Food Conundrum

Pesticides How do we feed over 7 billion people without trashing the environment?

The world’s population now stands at 7 billion. Much of the growth in the number of people over the last half century was enabled by the so-called “Green Revolution” that saw the massive production of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides following World War II.

“Green Revolution”

In the 1950s, the industrialization of agriculture in the West was depicted as a golden era, one in which farmers’ back-breaking work was heavily mechanized and the use of petro-chemical products in the form of fertilizers and pesticides dramatically improved crop production. The roots of this revolution lay with Norman Borlaug, an American scientist interested in agriculture. In the 1940s, he began conducting research in Mexico and developed new disease resistance high-yield varieties of wheat. What was found was that by combining Borlaug’s wheat varieties with new mechanized agricultural technologies, Mexico was able to produce more wheat than was needed by its own people. The result was that it became an exporter of wheat by the 1960s. The country was importing almost half of its wheat supply, prior to the use of these varieties.

The United States for instance, imported about half of its wheat in the 1940s but after using Green Revolution technologies, it became self-sufficient in the 1950s and became an exporter by the 1960s.
Such was the hype at the time that DDT makers made TV adverts showing children picnicking and being sprayed with DDT seemingly claiming this was a harmless product. At the same time, there was a move towards factory farming for livestock, such as cattle and poultry that enabled large-scale meat production.

Dependence on fertilizers and pesticides

For governments and large agricultural organizations, the Green Revolution provided a win-win situation. Fertilizers are largely what made this revolution possible. But with it came a dependence.
The high yield varieties developed during this time cannot grow successfully without the help of fertilizers. Irrigation also played a large role in the revolution, changing the areas where various crops can be grown. Prior to the changes, agriculture was severely limited to areas with a significant amount of rainfall, but by using irrigation, water can be stored and sent to drier areas. This puts more land into agricultural production and therefore increases crop yields.

Drop in crop varieties

The development of high yield varieties meant that only a few species of say, rice started being grown. The fallout can be seen in India for example where there were about 30,000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, but today there are around ten, all the most productive types. The trouble has been that by having this increased crop homogeneity, the types were more prone to disease and pests because there were not enough varieties to fight them off. In order to protect these few varieties, pesticide use has grown as well.

India and China used to fear famine. But the Green Revolution technologies have exponentially increased the amount of food production, a pattern seen worldwide.

Poisoning of land and people

As we know today, this “Green Revolution” has come at great cost to the environment, people’s health, and the treatment of animals. This industrialization of food production is viewed in the corridors of power as a necessary process in order to feed populations that have virtually tripled over the last 50 years. By and large, governments have not stood idly by and given free rein to the pollution that has resulted from these new agricultural processes. However, in most cases far too little has been done to mitigate the negative effects, particularly in developing countries.

As an example, some agricultural areas in India face serious problems as the soil has been badly damaged and the water sources poisoned. Careless use of pesticides and herbicides has resulted in serious health problems, including a rise in cancer rates, and deaths. The introduction of genetically-modified (GM) crops has led to farmers getting into serious debt, due to the high price of seeds and related pesticides. The suicide rate among farmers in India is high as people try to take the only option out.

Organic way out?

There is no easy way out of a food production system that values large-scale production and profits over the environment and people’s health. Yet there is a drive in many areas to attempt to use more sustainable systems of farming, including organic farming, and more humane forms of rearing animals.
The challenge is that large multinational companies monopolize the production and distribution of food around the world. The voices of farmers and non-governmental organizations trying to find alternative ways are often drowned out by the advertisements, hype and even underhand methods used by the big companies to control farming.

Organic is now ‘in’

The good news is that organic products have been getting popular over the last couple of decades, even with large supermarket chains such as Walmart marketing them as a “speciality.” Often consumers are will to pay more for what they view as healthier food. In India, for example, there are the beginnings of a backlash against the Green Revolution. Small farmers cooperatives have been set up devoted to traditional and more eco-friendly methods of farming.

Man on a mission

One graying New Zealand farmer has been instrumental in starting a revolution of his own. As the advertising for a documentary on his work entitled, One Man, One Cow, One Planet, put it:

Modern industrial agriculture is destroying the earth. Desertification, water scarcity, toxic cocktails of agricultural chemicals pervading our food chains, ocean ecosystem collapse, soil erosion and massive loss of soil fertility.

Our ecosystems ore overwhelmed. Humanity’s increasing demands are exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity. A simple recipe to save the world? One old man and a bucket of cow-dung.

Are you crazy?

Trailer for One Man, One Cow, One Planet

Stories on the Green Revolution and the alternative, organic farming:

In India, bucking the ‘revolution’ by going organic

Green Revolution traps Indian farmers in debt