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Commonweal Institute

Norman Borlaug's Unsustainable Green Revolution

Last month, the world lost a Nobel laureate. In the many tributes following his death, Norman Borlaug was credited with saving more lives than any man in history. Borlaug’s legacy was the Green Revolution – bringing industrial agriculture to Mexico, India, and Pakistan. Pesticides, ammonia fertilizer, irrigation, and hybrid seeds resulted in a predictable outcome: lush green fields full of high-yielding crops. At last, mankind had the tools at its fingertips to overcome hunger.

And yet, hunger has not been banished from the developing world, or even the developed world. Four decades after the Green Revolution the world produces enough food to feed everybody, and yet an estimated billion people are hungry. In his last year, Borlaug joined policy makers in calling for a “Second Green Revolution.” While a global effort to stamp out hunger is needed, a repeat of the first Green Revolution is a bad idea.

The unsustainable technologies that produced the first Green Revolution are just that – unsustainable. These technologies work for a period of time, until the soil and water are depleted. In India, the Green Revolution was an initial success. Today, farmers are struggling because the inputs for their crops (seeds, fertilizer, pesticides) are so expensive. Many are running out of water, or spending more money to drill for water. One bad harvest is enough to leave them unable to plant the next year’s crops, and without access to affordable credit, they borrow from exploitive local moneylenders. This cycle of debt is the cause of a decade-long epidemic of farmer suicides in India. The same technologies that once gave them bountiful harvests are now literally killing them.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a report sponsored by the World Bank and the UN, found that the best hope for developing nations lies in agroecological farming methods. While those calling for a Second Green Revolution champion genetically modified seeds, the IAASTD report found them incompatible with the needs of developing world farmers.


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Currently available GMO technology is best suited to large scale monoculture and the seeds do not reliably make good on the promises biotech companies make about them – promises like decreased pesticide use or increased yield. Furthermore, the private companies seek to maximize profits on their seeds, and developing nations often lack the intellectual property laws and enforcement to protect their investments. Biotech companies promise GM seeds with drought resistance, but so far they have failed to deliver. IAASTD lead author Jack Heinemann summarizes, “stress tolerance involves the interaction of many different genes working in a complex, environmentally-responsive network… genetic engineering is unlikely to produce reliable drought tolerance in most crops grown in actual field conditions because it is unable to mix and match so many genes at once.”

Rather, the IAASTD report encourages solutions that provide small-scale subsistence farmers with access to technology, knowledge, and credit. The report’s call for spreading technology in the developing world refers to agroecological methods of farming that preserve biodiversity and do not deplete the soil or pollute the air and water. In studies, these methods exceed the potential of GM seeds alone to produce high yields or resist drought.

Advocates of genetically modified seeds dismiss sustainable agriculture as technologically backward, but actually the opposite is true. Although sustainable agriculture uses many time-tested growing methods, we now understand why they work because of modern science. Our ancestors lacked the science to understand why crop rotation, composting, and cover crops worked so well, but today we do. With the latest science and technology, we can improve upon the farming methods used by generations before us, without abandoning those methods entirely.

Borlaug gave the developing world the latest science of his time. We should honor his memory and his legacy by following through with his goal of solving hunger by giving the developing world the tools to grow their own food, but we need not use his outdated Green Revolution technologies to do it. Rather, we will honor him far more by using agroecological methods and accompanying them with economic and social reforms needed to bring his dream to fruition.

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of "Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It" (2009).

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