Friday, 4 April 2014

Norman Borlaug and the “Green Revolution”: a centenary

In the light of the IPCC's report on climate change
Futures Forum: A resilient world @ Costing the Earth
Futures Forum: Transition Network: Sir David King on climate change as "the biggest diplomatic challenge of all time"
Futures Forum: The impacts of climate change are “severe, pervasive and irreversible” says the latest assessment from the IPCC.

... we need to think about the impact on food:
Climate change will 'lead to battles for food', says head of World Bank | Environment | The Guardian
World Bank head warns of conflict and social unrest due to climate change - Blue and Green Tomorrow
Frame climate change as a food issue, experts say | Environment | theguardian.com

Is the answer further intensification of food production?

Last month saw the centenary of the birth of the 'father of the green revolution':

Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?
The work of the agricultural scientist who helped launch the 'green revolution' continues to divide opinion long after his death

Tuesday 1 April 2014 
Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel peace prize for his role in developing high-yield crops. Photograph: AP

Read the plaudits heaped on US agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug by presidents, politicians, statesmen and the great and the good of America's industrial and commercial establishment and you could be forgiven for thinking he was a saint or even the god of American farmers. At the very least, he appears to be one of the most remarkable human beings to have ever walked the earth, a man who had created a utopia and eradicated poverty.

Here is just some of the praise showered on him, mostly in his later years or after his death in 2009: "He is an American hero and a world icon"; "He was history's greatest human being"; "He saved 1 billion people from death by starvation"; "He spearheaded a scientific revolution inagriculture"; "he brought human peace and progress"; "He was a true humanitarian"; "He helped provide bread for a hungry world"; "He saved more lives than any man"; "He saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being ploughed down"; "He is one of the great men of our age." ; "A towering scientist".

Last week, the 100th anniversary of his birth, was declared Norman Borlaug week by international plant scientists and was marked by the unveiling of a lifesize statue of the Iowan scientist in the US congress building. A Norman Borlaug medallion was awarded to the research institution that grew from his work in Mexico 60 years ago, and the date of national agriculture day in the US – 25 March – is in honour of the man's birthday. There was a Norman Borlaug lecture, a Norman Borlaug dialogue, a Norman Borlaug summit on wheat and food security in Mexico and there is the annual world food prize, whose idea was Borlaug's.

So what exactly did Borlaug do all those years ago to deserve such praise, and does he still warrant it today? Here opinions widely differ...

The green revolution offered the prospect that postwar hunger could be averted, people could move out of poverty and that rural societies – just like new wheat varieties – could grow strong and thrive on giant fields of high-yielding crops.
As we know, that never happened – and by the 1980s doubts were being aired. According to the critics, the green revolution varieties undoubtedly had averted food shortages temporarily, but, said his obituarist Christopher Reed, they had not averted poverty. In fact, they might have added to it.
"Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug's new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.
Not only did Borlaug's 'high-yielding' seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers," he wrote.
The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: "Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose 'green revolution' wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million."
Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society? | John Vidal | Global development | theguardian.com

Here's a piece written five years ago:

Norman Borlaug: Saint Or Sinner ?

The father of the "green revolution" in agriculture, Norman Borlaug, recently passed away due to cancer, at the age of 95.

Borlaug didn't approve of the "green revolution" moniker, dubbing it "a miserable term" (what he would have made of "The Agrichemical Revolutionary" isn't clear) but his work has had a far-reaching impact on the course of human development.

Borlaug's work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and (amongst numerous other awards) the 1977 US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

Criticisms of the Green Revolution

Borlaug's "green revolution" has been criticised for decades by a wide variety of different groups for all sorts of reasons - ranging from making farmers dependent on a range of industrial products to soil and aquifer depletion to creating a food production system that is dependent on a finite supply of fossil fuel based inputs. One memorable description of this combined school of thought came from Zaid Hassan, who noted "there are so many criticisms around the current global food system that for a while I started wondering if in fact it had already collapsed and I was studying a post-apocalyptic food system".

Input-intensive monoculture farming - The primary criticism of "green revolution" style industrial agriculture is that it results in farmers becoming dependent on a range of industrial inputs - farming machinery, fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation equipment, seeds and even capital (debt) to purchase these inputs - often resulting in small scale farmers being pushed off the land (particularly if they are unable to repay their debtsduring a bad season) and resulting in large scale agribusinesses that produce monoculture crops that are prone to pests and diseases unless large amounts of pesicide are applied. Critics from the developing world often note that the profits from this transformation seem to be reaped by multinational corporations like Monsanto, Dupont, Cargill and Archers Daniels Midland rather than the farmers growing the crops (who often saw crop prices fall as yields increased) - and that their national food security was now dependent on foreign suppliers.

Side effects of fertilisers and pesticides - The side effects of large scale fertiliser and pesticide use are also pointed to by Borlaug's critics, noting increased rates of cancerand other health problems in rural areas and damage to the ecosystems that these inputs drain into (for example, the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico).

Water and soil depletion - As a result of modern irrigation practices, aquifers in places like India (once Borlaug's greatest triumph) and the US midwest have become depleted. Soil depletion is also a problem - since the 1880s almost half of the topsoil of the Great Plains of North America has disappeared.

Genetically modified crops - The risks associated with genetically modified crops - the next frontier for increasing crop yields in the wake of the first green revolution, which Borlaug dubbed "The Gene Revolution" - remain hotly debated, with critics raising objections based on food safety issues, ecological concerns and economic concerns (centering on the application of patents and intellectual property rights to engineered seeds).

Fossil fuel dependence - The inputs for green revolution style industrial agriculture are almost entirely derived from fossil fuels. Production of nitrogen fertiliser via the Haber process (mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea) consumes between 3 and 5% of world natural gas production. Farm machinery like tractors and irrigation pumps consume fuel, and tractor tyres and plastic irrigation pipes are made from petrochemicals, as are pesticides. Writers like Richard Manning (The Oil We Eat), Dale Allen Pfeiffer (Eating Fossil Fuels) and Glenn Morton (The Connection Between Food Supply and Energy: What Is the Role of Oil Price?) have argued that the green revolution will prove unsustainable once we have passed their peak production point for fossil fuels.

Borlaug dismissed the claims of most critics. Of environmental lobbyists he said, "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Borlaug was also indignant about arguments in favour of natural fertilisers like cow manure rather than inorganic fertilisers. Using manure would require a massive expansion of the lands required for grazing the cattle, he said, and consume much of the extra grain that would be produced. He claimed that such techniques could support no more than 4 billion people worldwide, well under the current global population of almost 7 billion.

This point is still being debated, with researchers at the University of Michigan and University of California claiming that organic farming techniques can indeed feed the world. We can also increase food production by making better use of urban land (something "guerilla gardeners" are fond of - and similar ideas are being put into practice by large scale tree planting programs in India).

Even if we don't fully take the organic agriculture path, some of the objections based on fossil fuel depletion would seem to be solvable. If we shift completely to renewable energy sources for power production, we can eliminate a large proportion of our natural gas and coal usage, freeing the remaining reserves for agricultural applications and extending the lifespan of green revolution techniques far out into the future. Whether or not we choose to do so quickly enough remains to be seen.

Related Articles :

Peak Energy - The Fat Man, The Population Bomb And The Green Revolution

Grist - Thoughts on the legacy of Norman Borlaug

Wall Street Journal - Borlaug's Revolution

Reason - Billions Served

Worldchanging - Postcards from the Global Food System (Part 1Part 2Part 3)

Peak Energy: Norman Borlaug: Saint Or Sinner ?

Here's a very sharp critique of the world which Borlaug inhabited:

Capitalism’s Running Out Of Water — And Everything Else
California is in its third year of a severe drought. Some scientists believe this will be the driest year in the last five hundred. Among other measures for dealing with the water shortage, the state has announced it will not provide subsidized irrigation water from dams this year.

The large-scale capitalist agriculture model touted by Norman Borlaug devotees (like Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey) is based on so-called “Green Revolution” seeds. These selectively bred seeds — “high yield varieties” — produce considerably higher output than traditional varieties, but also require much higher inputs of irrigation water and chemical fertilizer to produce those outputs. For this reason, corporate agribusiness critic Frances Moore Lappe prefers to call them “high response varieties.” They are far less hardy than traditional varieties — particularly those developed over the centuries by native populations to suit local conditions in the Third World — in the face of drought and other marginal environmental conditions.

As such, they are suitable primarily for large-scale, export-oriented cash crop operations — the sort which are carried on mainly on land stolen from former peasant cultivators and enclosed into giant plantations by local landed oligarchies in collusion with transnational agribusiness corporations. They require large-scale inputs of subsidized water — the kind which tends to be directed disproportionately to large agribusiness operations on such land.

Meanwhile, state-subsidized and -protected fracking operations require billions of gallons of water, depleting aquifers in some of the most drought-stricken areas like California and Texas. And to top everything off, government subsidies to fossil fuel production and long-distance transportation (like the cross-country shipping of subsidized agribusiness produce from California) encourage the generation of the greenhouse gases that contribute to the drought.

Corporate capitalism is built on subsidized inputs, and profitable in large part because of them. It achieved growth in the 20th century through the extensive addition of subsidized inputs, like subsidized fossil fuels and large tracts of cheap land previously preempted (stolen) by the state, rather than the intensive approach of using existing inputs more efficiently.

A basic law of economics is that when you subsidize an input, people tend to use more of it. And businesses will tend to substitute that artificially cheap input for other inputs. The distorted price system gives an artificial advantage to firms most heavily dependent on that input. For example, subsidies to long-distance shipping infrastructure tend to benefit the firms with the largest market areas and the largest-scale production facilities shipping their output the furthest distance. It makes them artificially competitive against smaller, more localized — and more efficient — forms of production. It creates artificial economies of scale at levels where they would otherwise have leveled off, leading to an economy of artificially large firms serving centralized markets.

At the same time, such responses to the availability of inputs at less than the cost of providing them means demand for them outstrips the government’s ability to provide them. The state exhausts its fiscal resources trying to keep up with demand, and when it reaches fiscal exhaustion, businesses most heavily reliant on the subsidized inputs hit the wall of resource depletion and spiking input prices.

So we see subsidies to superhighways and airports generating further demand for them, and the building of new local freeway systems to “relieve congestion” generating even more congestion, leading to a situation where the state is fiscally exhausted, demand outstrips supply, and the need for maintenance of existing highways and bridges is four times the revenue appropriated to fix them. And we see giant, inefficient agribusiness operations that are heavily dependent on water, using up the water till there’s no more.

The end result is that this model of state-subsidized capitalism has built-in crisis tendencies which will destroy it. That means a radical relocalization of manufacturing and agriculture, and a radical shortening of supply and distribution chains, and small producers that make efficient use of resources. The current model of corporate capitalism, allied with the state, far from being a natural or inevitable state of affairs, is a historical epoch with a beginning and an end. It’s digging its own grave.

Some related comment:

Agribusiness, Food & Water - FMO
Adam Scow, California Campaigns Director for Food and Water Watch, said, “It's unfair for the Governor to make Californians subsidize water use and abuse by corporate agribusiness and oil companies, especially in a drought and in a bad economy." 
Map reveals tunnels will supply water for agribusiness, fracking : Indybay
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the CSIRO had cautioned against attributing any particular weather event to climate change: ''Australia is a land of droughts and flooding rains. Always has been, always will be,'' he said.
UN climate report warns permanent change has already begun - Agriculture - General - News - Stock & Land

"[W]hen hunter-gatherers with growing populations depleted the stocks of game and wild foods across the Near East, they were forced to introduce agriculture. But agriculture brought much longer hours of work and a less rich diet than hunter-gatherers enjoyed. Further population growth among shifting slash-and-burn farmers led to shorter fallow periods, falling yields and soil erosion. Plowing and fertilizers were introduced to deal with these problems - but once again involved longer hours of work and degradation of soil resources." (Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, Allen and Unwin, 1965, expanded and updated in Population and Technology, Blackwell, 1980.).

Intensive farming - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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