the green revolution

There is no doubt about it – there are a lot of people in the world: more than 7 billion. The sheer number of humans is probably even too much for our brains to process. Still, we’re all here and more people are coming joining the global population and every day.

Feeding so many people is a daunting task. So much so that food security is one of the most prominent issues facing the world today – despite the fact that output is greater than ever before. Successful increases in output are retarded by issues with food waste, problems with logistics and the unequal distribution of resources. However, the biggest issue preventing lasting change is the use of unsustainable production practices like monoculture, the irrigation of arid and/or semi-arid locations and high chemical inputs. For true food security to be achieved alternatives that are better adaptable to dynamic conditions are required.

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Norman Borlaug   Photo credit: nytimes.com

That is not to say that the evolution of the current system is not a biological and technological wonder.  It is a result of the Green Revolution which started the 1940s. It was during this time that Norman Borlaug, a plant breeder from the University of Minnesota, developed a high yielding wheat variety that revolutionized crop production throughout the world. The new varieties were not sensitive to hours of sunlight each day which allowed farmers to grow wheat anywhere, had more above ground mass which increased yields and produced shorter plants so that more of the plant’s energy could be focused on the usable grain production.

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A comparison of dwarf and full-size wheat varieties Photo credit: http://www.lsuagcenter.com

These genetic improvements coupled with the use of newly developed irrigation systems, altered farm management techniques, hybrids and chemical pesticides and fertilizers resulted in unprecedented increases in output. For example, following the introduction of high-yielding wheat, Mexico was able to go from importing half its wheat in 1944 to exporting a 1/2 million tons of wheat in 1964. The success was so great that shortly after high producing rice varieties (with IR8 being the most notable) were introduced in other places throughout the world. The increase is estimated to be so great that these changes are credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation. It is also credited with allowing the population to continue to balloon out of control.

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Photo credit: yubanet.com

Depending on the person, this is a good thing or a bad thing. Many find that humans are the best thing in the world and that continued population growth can result in improved economic climates, expanded intellectual capital and ultimately an overall betterment of the world. Others see the human presence as a burden that the world cannot truly bear. With a continuing world hunger crisis and severe weather conditions across the globe, it is hard to argue for the former.

Still, continuing efforts are being made to improve the genetic potential of seeds. There are 16 centers throughout the world focusing on the continuing development of improved crops including maize, sorghum, and beans. Unfortunately, this has led to a rapid decrease in genetic diversity and it has resulted in plants that are only able to survive with human intervention and high inputs. This has and will continue to cause serious issues as a result of droughts, floods, pests and/or disease (ex. bananas). Furthermore, many of the inputs used are non-renewable (fossil fuel, water). There are also rapidly changing consumer demands as third world countries develop and demand lifestyle choices comparable to those enjoyed by westerners (ex. higher rates of meat consumption), environmental degradation concerns, a limited amount of arable land, and unchecked population growth threatens food security.

To address these issues, there is a call for a second Green Revolution that is based on sustainability. The new revolution is aimed at efforts to reduce dependence on synthetic inputs and reduce the use of non-renewable water sources. Success in this respect can be achieved with the use of nitrogen fixing cover crops, crop rotation, alternative cropping styles, reduced tillage and farm diversification. There is also a need for a Green Revolution in Africa in order to focus efforts on improving the output of common crops grown on the continent. This would also help to reduce the yield gap that plagues many African countries.