The End of Plenty
Never has there been a phrase as rich in irony as “the green revolution”. Today it evokes images of wind farms and solar panels and a society committed to slashing its carbon emissions. But as National Geographic writer Joel Bourne explains in his book The End of Plenty, the term was coined in the 1950s, after the celebrated agronomist Norman Borlaug invented short-stemmed wheat. And it would have unintended consequences. Such consequences are all the more important given the crisis that Bourne argues we are facing: “The world is running out of food.”
Last year, two billion people suffered “hidden hunger”, most of them women and children, who become vulnerable to blindness, stunted growth, cognitive problems and premature death. We are not growing enough grains to stockpile. Not so long ago, in 2007, the world’s grain reserves fell to a 61-day supply. We are also consuming too much meat. Cattle feed is an especially inefficient use of grains, says Bourne.
But despite the lessons of climate change, water shortages and industrial-scale farming of single crops, “we are [still] literally farming ourselves out of food”. Not a great idea when the latest global population projection is for 9.6 billion people by 2050.
Until Norman Borlaug was sent to Mexico by his employer, chemicals giant DuPont, wheat crops grew tall and fragile. The musical Oklahoma! even celebrated the “waving wheat, sure smells sweet” that undulated in the wind. But a disease known as wheat rust was destroying crops across Mexico, causing bread shortages. Borlaug, adapting some Japanese innovations, developed a shorter strain of wheat, brimming with seeds.
The scientist didn’t just mean well, he did great good. “Within a few decades, Borlaug and his fellow researchers would do more to vanquish world hunger than anyone before or since,” writes Bourne.
Even though the number of people on the planet has nearly tripled since 1950, the high-yielding seeds and chemical intensive farming systems they pioneered have helped slash the number of chronically malnourished from about 30 percent of the global population in 1950 to 12 percent today.
In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel peace prize. But there was a rub – there always is – to such technological triumph, to this “green revolution”, and Bourne believes the world’s agricultural industry is now paying a steep price. The new farming techniques required vast amounts of water and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Between 1960 and 2000, the use of fertilisers increased eightfold, with terrible consequences for waterways and water tables. Australia endures some of the consequences, such as algal blooms. Every year, Bourne reports, a “dead zone” of about 5000 square miles (13,000 square kilometres) appears off the Gulf of Mexico, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. No fish can live within it.
In India, where globalisation fetishists boast about the growth of an urban middle class of 160 million, 60 per cent of people still scratch a living from the land and 80 per cent of them live on less than $2 a day. An eight-year study in Punjab – the province that has taken most zealously to the principles of the “green revolution” – found 70 per cent of produce in some vegetable markets was contaminated with pesticides, along with a staggering 97 per cent of rice samples and 53 per cent of milk samples.
The other harmful outcome has been the transformation of farming into an industry. Bourne recalls a well-intentioned United States agricultural secretary, Earl Butz, telling American farmers in 1972 to start planting “fence row to fence row” to maximise output and enable the US to feed a hungry world through sales and aid. On Bourne’s family farm in North Carolina, that meant stripping the brush and undergrowth from the land – all the weedy vegetation that supported an ecosystem and helped maintain the groundwater – to grow wheat.
The earth supports some 50,000 varieties of edible plants but the “green revolution” means moving to giant monocultures, which benefit the multinational corporate farming that is rapidly draining the world of fresh water. About 250 different varieties of crops were grown in Punjab before the revolution; now wheat and cotton almost smother farmlands.
The chemicals they require have such severe effects on humans, such as cancer and chromosomal damage, that they have been banned or severely restricted in the US. And as India’s veteran agricultural activist Vandana Shiva points out, short-stemmed wheat may contain more seed but its short stalk leaves little for livestock to feed on and fewer soil nutrients.
Bourne’s tale of despair does, however, have some bright prospects. Even though some studies show that organic farming yields 12 to 20 times less produce than conventional farming, with some crops the difference is negligible and in most cases organic farming will leave the land more productive for subsequent years. Organic farming is also hardier in drought conditions and uses 45 per cent less energy overall than conventional farming – a serious contribution to the fight against global warming.
Off the Panama coast, deep saltwater aquatic farms are raising fish in natural settings, providing a potentially bountiful source of protein that could help reduce beef consumption and reduce seafood prices.
And countries including Australia, vulnerable to drought, are already learning basic techniques of drip irrigation, already practised in India. It provides farmers with 90 per cent efficiency in water use, rather than the so-called flood irrigation that squanders almost half the water employed in the system.
Bourne’s compelling book presents challenges that are immense but not insurmountable. There are new technologies alongside remarkably effective low-tech pipe-and-drum kits. But we must also accept a shift in mentality – from a world of plenty to a world of enough. PT
Scribe, 416pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Joel Bourne, The End of Plenty". Subscribe here.