between food and energy resources were highlighted in the so-called “food crisis” that began in 2007 and was marked by steeply rising prices for basic food products around the globe. Governments and companies keen to encourage the growth of corn and other crops for biofuels shifted the balance in production, which was one of the key factors in the price spike. However, the legacy of Borlaug should be considered more broadly: he showed that crops can be engineered, both through hybridisation and genetic modification, to attain specific goals. When Borlaug was active, the goal was yield. That is now changing: we are adding sustainability as an objective, which means new crops that are particularly efficient at converting scarce inputs into nutritional outputs.

The socioeconomic consequences of the Green Revolution are manifold, and are not even entirely clear yet. Undoubtedly, the hastening urbanization of the world has partly been propelled by the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture, which has reduced its significance as a source of labor in most economies today. The rising price of food has caused alarm in the past few years since poverty, rather than lack of food supply, is the principle obstacle to ending hunger. However, if one looks at the overall trends in food prices since the 1950s, it has become progressively cheaper worldwide. This has allowed for calorie intake in developing countries to augment in the past decades, but it has also encouraged much greater consumption of what used to be the most expensive food source: meat. And while demand for meat rises, land that could have been devoted to growing staple crops often goes instead to growing feed for animals. Meat production and processing is the most controversial aspect of industrial agriculture; the conditions for housing the animals, their synthetic diets, and the antiobiotics and hormones used to prevent disease and stimulate growth – all of these issues cause concern, particularly at a time when many countries are battling with colossal levels of obesity.

The balance we strive to attain in preserving our planet and ourselves is our greatest challenge as a species, and there is no magic formula or Utopian creed that will solve it. But innovative, hard-working men and women, like Dr. Norman Borlaug, are certainly our greatest asset and blessing in meeting it.

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