Food is an essential part of our lives, which is why the way it is grown, processed an transported is worth understanding and improving. Broadly, the food industry comprises a complex network of activities pertaining to the supply, consumption, and catering of food products and services across the world.
The term Green Revolution refers to the renovation of agricultural practices beginning in Mexico in the 1940s. Because of its success in producing more agricultural products there, Green Revolution technologies spread worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s, significantly increasing the amount of calories produced per acre of agriculture.
The beginnings of the Green Revolution are often attributed to Norman Borlaug, an American scientist interested in agriculture. In the 1940s, he began conducting research in Mexico and developed new disease resistance high-yield varieties of wheat. By combining Borlaug's wheat varieties with new mechanized agricultural technologies, Mexico was able to produce more wheat than was needed by its own citizens, leading to its becoming an exporter of wheat by the 1960s. Prior to the use of these varieties, the country was importing almost half of its wheat supply.
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Due to the success of the Green Revolution in Mexico, its technologies spread worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s. The United States for instance, imported about half of its wheat in the 1940s but after using Green Revolution technologies, it became self-sufficient in the 1950s and became an exporter by the 1960s.
In order to continue using Green Revolution technologies to produce more food for a growing population worldwide, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as well as many government agencies around the world funded increased research. In 1963 with the help of this funding, Mexico formed an international research institution called The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
Countries all over the world in turn benefited from the Green Revolution work conducted by Borlaug and this research institution. India for example was on the brink of mass famine in the early 1960s because of its rapidly growing population. Borlaug and the Ford Foundation then implemented research there and they developed a new variety of rice, IR8, that produced more grain per plant when grown with irrigation and fertilizers. Today, India is one of the world's leading rice producers and IR8 rice usage spread throughout Asia in the decades following the rice's development in India.
Plant Technologies of the Green Revolution
The crops developed during the Green Revolution were high yield varieties - meaning they were domesticated plants bred specifically to respond to fertilizers and produce an increased amount of grain per acre planted.
The terms often used with these plants that make them successful are harvest index, photosynthate allocation, and insensitivity to day length. The harvest index refers to the above ground weight of the plant. During the Green Revolution, plants that had the largest seeds were selected to create the most production possible. After selectively breeding these plants, they evolved to all have the characteristic of larger seeds. These larger seeds then created more grain yield and a heavier above ground weight.
This larger above ground weight then led to an increased photosynthate allocation. By maximizing the seed or food portion of the plant, it was able to use photosynthesis more efficiently because the energy produced during this process went directly to the food portion of the plant.
Finally, by selectively breeding plants that were not sensitive to day length, researchers like Borlaug were able to double a crop's production because the plants were not limited to certain areas of the globe based solely on the amount of light available to them.
Impacts of the Green Revolution
Since fertilizers are largely what made the Green Revolution possible, they forever changed agricultural practices because the high yield varieties developed during this time cannot grow successfully without the help of fertilizers.
Irrigation also played a large role in the Green Revolution and this forever changed the areas where various crops can be grown. For instance before the Green Revolution, agriculture was severely limited to areas with a significant amount of rainfall, but by using irrigation, water can be stored and sent to drier areas, putting more land into agricultural production - thus increasing nationwide crop yields.
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In addition, the development of high yield varieties meant that only a few species of say, rice started being grown. In India for example there were about 30,000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, today there are around ten - all the most productive types. By having this increased crop homogeneity though the types were more prone to disease and pests because there were not enough varieties to fight them off. In order to protect these few varieties then, pesticide use grew as well.
Finally, the use of Green Revolution technologies exponentially increased the amount of food production worldwide. Places like India and China that once feared famine have not experienced it since implementing the use of IR8 rice and other food varieties.
Criticism of the Green Revolution
Along with the benefits gained from the Green Revolution, there have been several criticisms. The first is that the increased amount of food production has led to overpopulation worldwide.
The second major criticism is that places like Africa have not significantly benefited from the Green Revolution. The major problems surrounding the use of these technologies here though are a lack of infrastructure, governmental corruption, and insecurity in nations.
Despite these criticisms though, the Green Revolution has forever changed the way agriculture is conducted worldwide, benefiting the people of many nations in need of increased food production.
The industrial Green Revolution has not, and cannot, feed the world. Instead of helping people feed themselves,
it has created a cycle of dependency. In a world of 6.5 billion people, some 923 million people are seriously
undernourished (FAO SOFI Report 2007) with more than two billion people suffering from micronutrient
malnutrition, or 'hidden hunger' caused by inadequate and non-diversified diets (FAO SOFI Report 2002).
25,000 men, women and children die each day from starvation (World Health Report 2000). Experts project
that the world food supply will need to double again over the next 40 years to feed our planet's population.
Based upon the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and irrigation, the industrial Green Revolution worked only
as long as fuel was cheap and water was abundant. The transitory benefits of increased short-term food
production have come at too great an ecological price as carbon is extracted from the soil and emitted as
global-warming carbon dioxide in our air instead of remaining in the soil to nurture crops. Petroleum-based
fertilizers and chemical pesticides have also polluted our water and poisoned our environment, food, and
Fortunately, the latest scientific approaches in organic agriculture, supported by a body of replicated research
data and economic analyses, offer affordable and quickly adaptable ways to implement farming systems that
can quickly move us out of our current crisis.
Section Three: Green Revolution Production Benefits Have Declined and Societal Costs
The old Green Revolution was never very green. Since the 1940s, the fossil fuel-based Green Revolution has
greatly increased the production of a few selected commodity grain crops such as wheat, corn, soybeans
and rice, achieved through high-input, monoculture cropping practices. The unintended consequence of this
Green Revolution experiment is that the focus on chemical crop fertility inputs, pest protection, and weed
control has increased toxicity in the environment and degraded the planet's finite soil and water resources
(Khan et al. 2007).
Worldwide, 1.9 billion hectares are significantly degraded. Soils are less fertile, erosion has greatly increased,
and breakdowns in agro-ecological functions have resulted in poor crop yields, land abandonment, and
deforestation. (IAASTD 2008)
Furthermore, chemically-based conventional farming methods lead to human health risks.
Pesticides have damaged wildlife, poisoned farm workers, and created long-term health problems such as
cancers and birth defects (Lichtenberg, 1992). Even in the U.S., more than half of the nation's drinking water
wells contained detectable amounts of nitrate and seven percent have detectable amounts of pesticides. (US
There is a significant health risk from pesticide residue on the foods we eat. Conventionally grown food in
the heavily regulated United States has 2/3 more pesticide residue than organically grown food. As soils on
organic farming systems continually rid themselves of pesticides from prior industrial agricultural practices,
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the pesticide residue gap between conventional and organic will grow even larger. (Delate et al. 2006; Baker
et al. 2002). Preschool children in the Pacific Northwest eating a conventional food diet had eight times the
organophosphorus pesticide exposure compared to children of parents who provided organic diets. (Curl et
al. 2003; Lu et al. 2005) In countries with little or no regulatory enforcement, the situation of people eating
food contaminated with pesticide residue can be much worse.
A 2008 research review - commissioned in partnership with the United Nations and prepared by 400 world
experts and signed by 57 nations - strongly rejects industrial farming as a viable approach to address problems
of soaring food prices, hunger, social injustice and environmental degradation in the developing world.
(IAASTD 2008). Around the world, one- to five-million farm workers are estimated to suffer pesticide poisoning
every year, and at least 20,000 die annually from exposure, many of them in developing countries. (World
Bank: Bangladesh: Overusing Pesticides in Farming January 9, 2007)
The United States is burdened with an estimated $12 billion annual health and environmental cost from pesticide
use, (Pimentel et al. 2005) and estimated annual public and environmental health costs related to soil
erosion of about $45 billion (Pimentel et al. 1995). But the damage transcends environmental soil loss. What
cannot be economically calculated is the cost of destroying future generations' ability to produce enough
food for their survival.
When all costs are calculated the Green Revolution is not cost-efficient. While centralized, industrial agricultural
methods reduce labor costs by substituting herbicides, insecticides and synthetically-produced fertilizers
as well as farm machinery for application and crop maintenance, the energy costs are much higher than
in organic farming systems. A study of Rodale Institute's FST from 1981 to 2002 shows that fossil energy
inputs for organic corn production were about 30% lower than for conventionally produced corn. (Pimentel et
al. 2005; Pimentel 2006)
The negative consequences of the Green Revolution led the 2008 United Nations research review to strongly
reject industrial farming as a viable approach to address problems of soaring food prices, hunger, social
injustice and environmental degradation in the developing world. (IAASTD 2008)
High-quality seed of varieties with
improved characteristics is likely to play
an important role in securing the future
supply of food. Broad-scale implementation
of innovative technologies, such
as hybrid breeding and plant biotechnology,
would go a long way towards
increasing and securing the harvests of
our most important crops. For example,
varieties of crop plants whose resistance
to drought or extreme temperatures
has been strengthened - through gene
technology or by other means - could
contribute to securing the harvest in
the face of climate change. Researchers
in the Australian state of Victoria have
run successful field trials of geneticallymanipulated
wheat lines that are capable
of delivering stable yields under conditions
of water stress. In the 2006/07 season,
drought in Victoria destroyed an
estimated 70 percent of the wheat harvest.
Climate scientists predict average
temperature increases for the Australian
continent of between one and six
degrees Celsius by 2070, accompanied
by reduced precipitation. The German
Association of Biotechnology Industries
(DIB) expects the first drought-tolerant
wheat variety to be brought onto themarket in five to ten years. For maize,
this could happen in two to five years.
Authorities in the USA have already
received a registration application for
Plant biotechnology is also likely to contribute
to a resource-efficient increase
in the productivity of food from animal
husbandry. In future, ruminants might
be fed more easily-digestible grasses
with modified fructan and lignin contents.
This would reduce the amount of
climate-damaging digestive gases they
produce, and at the same time, increase
energy yield. Even by 2020, the world's
population is expected to be consuming
120 million tonnes more milk than it
did ten years ago. It will therefore be
essential to increase the efficiency of
milk production if methane emissions
by the world's milking herds are to be
reduced, or at least kept under control.
A cow capable of producing ten litres of
milk a day emits about 40 grammes of
methane for every litre. If productivity is
raised to 30 litres of milk a day, then the
emission rate sinks to 15 grammes per
litre, because the proportion of the cow's
total food intake expended on basal
metabolism decreases, thus improving
efficiency. For a four-fold increase in
the amount of milk, a cow only needs a
2.8-times greater energy ration in its feed.
Increasing income levels in developing
countries mean that more and more
people expect to be able to consume
animal-derived foods, so this type of
efficiency gain is essential if the environmental
and climatic impacts of animal
husbandry are to be kept under control.
The twin pressures of climate change
and dwindling fossil energy resources
will propel agriculture to the forefront
in supplying the world's population with
renewable energy and sustainable supplies
of raw materials. Forecasts indicate
that between 20 and 30 percent of the
agricultural surface might be dedicated
to producing biomass by 2025. It follows
then that this area will either be
lost to food production - or at best only
available to a limited extent. This means
that biomass production also desperately
needs innovative approaches if the
conflict between the tank and the plate
is to be relieved.
It is sometimes said that the Gene Revolution will replace the Green
Revolution. But this will not happen until and unless this mechanism enables
breeders to produce "dynamic" gains in generations of varieties. Until such
time, the Gene Revolution's GM products can only complement conventional
Green Revolution breeding. This complementarity takes the form of
installing "static" GM products on the dynamic generations of varieties
produced by conventional Green Revolution methods.^
* The Roundup Ready product produced by Monsanto has been "installed" on approximately
1,500 soybean varieties produced by 150 seed production companies