The Other Green Revolution

January 20th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Other Green Revolution

What has been termed “The Green Revolution” (which as you will come to see was quite an ironic name) began in the mid-1940’s, when researchers in the United States developed disease resistant wheat and rice that excelled at converting fertilizer and water into very high yields in Mexico. As we entered the 1960’s, these genetically altered varieties were indeed boosting Mexico’s wheat and grain production. Eventually, they were used in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and other developing countries, and their use was expanding to other cereal-grains. On the surface, The Green Revolution seemed successful, allowing these developing countries an opportunity to have food production keep up with their growing populations, and therefore averting devastating poverty and hunger in their communities. The Green Revolution has laid the foundation for what some chemical companies see as a second Green Revolution. These companies would have the world’s anti-hunger energies aimed down the path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops. This second Green Revolution, they tell us, will save the world from hunger and starvation if we just allow these companies to do their “magic” . . . right.

So, let’s look at how well the first Green Revolution turned out. There is no doubt that it had a level of success as an immediate stop-gap measure. It allowed poor, under-cultivated countries to have their food supplies catch up with their population growth. But there were also considerable long-term downsides that were never addressed. The Green Revolution did bring environmental problems. Fertilizers and pesticides were often used excessively or inappropriately, polluting waterways and killing beneficial insects and other wildlife. Often, it was necessary to use water faster than rain could replace it (these new hybrid seed varieties needed excessive amounts of irrigation), sending groundwater levels into retreat. Biodiversity also suffered as the new crops took over and many traditional plant varieties were lost. Heavy applications of expensive fertilizers and insecticides were required for these new seed varieties. Herbicides then became required because the strong use of fertilizers stimulated weed growth along with crop growth. The very high crop yields, coupled with the reliance on chemical fertilizers led to impoverished soils (monoculture farming). Further, these new types of crops were not resistant to local diseases and required high levels of pesticides which polluted the local waterways, impoverished the land, and also increased the dependency of many Third World countries on the West with the importation of pesticides.

In the end, The Green Revolution primarily benefited large farm operations that could more easily obtain fertilizer, pesticides, and modern equipment, and it helped displace poorer farmers from the land, forcing them to move to the cities and driving them into urban slums. This is the current condition that many underdeveloped countries now face as they look towards an agrarian solution. Clearly, The Green Revolution II is not the answer. It will simply be more of the same. What is needed is a sustainable solution; one that promotes smaller family farms using organic farming methods. It sometimes seems to challenge our collective imagination and ingenuity that in these times becoming larger, more elaborate, and more grandiose is not necessarily the solution; and that many times the solution is to create something smaller relying on simplicity, instead of complexity. Over time, we will eventually come to find out that even in larger, wealthier countries like the U.S. that to feed our population for the long-haul, large scale mass production, monoculture farming will not lead the way. We must find sustainable solutions. Research and technology do not always necessitate growth and expansion. Sometimes our best tool is clear observation and listening. It is doubtful that our solution to global hunger will come from some technological breakthrough, and it certainly won’t come from chemical companies. It will most likely be a very simple solution generated from a pretty simple idea – one that develops harmony with nature and its inhabitants. And where can we find these simple and elegant ideas? Perhaps we should start paying attention to the voices of those who are actually doing the work, like the farmers; and not necessarily to the voices of those who simply have the biggest microphone standing on the largest platform.