Green Myth vs. the Green Revolution

The Underlying Belief System

Gail Omvedt speaks of a “a distorted image of farmers held by a section of the urban elite” in India as well as in developed countries. This mythic image:

depicts them romantically but demeaningly as backward, tradition-loving, innocent and helpless creatures carrying on their occupation for love of the land and the soil, and as practitioners of a “way of life” rather than a toilsome income-earning occupation. These imagined farmers have to be protected from market forces and the attacks of multinationals, from the seductions of commercialization and the enslavement of technologies (Omvedt 1998).

Modern agriculture and the food supply it provides, along with modern medicine and the pharmaceuticals and technological devices it uses and the science on which it is based, have become a villains of choice for many who find the trends of the last half of the 20th and beginnings of the 21st century to be a danger to human health and well being, as well as ecologically destructive. Given that the 20th century witnessed the greatest increase in human life expectancy the world has ever experienced, while accommodating a roughly 350% increase in population, there is a strange and almost perverse irony to this anti-modern mania, since it is generally accepted that improved nutrition and such medical interventions as immunization and anti-biotics are major factors for human health and longevity. Other important factors contributing to the expansion of human life such as chlorination of water, use of pesticides to reduce or eliminate disease vectors, refrigeration, pasteurization and other forms of sterilization and preservation are all products of modern science and technology. Most of these have also had their critics, and still do.

Not all of those who oppose one or more of these aspects of modernity necessarily oppose them all, but many do, as there is an underlying belief system that links them together. It should be made clear at the outset, that we are not talking about critics who seek to improve upon food production and medical care but those who consider our current ways of doing things to be so fundamentally flawed that they have to be overthrown root and branch. A further irony is that as critics of modern science, technology and agronomy become more vehement, the public level of knowledge about these subjects has not fared as well as the endeavors themselves. Maybe it is not so ironic, as one increasingly wonders what was learned about the disciplines of modern inquiry by those who have degrees under the rubric of Science and Technology Studies or Critical Inquiry. I have colleagues in my own university who wouldn’t know a cow patty from a rice paddy if they stepped in one but nevertheless claim expertise in “sustainable agriculture.”

Harvesting and eventually transforming plants means that we have to act to maintain their continuity by some form of compensation. According to Wood and Lenné:

Harvesting of plant parts – particularly the reproductive parts – for human food would decrease the competitive ability of targeted plants. Unless there was some compensation for this, the population of the food plant would decline in competition with non-food plants; there would be less food for gatherers the following season…Simply, if we eat the plant’s reproductive strategy, it will not be able to compete with less useful species. To maintain the food supply, we need to compensate the plants in some way. With compensation, the food species could expand at the expense of non-food plants, giving us a more assured food supply (Wood and Lenné 1999a, 20-21).

To Wood and Lenné, “compensation is the key to the coevolution of food plants and human exploitation” (Wood and Lenné 1999a, 21). After describing the compensatory mechanisms of agriculture, they conclude that “agriculture is therefore a combination of ways in which we help food-providing species to compete making more and more plants dependent on our `sufferance or favor'” (Wood and Lenné 1999a, 21).

The Green Revolution in agriculture has to be seen as one of the great achievements of our time. It has been the driving force behind the spectacular increases in global food supply over the last half century. Yet a variety of myths have arisen about it that have become so deeply imbedded in conventional wisdom that one does not need to be a Luddite or mossback reactionary to accept them as unchallenged fact. What is truly extraordinary is that each of these myths is exactly contrary to what can clearly be demonstrated was the case. There still remain some like Vandana Shiva who either deny the gains in output or who maintain that they are achievable with a reversion to earlier, more “organic” forms of agriculture. But to deny the output gains of the Green Revolution is so contrary to fact that only the most extreme zealots believe it. Most accept the fact of the increases in output but claim that they came at an unacceptably high price. Of course, we can always counter that the price of not increasing yields would have been a combination of massive famine and environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale as a result of attempting to bring ever more land under cultivation.

The presumed costs of the Green Revolution are that the HYV (high yielding varieties) of seeds “require” more fertilizer, water and pesticides (when in fact they outperform the traditional varieties at nearly any level of inputs) and that they have given rise to a dangerous monoculture leading also to a decline in non-grain products with a resulting worsening of the nutrition of poor people. Part of the anti-globalization mythology is that the Green Revolution gave rise to greater inequality of income and possibly even left the poor worse off. The data on the Green Revolution and the growth in global food production generally has accumulated and been frequently analyzed and it is clear that each of these beliefs is egregiously wrong. Let us examine each of these beliefs, starting with the issue of water needs.

Water and Fertilizer

The modern rice varieties have about a threefold increase in water productivity compared with traditional varieties. Progress in extending these achievements to other crops has been considerable and will probably accelerate following identification of underlying genes…Genetic engineering, if properly integrated in breeding programs and applied in a safe manner, can further contribute to the development of drought tolerant varieties and to increase the water use efficiency…Overall, The best estimates are that “the water needs for food per capita halved between 1961 and 2001” (FAO 2003 28).

Higher yields “require” more fertilizer, as the more nutrient is extracted from the soil, the more has to be replaced. Norman Borlaug in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech states: “If the high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties are the catalysts that have ignited the Green Revolution, then chemical fertilizer is the fuel that has powered its forward thrust … The new varieties not only respond to much heavier dosages of fertilizer than the old ones but are also much more efficient in their use” (Borlaug 1970).

The old tall-strawed varieties would produce only ten kilos of additional grains for each kilogram of nitrogen applied, while the new varieties can produce 20 to 25 kilograms or more of additional grain per kilogram of nitrogen applied (Borlaug 1970).

Not only are the Green Revolution plants more efficient in fertilizer use, but equally important has been the improvement in the use and application of fertilizer. For example, there has been a 36% increase in “N efficiency use in maize” in the United States over the last 21 years as a result of improved knowledge and technology (Blair and Blair 2003). Even Europe with its obscene agricultural subsidies and the environmental problems resulting from over-use of fertilizer, has seen yields rise faster than fertilizer application (Fresco 2003). Imagine the potential increases in efficiencies that could be realized if the agricultural subsidies in Europe and the United States were removed. In other parts of the world such as Latin America and Africa, the problem is not too much fertilizer but not enough. Genetic engineering offers further opportunities for more efficient fertilizer use by increasing the photosynthetic efficiency of plants.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the “nutrient balance is negative for most crops and cropping systems.”

The end result is not just loss of soil fertility. The physical and biological structure of the soils will also be degraded including reduction in soil organic matter levels and hence of carbon sequestration, lower moisture holding capacity and greater vulnerability to erosion (Norse 2003).

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer costs money, so as one would expect, farmers attempt to become more efficient in its use. The best measure of this is the ratio of nitrogen in the fertilizer applied to the nitrogen in the crop. This ratio fell for American farmers by 2% a year from 1986 to 1995. Further, there is no evidence that bulk deposition of nitrogen, which is of environmental concern because of run-off into rivers and streams, has been increasing (Frink et al. 1999). Another measure of increasing efficiency in nitrogen use is the feed-to-meat ratio. As we have just shown, the synthetic nitrogen-to-nitrogen in the crop has been falling and now, in turn, the “calculated feed to produce a unit of meat fell at an annual rate of 0.9%” from 1967 to 1992 (Waggoner and Ausubel 2002). With increasing crop yields per acre, “cropland for grain-fed animals to produce meat for Americans shrank 2.2% annually” (Waggoner and Ausubel 2002).

It is important to note here that the global demand for animal products – meat, milk, cheese, eggs, chicken etc. – is increasing at a faster rate than population and the basic demand for food. For example, while grain production was increasing 2.7 times over the last forty years, production of broiler chickens increased slightly more than six times from 8 billion to 49 billion. More efficient cultivation of maize as an animal feed will be an essential component for continuing to provide the nutrients that are improving the health for much of the world’s population. As an historical note, the diffusion of maize into Europe following its maritime contact with the Americas, is credited with providing the yield necessary for expansion of animal production and consumption which in turn is considered an important causal factor in the expansion of life expectancies that followed (Scott and Duncan 2002).

India’s need for synthetic fertilizer long predates the Green Revolution’s increased use of it. Historically there was a large difference between the nutrients extracted from the soil in India and the “organic” nutrients available to be returned to it. In the 1960s, each year cultivated crops in India were removing:

3 million tons of nitrogen, 1.5 million tons of phosphorus oxide and 3.5 million tons of potash…8 million tons of plant food. The organic sources of the plant food returned to the soil is hardly 1.8 million tons of nitrogen, 0.60 tons of phosphorus oxide and 1.8 million tons of potash…4.2 million tons of plant food (Randhawa 1983, Vol.3, 314-317, using data from Agarwal 1965, 7, 12, 13, 14, 214, cited in DeGregori 2003b)

Randhawa adds: “Even allowing for the biological and other natural processes for recuperation of fertility, the balance ie tremendous” with nearly twice as much nutrient being withdrawn from the soil as was being returned to it (Randhawa 1983 317, cited in DeGregori 2003b).

Similarly for Africa: Soil fertility depletion on smallholder farms, together with the concomitant problems of weeds, pests and diseases, is the fundamental biophysical root cause for declining per capita food production in sub-Saharan Africa (Kelemu et al. 2003, see also Sánchez et al. 1997).

The annual loss of nutrient in Africa is “equivalent to US $4000 million in fertilizer.” These are rates of nutrient depletion that “are several times higher than Africa’s (excluding Rep. of South Africa) annual fertilizer consumption, which is 0.8 million t N, 0.26 million t P and 0.2 million t K” (Kelemu 2t al. 2003, see also FAO 1994 and Smalling et al. 1997). The “traditional way” of overcoming soil nutrient depletion by applying mineral fertilizer is rendered difficult by fertilizer cost which is “2 to 6 times as much as those in Europe, North America or Asia” (Kelemu et al. 2003). Thus there is a need to use the tools of modern plant molecular biology to develop cultivars that are more efficient in nitrogen use (Rao and Cramer 2003, see also ECA 2002).

Disease Resistance

The Green Revolution seeds turn out to be more disease resistant (as plant breeders have added multiple disease resistant genes – gene stacking), requiring less pesticides. “Increasingly, scientists breed for polygenic (as opposed to monogenic) resistance by accumulating diverse, multiple genes from new sources and genes controlling different mechanisms of resistance within single varieties (Smale 1997, 1265, see also Cox and Wood 1999, 46). The coefficient of variation for rice production has been steadily decreasing for the last forty years which would seem to indicate the new technologies in agricultural production are not as fragile as some would have us believe (Lenné and Wood 1999, see also Wood and Lenné 1999a&b and Evenson and Gollin 1997). This has also been the case for wheat. “Yield stability, resistance to rusts, pedigree complexity, and the number of modern cultivars in farmers’ fields have all increased since the early years of the Green Revolution” (Smale and McBride 1996).

Modern “monoculture” is central to the unverified claims about modern varieties being less disease resistant (DeGregori 2003c). The “natural ecosystems” from which important cereals were domesticated were often moncultures – “extensive, massive stands in primary habitats, where they are dominant annuals.” This includes the “direct ancestors of our cereals Hordeum spontaneum (for barley), Triticum boeoticum (for einkorn wheat) and Triticum dicoccoides (for emmer wheat)” which “are common wild plants in the Near East” (Wood and Lenné 1999, 445). This was not unique to the Near East but was a prevailing pattern of the time. In the transition from Pleistocene to the Holocene, “climatic changes in seasonal regimes decreased diversity, increased zonation of plant communities, and caused a shift in net antiherbivory defense strategies” (Guthrie 1984, 260, cited in DeGregori 2003c). The “ecological richness of late Pleistocene” in many of the areas that humans were first to develop agriculture, gave way to “relative ecological homogeneity during the succeeding Holocene” (Guthrie 1984, 251, cited in DeGregori 2003c).

Critics of modern agriculture who fear the susceptibility to disease from monculture, continually hark back to the southern corn-leaf blight in the U.S. in 1970 since they cannot come up with any other comparable loss in the last half century in corn or wheat or rice, the staples that provide about two-thirds of the world’s food production. The $1 billion in losses of about 15 to 25% of the 1970 corn crop was substantial, but these loses should be considered against the fact that corn yields had more than doubled over the previous two decades and that the crop year following the blight was one of record yields. When not using the corn blight, the critics go back over 150 years to the Irish potato famine. And they simply ignore the crop losses and famine that have been the lot of humankind since the begining of conventional, largely “organic” agriculture.

The Utility of the Genome

Targeted genome sequencing by methylation filtration offers a lower cost method for gaining valuable information about food crops for plant breeding where the more expensive approach of sequencing the entire genome might not be financially warranted (Palmer et al. 2003 and Whitelaw et al. 2003).

If one seeks to understand plant diversity at the genomic level, an argument can be made for increased diversity. “Some modern varieties of rice and wheat have very comprehensive pedigrees and can be highly genetically diverse. For example, `IR 66′ has 42 landraces in its parentage with multiple disease and pest resistances, drought tolerance and earliness” while another variety has 49 landraces including multiple disease and pest resistances (Hargrove et al. 1988, cited in Polaszek, Riches and Lenné 1999, 288). Thanks to modern plant breeding, wheat has a diversity which it previously lacked. “Wheat lacks diversity because it evolved through a natural genetic bottleneck. It has always teetered on precariously narrow genetic base” (Cox 1998, cited in Cox and Wood 1999, 44-45). Bread wheat was the accidental “unnatural” crossing of einkorn and then emmer wheat with another species. The latter, tetraploid emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum) somehow crossed with a weedy diploid goatgrass (Aegilops tauschii) (Cox and Wood 1999, 45). What was done by nature could not be done by humans until we could grow rescued embryos in an artificial medium. Modern wheat now has a number of resistant genes that have been derived from other species, giving it a greater diversity and vastly greater disease resistance. And this increased resistance has produced results.

In their study of the “wheat’s origins and the flows of germplasm between various regions of the world,” Smale and McBride examine “patterns of bread wheat diversity in farmers’ fields and evidence of genetic variation from breeding programs.”

Findings suggest that the often-invoked dichotomy between the gene-poor North and the gene-rich South has little validity for wheat. Findings also suggest that yield stability, resistance to rusts, pedigree complexity, and the number of modern cultivars in farmers’ fields have all increased since the early years of the Green Revolution (Smale and McBride 1996, Abstract, see also CIMMYT (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo). 1996, Rice et al. 1998, Smale 1997, Smale, ed. 1998, Smale et al. 1996 & 2002 and Gollin and Smale 1998).

In the Indian Punjab in the 1950s, “the area planted to a single cultivar was high. … In the high potential zones, semidwarf wheats generally replaced the tall cultivars that had been released by the Indian national breeding program from the early 1900s … if any long term trend is observable since 1947, it has not been upward” (Smale 1997, 1261). Citing Howard and Howard, Smale adds that “according to government records, Indian landraces, which were planted to millions of contiguous hectares, were notably susceptible to rust. Average annual losses were estimated in one document at 10% of the value of the crop” (Smale 1997, 1261).

If the myths about the alleged “failure” of the Green Revolution were simply about the past, there would be little need to expend much effort to refute them except to set the historical record straight. The fact is that the “failure” of the Green Revolution has become one of the axioms of those opposed to the continued use of science and technology to improve our food supply, particularly using biotechnology for what has been named as the “double Green Revolution” and as a basis for promoting alternate forms of agriculture.

Safety of the Food Supply

Our food supply remains safer than it ever has been. Proponents of “organic agriculture” and many consumers believe that “organic agriculture” is “pesticide free” even though there is a USDA website for approved pesticides for “organic agriculture” including synthetic pesticides (USDA 2002, Purists who oppose “transgenic” plant breeding because it is somehow “unnatural” nevertheless have yet to raise any objections, to the best of my knowledge, to plants that are the result of mutation breeding using carcinogenic chemicals or gamma rays or the use of techniques such as altering the ploidy or chromosomal structure by crossing diploids and haploids, tissue culture or somoclonal variation, embryo rescue, protoplastic cell fusion etc, etc. Of course, if they did object, they would have problems finding anything to eat. And we must never forget that these mutation-bred plants are very much a part of the crops of the “organic” farmers whose supposed opposition to synthetic pesticides requires them to use varieties that are more resistant to disease infestation. Yet these same farmers oppose the transgenic plants (particularly when used in conjunction with conservation tillage) that have most effectively provided pest resistance, increasing output and reducing pesticide use as well as reducing fuel use, water loss, and soil erosion, and conserving biodiversity.

Critics argue that inserting a gene from one species into another is “unnatural,” but then worry that the transgene will in nature jump to other species. (We should add that the restriction endonucleases and ligases [both are enzymes] used to cut and re-ligate the cohesive ends of DNA for recombinant DNA technology were first observed in nature as were the plasmids [circular pieces of DNA outside the chromosome] as a means to encode a gene. They were not the product of mad scientists.) What basis then in fact or theory is there to call gene flow from transgenic crops, “contamination?”

There is the fear that transgenic resistance genes will outcross with the non-food crop plants or transfer resistance genes to a bacteria (“jumping genes”). Breeding in genes for resistance by means other than transgenics seems to arouse no fears that these same genes will outcross with weeds, creating so-called superweeds that are no longer deterred by the pesticides. (For the last 40 years, hundreds of millions of hectares have been planted in modern varieties of wheat and rice and yet there is not a single verifiable case of a dwarfing gene migrating to neighboring species.) Without question, gene flow from transgenic crops will happen in one form or another as it has happened with planted crops since the beginning of agriculture.

“Defying the expectations of scientists monitoring transgenic crops such as corn and cotton that produce insecticidal proteins derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), target insect pests have developed little or no resistance to Bt crops thus far, according to US Department of Agriculture’s funded scientists” (Fox 2003, 958, see also Tabashnik et al. 2003a&b and Mendelsohn et al. 2003). Ironically, the diamondback moth “evolved resistance to Bt sprays used by organic growers, but no pest has evolved resistance to transgenic Bt crops in the field” (Fox 2003, see also DeGregori 2003a, 115-116). The irony is of course that it is the organic growers who have vociferously complained that the transgenic Bt varieties would lead to the emergence of super bugs resistant to their Bt spray.

Then there is the fear that transgenic genes will move about the genome, land in the wrong place or interact with other genes leading to the expression of other characteristics (called pleiotropy) such as a dangerous toxin or allergen. Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of chromosomal instability fifty years ago. Plant geneticists have yet to observe any greater chromosomal instability in transgenics but they have in the products of tissue culture which has been absolutely essential, particularly in developing countries for breeding plants resistance to a particular disease.

The use of tissue culture in plant breeding has also often resulted in somaclonal variation of plant lines and irregular phenotypes or field performance. Somaclonal variations are mutational and chromosomal instabilities of embryonic plants regenerated from tissue cultures (Haslberger 2003).
Unfortunately, these “chromosomal instabilities” persist for some time not only in the original crop but in future crops in which it is part of the breeding stock.
These instabilities may result from activation of dormant transposons in the chromosome. The consequent genetic variability is known to persist for many generations and is difficult to eliminate by backcrossing (Haslberger 2003).
It is interesting to note that in searching for the possible “unintended consequences” of rDNA. a committee of the Codex Alimentarious found the most serious unintended outcomes were in crops from “traditional breeding.”
a traditionally bred squash caused food poisoning, a pest-resistant celery variety produced rashes in agricultural workers (which was subsequently found to contain sevenfold more carcinogenic psoralens than control celery) and a potato variety Lenape contained very high levels of toxic solanine (Haslberger 2003).

These varieties are no longer cultivated (Kirschmann and Suber 1998, Ames and Gold 1990, Beier 1990 and Prakash 2001). The most recent episode was an outbreak of “killer zucchini” which produced the “only food scare in recent history in New Zealand” and interestingly it “stemmed from the farming methods of organic farmers and others who use unconventional farming practices” (LSN 2003). In February 2003, Zucchini with “high levels of natural toxins” were sold on the vegetable market and resulted in “several recorded cases of people suffering food poisoning” (LSN 2003). We often worry about the toxicity resulting from spraying crops but we rarely worry about those from not spraying them.

An examination of common factors shows the levels of toxin apparently increased among zucchini growers who did not spray their crops. Unusual climatic conditions meant there were huge numbers of aphids about in January and insect predation is sometimes associated with increased levels of toxins in plants (LSN 2003).

In this case, there was a “clear link between increased toxin levels and older open-pollinating varieties of seeds” (LSN 2003). It is “likely zucchini grown from saved seed will therefore be more vulnerable to toxin build-up” (LSN 2003). The scientists who reviewed the “killer zucchini” case were very clear that the “most likely cause of the build up of toxins is a genetic weakness in older varieties.” However worthy the farmer’s intentions may have been, “the growers’ decision to use older varieties and to save seeds is likely to have resulted in a health risk for consumers – something which has never happened with crops derived from genetic modification” (LSN 2003).

Transgenic crop breeding is the most predictable form of plant breeding ever devised by humans and is therefore the safest. Yet it is also the only form of plant breeding that is regulated, largely because it is the only form of plant breeding for which it is reasonably possible to test prior to widespread use. (Using rDNA to create plants that express a vaccine or pharmaceutical has tremendous potential for benefiting those most in need. However, given the many possibilities of harm, those producing a vaccine or pharmaceutical via transgenic breeding must operate in terms of strict protocols, careful segregation in growing, and careful oversight and regulation.)

In spite of vociferous opposition, the planting of transgenic crops is increasing worldwide, more in developed countries than developing countries, as farmers find that higher final output from either increased yield or reduced crop loss or both, makes it worthwhile to pay a premium for commercial transgenic seeds.

Other Environmental Hazards

After the furor over the alleged threat to the Monarch butterfly from transgenic maize was shown to be a tempest in a teapot, it is clear that the most serious threat to the Monarch butterfly is from the destruction of its winter forest habitat in Mexico by poor farmers clearing small plots to raise crops to feed their families. Higher sustainable yields on existing farms including the use of transgenics and/or more rewarding non-farm employment would greatly aid the protection of the forest habitat and the preservation of the Monarch butterfly.

Whatever the environmental problems of the much maligned Green Revolution technologies in wheat and rice, and they are real, the increased yields from these and related gains from modern agronomy in other crops such as hybrid maize have had the effect of minimizing the amount of land that had to be brought under cultivation. It is widely understood that the single most important cause of species extinction is loss of habitat. In the last forty years of the twentieth century, the world’s population slightly more than doubled from about 3 billion to over 6 billion people while global food supply increased to about 270 percent of its 1960 level, resulting in a 30 to 40 percent increase in per capita output. This was achieved even though the land under cultivation increased from 1.4 billion hectares to only 1.5 billion hectares.

the yield-increasing, land-saving nature of the Green Revolution has reduced the pressure to put more land under the plow. Indeed, the recent data bear out this interpretation: Indian food grain output has continued to grow at a healthy rate of 3 percent annually through … 1981-1991 while the land under cultivation has actually decreased annually (Nanda 2003, 243 citing Sawant and Achuthan 1995; Hanumantha Rao 1994).

The enhanced Green Revolution yields in the primary food/calories source, makes more land available for a variety of other crops and greater diversity in the population’s diet. This is counter to the conventional wisdom about the Green Revolution and its impact upon diet and nutrition. Sawant and Achuthan found the “decisively superior performance of non-foodgrains vis-a-vis foodgrains” to be the “most striking feature of India’s agricultural growth in the recent period (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-3). For 1981-1992 in India, the compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of non-foodgrains of 4.3 per cent “exceeded significantly that of foodgrains” at 2.92 per cent. Though there was annual decline of O.26% in the area of foodgrain cultivation, “it is important to recognize that foodgrains output continued to grow at the rate of 2.92 per cent as the growth in yield per hectare exceeded 3 percent” for a CAGR of 3.19 per cent, all of which indicates an “an increasing shift of land from foodgrains to non-foodgrains” (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-3). “The entire output growth in this period can, therefore be attributed to the increase in yields per hectare” (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 12).

Impact on Poverty

The most important contribution of technological change in Indian agriculture since the mid-sixties consists in making Indian agriculture progressive and dynamic by making farmers increasingly conscious of science and technology (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 51).

After surveying a wide range of crops in India, Sawant and Achuthan conclude that there is “evidence in support of a wider, greater diffusion of technology in recent years to a large number of crops not benefited in the early phase of the green revolution” (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-7). “Another distinguishing character of agricultural growth in the 1980s has been its wider dispersal over regions” with the “fact the foodgrains outgrowth picked up in many less developed areas” (Sawant and Achuthan 1995, A-13). Since the mid-1970s in India, there has been a “significant” decline in “inter-state disparities in real wages” caused by labor migration from poorer areas, the “decline in the relative prices of foodgrains,” poverty alleviation programs and the “pick-up in agricultural growth” in poorer areas (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 43). In addition, gender disparities have diminished as female wages have been rising as “traditional semi-feudal relations in agriculture” have been weakened under the impact of the improved agricultural technology (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 43, 51, 55-58, 60-63). The Green Revolution-driven global decline in the relative price of foodgrains has been a major force for poverty reduction, particularly in Asia, for the obvious reason that the poor spend a much higher portion of their income on foodgrains than other income groups. Hanumantha Rao vividly describes the “miserable” working conditions for migrant labor in India, their exploitation by employers and middlemen, and their declining income share in “areas undergoing rapid technological change.” However, “despite the hardships and exploitation, the incomes of migrant labour are higher than they would have been able to earn without migration” (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 52 & 54). In the “process of migration, the labour has become more skillful, enterprising, and has considerably improved its staying power on account of rise in its income. This has enhanced its capacity to fight against injustices” (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 55).

It is important to note that “among initial conditions conducive to pro-poor growth, literacy plays a notably positive role” (Datt and Ravallion 1999). Datt and Ravallion found that “the same variables that promoted growth in average consumption also helped reduce poverty” (Datt and Ravallion 1996). The higher agricultural yields of the Green Revolution were pro-poor in that they “reduced absolute poverty in rural India, both by raising smallholder productivity and by increasing real agricultural wages.” These benefits were not “confined to those near the poverty line — the poorest also benefited” (Ravallion and Datt 1995). Thanks to the efficiacy of these agricultural technologies, economic growth did not have to be sacrificed in order for there to be benefits for the poor. In fact, “there was no sign of tradeoffs between growth and pro-poor distribution” (Datt and Ravallion 1996). On the debate on whether there has been rising inequality as a result of globalization, Martin Ravallion is often seen as one who supports the view of increasing inequality. However, he also finds that “from the point if view of the poor,” income distribution “has not been deteriorating in the 1990s” (Ravallion 2001, 1807).

Population Growth

One hates to imagine all the famine, disease and death that would have resulted if these spectacular yield increases had not happened, or the destruction of wildlife habitat from desperately hungry people trying to grow food for themselves and their families (Hanumantha Rao 1994, 161-163, 189). “Some estimates of land savings due to all past research efforts and agricultural intensification amount to more than 400 million ha. Mineral fertilizers may have provided 30-50% of these savings and have therefore made a major contribution to the preservation of tropical rainforests and biodiversity” (Norse 2003, see also Pinstrup-Andersen, 2003).

It is generally recognized by demographers that regularized and improved food supply is one of a constellation of development outcomes which lead to low infant death rates which in time lead to lower fertility rates. For about thirty years after World War II, death rates fell faster than birth rates – the population growth rate is the difference between the two, birth rates minus death rates – causing population growth rates reaching about 2.3% per year by the early 1970s. Since the mid-1970s, birth rates have been falling faster than death rates, slowing population growth which will likely lead to a leveling of population at about 9 billion by the mid twenty-first century and possibly even initiate a long term decline. Whatever environmental problems (as well as those of poverty and hunger) we face today, they will be greatly compounded unless modern agronomy is able to continue to facilitate sustainable increases in yields using the technologies that are increasingly being opposed in the name of protecting the environment.

Decrease in Hunger, Increase in Height

The Green Revolution technology in rice involved HYVs (high yielding varieties) of rice with a significantly shorter growing season, allowing the farmer to plant more than one crop per year, thus increasing output both by higher yields and more crops. The seeds generally came as part of a package, along with fertilizer and pesticides and often with access to water. Plants, like all living organisms, need nutrients to grow. Higher yields require more nutrient input no matter what the crop is. In effect, the Green Revolution turned tens or even hundreds of millions of peasant subsistence agriculturalists into mini agribusinesses buying inputs and selling outputs to pay for inputs and to secure a small profit. There were environmental costs from more intensive, sometimes year-round planting and population growth. For example, in an island like Java, with 120 million people in an area the size of Wisconsin, soil erosion and pesticide contamination of the groundwater were and are problems. IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs using a variety of strategies for pest control, including the use of predator insects such as spiders to help to control crop-eating insects, have helped to reduce pesticide use in many areas, but the task is often difficult and not always successful. Disease resistant varieties of rice have probably been more effective in protecting the crop than IPM, but a multiplicity of strategies for crop protection has merit. An IPM program for cabbage in central Java was teaching farmers to “scout” for bugs, count them and only spray when they reached a certain density instead of once a week. When I asked a farmer not in the program and spraying by the calendar, what he would say if I told him that a farmer across the valley was spraying less than half the number of times that he was and getting the same output, he responded that he wouldn’t believe me. The very success of the Green Revolution package of technologies has made it difficult to make even minor adjustments that benefit the environment. The speed at which “tradition”-bound small farmers adopted the HYVs in paddies literally everywhere it could be grown, surprised even the most optimistic among us. The farmer, having experienced the lower yields and more frequent crop loss of traditional agriculture, was not easily convinced to even slightly modify the technology package that had so dramatically transformed the local food supply and decreased hunger and malnutrition. Those of us who have witnessed this transition in Asia and through time, have little doubt about the overall accuracy of the statistics which show an absolute and proportional decrease in hunger and malnutrition and increase in height that is readily observable throughout most of Asia (for example, see Morgan 2000 for China).

Central to the anti-modern agronomy mythology is the belief that the Green Revolution technologies have led to a vast increase in mono cropping, worsened the nutritional quality of the human diet and fostered a mentality which has been pejoratively called “monocultures of the mind” (Shiva 1993). If Shiva thought about what she was saying and checked the data on health in India, she might have trouble explaining the following data cited by Nanda:

Annual Life expectancy went from 44 years in 1960 to 61.6 years in 1995. Infant mortality rate declined from 165 to 73 per 1000 births from 1960 to 1995. Percentage of underweight children declined from 71 in 1960 to 53 in 1995. Adult literacy went up from 34 percent in 1960 to 52 percent in 1995 (Nanda 2003, 272 citing UNDP 1998).

Rice has had an association with monoculture long before the Green Revolution. It might therefore come as surprise to many that “rice harvested area (hectares under rice multiplied by the number of croppings per year) has declined as a percentage of total crop harvested area in nearly all Asian rice-growing economies since 1970” (Dawe 2003, 33). For example, rice in China went from a 0.24 share of total crop area harvested in 1970 to 0.18 in 2001 while Vietnam went from a 0.75 to a 0.62 share in 2001 in the same period in becoming the second largest rice exporter in the world to Thailand which went from 0.64 share to 0.57 share. “Thus, if some farmers increasingly specialized in rice, others must have diversified into other crops — and done so over a larger harvested area. Despite a near doubling of the total rice harvest, rice is now less dominant in Asian agriculture than it was before the Green Revolution” (Dawe 2003, 33). Stated differently, “overall cropping diversity — the variety of different crops planted — also seems to have increased since the beginning of the Green Revolution … farmers in most Asian countries plant a wider variety of different crops today than was the case in 1970” (Dawe 2003, 33). Contrary to popular misconceptions and consistent with our analysis above, Dawe finds that these increases in production have resulted in a decline in child malnutrition. “While the incidence of child malnutrition still stood at a dismal 31% in 1995, this reflected a reduction of one-third from the 46.5% recorded in 1970” (Dawe 2003, 33, see also Smith and Haddad 2001).

We have a variety of technologies to make all forms of agriculture more environmentally sustainable if we have the right incentives to promote them and can continue the research necessary to increase output without bringing large amounts of new land under cultivation. The task of development economists is to find lower cost affordable ways of adapting these technologies to allow the poorer farmers of the world to both feed their families and preserve their environment.

# There other less expensive ways of using genomics for improved plant breeding. “In 2002, the National Plant Genome Initiative introduced the concepts of `reference species’ and of using the revealed commonality of life to spawn `translational agriculture.'” Namely “focusing mapping resources on a few carefully chosen plant species could yield information and clues that are transferable to many other plant species.” Once again, there is benefit and understanding from the fact that “the genetic sequences common to all plant genomes do not need to be mapped repeatedly. With the concurrent advent of computer networks and coordination, the work of plant genome mapping can be decentralized across many labs and reconstructed in shared databases. Verification and testing across species for shared genetic traits can further advance understanding and subsequently plant improvement” (Gardner and Payne 2003).

Thomas R. DeGregori is a Professor of Economics, University of Houston and author of Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment, Cato Institute, 2002 and the recently published book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, Iowa State Press: A Blackwell Scientific Publisher, 2003 from which much of the material here is taken.

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