The Fruits of Civilization (77) The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution

These developments in the field of agriculture contain the markings of a new revolution – the Green Revolution. ~ American biologist William Gaud in 1968, on behalf of the US Agency for International Development (AID)

The Green Revolution was a period of agritech development and international transfer that transpired between the late 1930s and late 1960s. It began by introducing hardy strains of wheat and rice into developing countries.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Green Revolution was promoted as the solution to world hunger. ~ American geologist Dale Allen Pfeiffer

The Green Revolution spread agricultural technologies that were known but not widely implemented outside industrialized nations. These included more robust and higher-yield cultivars (cultivated plant varieties), modern irrigation projects, synthetic fertilizer, and pesticides. The idea was to have farms become factories, with plants as the slave labor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. ~ Thomas Malthus

Prior to the Green Revolution, many developing countries struggled to feed their burgeoning populations. India was exemplary. Famines were frequent there from the 1940s to the 1970s. Due to faulty food distribution and inept governmental policies, farmers were not adequately compensated for their labors.

A majority of the Indian population did not get enough food. Malnutrition and starvation were a huge problem. The Indian government fostered this disaster by not providing financing to family farmers.

In terms of sheer productivity, the Green Revolution was a success. Cereal production more than doubled 1960–1985. But the externalities to Green Revolution were extensive.

The greater abundance of food in the developing world provoked a burgeoning birth rate. World population increased 32% 1960–1985, from 3.3 to 4.85 billion.

The Green Revolution’s sole focus was on the business of food supply, which is only part of the hunger equation. Food security – people’s access to food – remained shaky in neglected pockets throughout the world.

Hunger has always been political. ~ English agricultural ecologist Gordon Conway

There is more than enough food for everyone. The problem is distribution. The quarter of the world’s population that live in industrialized countries eat half the food; and even in those countries, hunger is commonplace. Meanwhile, the poorest countries export their food to the richest. Plutocratic control guarantees chronic food shortages and bouts of starvation in Africa.

That hunger still occurs is a product of economics and politics, not a paucity of food production nor the means to deliver it. This is nothing new: selective undernourishment has been on the agenda of political regimes for millennia.

In 2017, over 820 million people worldwide went hungry, and 1/3rd of the world’s population were undernourished. Hunger continues everywhere, even in developed countries.

In 2015, 50 million Americans (15%) did not get enough to eat, including nearly 25% of the nation’s children: some 17 million. Despite occasional noble pledges, American governments have been ineffectual, if not downright indifferent, about caring for its people most in need.

We have the means to wipe hunger and poverty from the face of the Earth in our lifetime. ~ American President John Kennedy in 1963

◊ ◊ ◊

Though agricultural output soared during the Green Revolution, the energy required to produce a crop shot up even faster. Food production became beholden to fossil fuels.

The globalization of food production in the wake of the Green Revolution was engendered by the availability of cheap hydrocarbons. The fuel that powers tractors is just the beginning. Fertilizers are generated from natural gas. The pesticides that protect monoculture crops from devastating infestations are derived from petrol.

Fossil fuels are not the only nonrenewable resources required for the intensive cultivation brought on by the Green Revolution. Phosphorus is an essential mineral nutrient that is often a limiting factor in crop cultivation.

Phosphorus mines are rapidly being depleted worldwide. ~80% of the phosphorus mined is wasted in application. Recycling and more judicious use would help, but that is not happening. Resource efficiency is something humans have never been good at.

Phosphorus has no substitute in food production. Mobilizing phosphate rock into the environment at rates vastly faster than the natural cycle has not only polluted many of the world’s freshwater bodies and oceans but has also created a human dependence on a single nonrenewable resource. Phosphorus security is emerging as one of the 21st century’s greatest global sustainability challenges. ~ Australian resource scientists Dana Cordell & Stuart White

The Green Revolution reduced agricultural biodiversity. Its simplistic technological approach ignored the importance of soil quality and the risk of susceptibility to disease in monoculture crops.

The polycultures of traditional agricultural systems evolved because more yield can be harvested from a given area planted with diverse crops than from an equivalent area consisting of separate patches of monocultures. ~ Indian environmental scientist Vandana Shiva

Monocultures rapidly degrade soil quality by depleting nutrients in the earth. Weak soil cannot support healthy plant growth.

Normal chemical fertilizers are far too simple: a plant’s mineral requirements are many times wider in range. By giving only 2 or 3 which stimulate bulk growth, others, equally important, are exhausted, leading to unbalanced nutrition of the plant and often, through their solubility, to serious environmental pollution. ~ English organic farmer Eve Balfour

Because farming methods that depend heavily on chemical fertilizers do not maintain the soil’s natural fertility and because pesticides generate resistant pests, farmers need ever more fertilizers and pesticides just to achieve the same results. ~ American agricultural ecologist Peter Rosset et al

Fields become dependent on their fertilizer supplements in a manner suggestive of drug addiction. By contrast, organic fields develop an increasing biological vigour which enables them to be self-supporting. ~ Eve Balfour

The intensive practices of industrialized agriculture quickly strip the soil of nutrients and deplete easily accessible water supplies. As a result, the need for hydrocarbon-based inputs must increase, along with increasingly energy-intensive irrigation. Without hydrocarbons, much of the world’s farmlands would quickly become unproductive. ~ Dale Allen Pfeiffer

Synthetic fertilizer is a pollutant: damaging the soil and contaminating nearby freshwater and groundwater for a century or more after its last application. This false fertilizer also emits ammonia into the air, creating a toxic pollutant.

Monocropping engenders the spread of agricultural pests and diseases, the threat of which is treated with yet more chemicals: all of which are poisonous to animals and detrimental to Nature.

The Green Revolution expanded agricultural development into lands which were once unproductive. This spelled further environmental destruction. For example, seed varieties were developed that permitted cultivation in sensitive Brazilian ecosystems, which were deforested and stripped of natural wildlife to render cropland.

The Green Revolution set agriculture on an unsustainable path. Its techniques of monocropping and petrochemical dependence degraded the soil, producing higher yields only for a short duration.

Green Revolution-style farming is not ecologically sustainable, even for large farmers. After achieving dramatic increases in the early stages of the technological transformation, yields began falling. ~ Peter Rosset et al

Approaching the end of the 20th century, agricultural productivity slowed markedly. From 1950 to 1990, productivity rose 2% a year. From 1990 to 2000, yield growth was only 1%; a figure that continues to decline in the 21st century.

Land for grain production peaked in 1981 and has since declined as a result of environmental degradation. World cereal production plateaued in 1994. From 1999, world grain stocks have been on a decidedly downward trend.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Green Revolution was largely an American government-sponsored initiative. Its most vigorous efforts took place during the Cold War, when “Americanism versus Communism” was taught in US public schools.

The primary objective of the program was geopolitical: to provide food for the populace in undeveloped countries and so bring social stability and weaken the fomenting of communist insurgency. ~ American historian Mark Dowie

The Green Revolution weakened socialist movements in many nations. In countries such as India, Mexico, and the Philippines, technological solutions were sought as an alternative to agrarian reform, which was often linked to socialist politics.

The Green Revolution significantly altered the socioeconomic dynamics of agriculture. Its emphasis on mechanization and chemical treatments rewarded larger farms.

Small farms produce more agricultural output per unit area than large farms. ~ American ecologist Andrew Kimbrell

The dynamic of the Green Revolution in developing countries was dramatic. As crop prices dropped, smaller farmers could not keep up. They went into debt, which often meant the loss of their farmland.

Rural employment dropped. Rural income disparities ratcheted as monoculture plantations proliferated.

The economic difficulties for small farm holders and landless farm workers led to urban migration. The infusion of a cheap labor pool into cities increased the potential for industrialization and its attendant exploitation by capitalists.

◊ ◊ ◊

Agriculture’s chief need is a reduction of the number of people. Fewer workers in agriculture, working a smaller number of farms of greater size. Farm prices governed by free market forces. ~ The Committee for Economic Development (CED)

In the US, the Green Revolution went hand-in-hand with the CED plan to accelerate exodus from rural life, both as a boost to agribusiness and to create a labor pool for industry. This was accomplished in part by abolishing government parity policies which succored small farms, replacing them with subsidies based on farm size.

The foundation for the CED plan was laid in 1953 when President Eisenhower appointed right-wing agricultural economist Ezra Benson as Secretary of Agriculture. Benson vehemently denounced New Deal farm programs as “socialism” and dismantled them; this after Eisenhower had campaigned on a platform of parity for farmers.

Get big or get out. ~ US Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in 1972

From 1939 to 1959, the number of farms in the US fell 40%. These 2 decades were the dawn of mechanized agriculture on a vast scale, abetted by the slathering of pesticides on croplands. This came at the expense of small family farms, which could not compete with the industrialization of agriculture. The same gyre of dislocation that had occurred over a century earlier to cottage crafts brusquely buried those who had made their living growing healthsome crops.

Between 1950 and 1970, US farm population plummeted by over half. By the 21st century, farmers were less than 1% of the population.

Today, under a million farms produce most of the food grown in the US. Large-scale industrial operations – 12% of the farms – generate 88% of the value of production.

The large agribusiness corporations have replaced the world’s agricultural diversity, which was useful primarily to farmers and local consumers, with bioengineered and patented monocultures that are merely profitable to corporations. ~ Wendell Berry

American agribusiness has failed to feed the country. Over half of the fresh fruit eaten in the United States is imported, up from 23% in 1975. 1/3rd of the fresh vegetables that end up on American dining tables have a foreign origin; in 1975, less than 6% were imported.

At least 10% of imported produce violates US federal standards for pesticide residues, compared with 2.2% for domestic fruit and 3.8% for domestic vegetables.

◊ ◊ ◊

Overall, modern industrialised agriculture is highly energy-inefficient. ~ Clive Ponting

The most energy-efficient agriculture is rice growing in the paddy fields of southeast Asia, where output is ~50 times greater than the input. Other traditional agricultural systems are also highly efficient, producing 20 times the energy consumed in growing crops. In contrast, at best, modern cereal farming reaps only about 2 times the energy input for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and machinery.

Industrial agriculture is becoming less energy efficient. 1952–1972, energy inputs rose 70% for a 30% food production increase. Energy inputs to grow corn in the US rose 400% 1945–1970 while yields went up only 138%; a 0.345 benefit/cost ratio. That ratio has dropped considerably since. The energy efficiency of American corn production has fallen 60% since 1900.

Livestock production in the industrialized world consumes 2 to 3 times as much energy as it produces.

On top of the energy costs in food production are the costs incurred in processing and distributing food, which take 3 times as much energy as producing food. Such inefficiencies reflect the cost of disorganized societies under capitalism.