The Conversation: Green Revolution a warning, not a world hunger solution

Feeding a growing world population has been a serious concern for decades, but today there is new cause for alarm.

Floods, heat waves and other weather extremes are making agriculture increasingly precarious, especially in the Global South.

The war in Ukraine is also a factor.

Russia is blockading Ukrainian grain exports. Meanwhile, fertilizer prices have surged because of trade sanctions on Russia, the world’s leading exporter.

Amid these challenges, some organizations are calling for a second Green Revolution, echoing introduction in the 1960s and ‘70s of supposedly high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice into developing countries, along with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow them.

The original drive focused on India and other Asian countries. Now advocates are setting their sights on sub-Saharan Africa.

In an episode of the television drama “The West Wing,” President Josiah Bartlet invokes the standard account, which has Green Revolution seeds saving millions from starvation.

But anyone concerned with food production should be careful what they wish for. In recent years, a wave of new analyses has spurred a critical rethinking of what Green Revolution farming really means for food supplies and self-sufficiency.

As I explain in my book, “The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World,” the Green Revolution does hold lessons for food production today – but not the ones that are commonly heard. Events in India show why.

There was a consensus in the 1960s among development officials and the public that an overpopulated Earth was heading toward catastrophe. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, “The Population Bomb,” famously predicted that nothing could stop “hundreds of millions” from starving in the 1970s.

India was the global poster child for this looming Malthusian disaster. Its population was booming, drought was ravaging its countryside and its imports of American wheat were climbing to levels that alarmed government officials on both ends of the transactions.

Then, in 1967, India began distributing new wheat varieties bred by Rockefeller Foundation plant biologist Norman Borlaug, along with copious amounts of chemical fertilizer. After famine failed to materialize, observers credited the new farming strategy with having enabled India to feed itself.

Borlaug received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and is still widely credited with “saving a billion lives.” Indian agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, who worked with Borlaug to promote the Green Revolution, went on to receive the inaugural World Food Prize in 1987.

Tributes to Swaminathan, who died earlier this year at the age of 98, reiterated the claim that his efforts brought India “self-sufficiency in food production,” thus a new measure of independence from Western powers.

The standard legend of India’s Green Revolution centers on two propositions. First, India faced a food crisis, with farms mired in tradition and unable to feed an exploding population. Second, that Borlaug’s wheat seeds led to record harvests from 1968 on, replacing import dependence with food self-sufficiency.

But recent research shows that both claims are false.

India was importing wheat in the 1960s because of policy decisions, not overpopulation.

After the nation achieved independence in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru prioritized developing heavy industry. U.S. advisers encouraged this strategy and offered to provide India with surplus grain, which India accepted as cheap food for urban workers.

Meanwhile, the government urged Indian farmers to grow nonfood export crops to earn foreign currency. They switched millions of acres from rice to jute, and by the mid-1960s, India was exporting agricultural products.

Borlaug’s miracle seeds were not inherently more productive than many Indian wheat varieties. They just responded more effectively to high doses of chemical fertilizer.

But while India had abundant manure from its cows, it produced almost no chemical fertilizer. So it had to start spending heavily to import fertilizer stocks.

India did see a wheat boom after 1967, but there is evidence that this expensive new input-intensive approach was not the main cause.

Rather, it stemmed from a new policy of the Indian government paying higher prices for wheat. Unsurprisingly, that led Indian farmers to plant more wheat in lieu of other crops.

Once India’s 1965-67 drought ended, and the Green Revolution began, wheat production sped up while production trends in other crops like rice, maize and pulses slowed down. Net food grain production, which was much more crucial than wheat production alone, actually resumed at the same growth rate as before.

But grain production became more erratic, forcing India to resume importing food by the mid-1970s. India also became dramatically more dependent on chemical fertilizer.

According to data from Indian economic and agricultural organizations, on the eve of the Green Revolution in 1965, Indian farmers needed 17 pounds (8 kilograms) of fertilizer to grow an average ton of food. By 1980, it took 96 pounds (44 kilograms).

So India replaced import of wheat, virtually free, with import of fossil fuel-based fertilizer, paid for with precious international currency.

Today, India remains the world’s second-largest importer of chemical fertilizer. It spent $17.3 billion on fertilizer imports last year alone.

Perversely, Green Revolution boosters call this extreme and expensive dependence “self-sufficiency.

What’s more, recent research shows the environmental costs of the Green Revolution are as severe as its economic impacts. One reason is that fertilizer use is astonishingly wasteful.

Globally, only 17% of what is applied is taken up by plants and ultimately consumed as food. Most of the rest washes into waterways, where it creates algae blooms and dead zones.

Producing and using fertilizer also generates copious greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.

Excess nutrients are creating dead zones in water bodies worldwide, and synthetic fertilizer is a major source. In Punjab, India’s top Green Revolution state, heavy use of fertilizer and pesticide has contaminated water, soil and food, thus endangering human health.

In my view, African countries where the Green Revolution has not made inroads should consider themselves lucky. Ethiopia offers a cautionary case study.

In recent years, the Ethiopian government has forced farmers to plant increasing amounts of fertilizer-intensive wheat, claiming this will achieve “self-sufficiency,” perhaps even allowing it to export wheat worth $105 million this year. Some African officials hail this strategy as a model for the continent.

But Ethiopia has no fertilizer factories, so it has to import fertilizer costing $1 billion just in the past year. And even then, many farmers face severe fertilizer shortages.

The Green Revolution still has many boosters, especially among biotech companies eager to draw parallels between genetically engineered crops and Borlaug’s seeds.

I agree that it offers important lessons about how to move forward with food production, but actual data tells a distinctly different story from the standard narrative. In my view, there are many ways to pursue less input-intensive agriculture that will be more sustainable in a world with an increasingly erratic climate.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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