How the Green Revolution Changed Food Production Forever

Historically, an industrial agriculture model drove the biggest gains in food production — but today, small farmers have an advantage.

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Potato farms in Aroostook County, Maine, in October 1940.

Photo by Jack Delano

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For almost as long as humans have cultivated crops, they’ve selected seed from plants they deemed best, minimized competition from weeds, protected crops from pests, and irrigated as they were able. The methods early farmers used could be maintained for hundreds—even thousands—of years without harming people who ate the produce and without destroying the soil.

After World War II, cheap fuel, improved transportation, developments in mechanization, and rapid scientific progress set the stage for increases in efficiency and productivity in agriculture. Norman Borlaug is credited as the father of the Green Revolution, a time starting in the 1950s when plant breeding, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and herbicides increased crop yields dramatically, reducing hunger worldwide. For his efforts in wheat breeding and improving agriculture in Mexico, Pakistan, and India, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

In Borlaug's acceptance speech, he said, “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today 50 percent of the world's population goes hungry. Without food man, at most, can live but a few weeks; without it all other components of social justice are meaningless.”

Reducing hunger and poverty is indeed noble, but unfortunately, the goal of producing more has become so ingrained in the psyche of U.S. citizens that we sometimes don’t count the long-term cost to human health nor do we consider the sustainability of the methods. And in our quest to rapidly increase production, we sometimes skip crucial steps of testing food safety. How will we be able to provide food for the world in the future? To answer that question, let’s look at historic developments in several areas to see how we arrived where we are today.

Plant Selection and Hybridization

For many years, increases in agricultural productivity were slow. A better understanding of genetics and selective breeding led farmers to utilize the benefits of hybrid vigor and careful selection in the 20th century. Plants were crossed to create more productive varieties, but yield isn’t a matter of simply producing larger or more abundant grain and fruit. Yield is affected by disease resistance, drought tolerance and things such as strong stems to hold up ripe seed heads until harvest—and those are only a few of the characteristics for which plant breeders might select.

A publication by the International Food Policy Research Institute titled “Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing?” states, “The story of English wheat is typical. It took nearly 1,000 years for wheat yields to increase from 0.5 to 2 metric tons per hectare, but only 40 years to climb from 2 to 6 metric tons per hectare.”

Chemical Fertilizers

The benefits of manures and “fertilizers” were known long before the 20th century. Prior to more productive plant varieties demanding higher levels of nutrients to produce larger crops, farmers were looking for products to increase yields and revive tired soil—even if those nutrients came from resources that wouldn’t be quickly replenished.

According to Will Allen in his book The War on Bugs, “The entrance of large-scale commercial interests into the field of improving soil fertility can be traced to the ‘guano craze’ in the middle of the nineteenth century.” During the 1800s, companies mined guano from Peru for export to Europe and the United States. The guano, excrement from birds in this case, had built up on the surface of some islands for years and accumulated to depths of more than 100 feet in certain areas.

Of the three major nutrients used as fertilizer today (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), phosphorus and potassium are mined. Sources of nitrogen were also mined initially, but a cost-effective process for producing nitrogen in a form that plants can access was developed by a German chemist in the early 1900s. This process has not changed dramatically and currently uses hydrogen from natural gas and nitrogen from the atmosphere to produce ammonia. And while usage of nitrogen fertilizer is leveling off somewhat, the USDA estimates that U.S. farmers use about 12 million tons each year.

Pesticides

Powders, such as pyrethrum made from chrysanthemum flowers, were used to kill insects prior to the 1860s, but about that time, farmers started using more toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, to protect crops from insects. According to the website toxipedia.org, “Arsenic has a long history of use both as an insecticide and herbicide, and also as a medicine. Arsenic trioxide was used as a weed killer (herbicide) in the late 1800s, and lead arsenate, containing both lead and arsenic, was used as an insecticide, particularly in orchards, prior to the development of synthetic pesticides following WWII. Some of the first concerns about pesticide safety were raised over lead arsenate residue on fruit and in orchards.”

Keith S. Delaplane, Assistant Professor of Entomology at The University of Georgia, in a paper titled “Pesticide Usage in the United States: History, Benefits, Risks, and Trends,” writes, “An emergence in pesticide use began after World War II with the introduction of DDT, BHC, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, and 2,4-D. These new chemicals were inexpensive, effective, and enormously popular. DDT was especially favored for its broad-spectrum activity against insect pests of agriculture and human health. 2,4-D was an inexpensive and effective way to control weeds in grass crops such as corn. Lulled into a false sense of security, users applied pesticides liberally in pursuit of habitats ‘sterilized’ of pests. Under constant chemical pressure, some pests became genetically resistant to pesticides, non-target plants and animals were harmed, and pesticide residues appeared in unexpected places.”

Irrigation

Egyptians have been using irrigation—controlling water from the flooding Nile River—for 5,000 years, and people in other parts of the world have used various types of irrigation, too. But most of this irrigation utilized surface water, not water pumped from the ground. About 20 percent of all water for irrigation in the United States comes from one underground source, the Ogallala aquifer.

According to William Ashworth in his book Ogallala Blue, the Ogallala aquifer “sprawls from central Texas to southern South Dakota and from eastern Colorado almost into Iowa, and there is enough water in it to fill Lake Erie. Nine times.” And this is primarily ancient water that’s not simply replaced with rain. We’re “mining” a resource that won’t be quickly replenished. Using groundwater for irrigation became viable in the 1940s with the development of pumping and distribution technologies—and energy cheap enough to make it profitable. Initial concern about the falling water table in the Ogallala aquifer was raised in the 1950s.

No Turning Back

Preventing starvation of people in developing countries wasn’t the only outcome of the Green Revolution. “Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing?” states, “The Green Revolution...contributed to better nutrition by raising incomes and reducing prices, which permitted people to consume more calories and a more diversified diet. Big increases occurred in per capita consumption of vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, and livestock products in Asia.”

But the same article notes that not all regions benefited equally: “[A] shortcoming of the Green Revolution was that it spread only in irrigated and high-potential rain-fed areas, and many villages or regions without access to sufficient water were left out.” Introducing industrial agriculture to less developed countries also introduced the pollution issues that accompany it.

And even where the Green Revolution has been successful, there might be too much of a good thing. According to “Green Revolution in India Wilts as Subsidies Backfire,” a Wall Street Journal article by Geeta Anand, “India has been providing farmers with heavily subsidized fertilizer for more than three decades. The overuse of one type—urea—is so degrading the soil that yields on some crops are falling and import levels are raising... Farmers spread the rice-size urea granules by hand or from tractors. They pay so little for it that in some areas they use many times the amount recommended by scientists, throwing off the chemistry of the soil, according to multiple studies by Indian agricultural experts.”

Some organizations and research indicates that there’s simply no turning back to a time when farmers used fewer chemicals. Fooddialogues.com, a website of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, said, “If tools like insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers were not available, entire crops could be wiped out and the stability of our food supply would be destroyed.”

And research by Ronald D. Knutson, et al, in 1990, concluded that when comparing traditional industrial farming methods to using no chemicals (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and inorganic nitrogen fertilizer), “the ‘no chemical’ option, national average yield reductions ranged from 37 percent in soybeans and sorghum to 78 percent in peanuts. With no chemicals, corn experienced a 53 percent reduction while wheat incurred a 38 percent national average yield reduction.” But this research was based on estimates from “lead crop scientists.”

Another view was presented in a 2006 article from World Watch Magazine: “Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?” This article says, “It is true that farmers converting to organic production often encounter lower yields in the first few years, as the soil and surrounding biodiversity recover from years of assault with chemicals. And it may take several seasons for farmers to refine the new approach.”

The article continues, “Reviewing 154 growing seasons' worth of data on various crops grown on rain-fed and irrigated land in the United States, University of California-Davis agricultural scientist Bill Liebhardt found that organic corn yields were 94 percent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 percent, and organic soybean yields were 94 percent. Organic tomatoes showed no yield difference. More importantly, in the world's poorer nations where most of the world's hungry live, the yield gaps completely disappear.”

Taking a Different Path

To some extent, the damage may be done. Aquifers can’t be quickly replenished, and some soil has been contaminated. Allen states, “While most farmers in the United States no longer use arsenic, its continued presence in agricultural soils in many areas of the United States remains high because so much was used for so many years. And since arsenic is a heavy metal, it is persistent and difficult to leach or flush out of most soils, so it is stuck where it is. And we are stuck with it for probably hundreds of years.”

But there’s hope for increased food production without cutting down forests to create new farmland or using ever larger amounts of nonrenewable resources, and that hope rests squarely in small farms. According to “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012,” a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Many of the development success stories of the past 20-40 years were based on smallholder production... During this time, smallholders were also typically more efficient than large-scale farmers. Looking ahead, smallholder production is likely to be more efficient for labour-intensive products such as vegetables.”

Agriculture on smallholdings can be more productive when productivity is measured in pounds of food produced per acre rather than dollars spent per pound of food produced. The type of farming implemented on these farms is usually less capital-intensive, though labor inputs are high when compared to industrial agriculture. That may not be bad, as it creates jobs. The FAO report says, “Agricultural growth is particularly effective in reducing hunger and malnutrition. Most of the extreme poor depend on agriculture and related activities for a significant part of their livelihoods. Agricultural growth involving smallholders, especially women, will be most effective in reducing extreme poverty and hunger when it increases returns to labour and generates employment for the poor.” (Emphasis added.)

Small and labor-intensive don’t mean backward. And few people would suggest simply going back to using methods from the 1800s. An emerging blend of new and old methods of agriculture is called agro-ecology. An article titled “Distributing seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to poor farmers is OUT. Agro-ecology is IN.” and published on the OXFAM America website says, “Agro-ecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems. It’s most important underlying principles are diversification of both crops and animals, crop rotation, and organic matter cycles... Agro-ecology is an alternative to industrial agriculture’s product-driven business plan that pushes the latest brands of seeds and pesticides. This may be perceived as ‘modern’ farming, but agro-ecology is a knowledge-intensive practice, based on science and farmer experimentation and reclaiming lost—and more sustainable—farming practices.”

The future of increasing food production may very well be small farms around the world and in the United States. But instead of using more chemicals and fossil fuels, successful smallholders will thrive on the same things that kept farmers going for centuries before the development of industrial agriculture—wits and hard work.

We Can Feed the World if We Choose Different Foods

One aspect of the broad American psychology of food production is that we need to produce more food to provide for a growing world population. But have you considered that by changing our diets—eating foods that require less water to grow or eating less meat, for example—more food would be available? Only a small percentage of U.S. corn production is directly consumed by humans as cornmeal, cornflakes, etc. Most of it is used for animal feed.

Even without going vegan, substituting eggs and dairy products for meat would help the overall situation. A National Geographic article, “A Five Step Plan to Feed the World” by Jonathon Foley, said, “Though many of us consume meat, dairy, and eggs from animals raised on feedlots, only a fraction of the calories in feed given to livestock make their way into the meat and milk that we consume. For every 100 calories of grain we feed animals, we get only about 40 new calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 of chicken, 10 of pork, or
3 of beef.”


Troy Griepentrog is a writer and gardener who believes that small farms that practice sustainable methods are the future of the world's food production.