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.

| Fall 2014

  • Potato farms in Aroostook County, Maine, in October 1940.
    Photo by Jack Delano
  • Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Prize winner
    Photo courtesy
  • Rice harvesting in Fort Bend county, Texas.
    Photo by David Nance

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.

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