Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Editorial: With the death of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a reflection on the Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug first saw extreme hunger in Mexico during the mid-20th century and knew he had to do something.  He went on to improve crop yields by breeding wheat varieties with huge seed-heads that would not topple under their weight.  

His work produced a staggering 6-fold increase in Mexican wheat production, led to similar improvements in India and Pakistan, and started the “Green Revolution,” which helped feed millions of the world’s hungry.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug died September 12, at the age of 95, and reflections on his legacy have peppered the media, some positive, some negative, and some balanced.  One particularly harsh criticism argued that the Green Revolution undermined biodiversity, created a less nutritious diet, exacerbated climate change, increased inequality, and was a modern form of colonialism. 

To put Borlaug’s work in perspective, I spoke with David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell.  Pimentel recalled that he and Borlaug published a scientific paper together in the 1970s, which highlighted the importance of conserving soil and preventing erosion.  The two scientists agreed that a serious worldwide malnutrition problem existed then and continues today. 

However, Pimentel and Borlaug disagreed on the use of pesticides and sparred over the issue in the scientific literature.  In the 1970s, Borlaug argued that banning DDT would reduce America’s crop yields by 50%.  But Pimentel argued that at the time, only 20% of fields were sprayed, so stopping the practice could not possibly reduce yields to that degree.  More recently, Pimentel’s research showed that the US could reduce pesticide use by 50% without any decrease in yields or cosmetic appeal.

“There were good aspects and not so good aspects of the Green Revolution,” Pimentel says.  

Looking ahead, enough calories are already produced worldwide to feed the world’s population, Pimentel says.  But we feed 250 million metric tons of grain to livestock – and that could feed 800 million vegetarians. Reducing our consumption of meat could help the world hunger situation, he says, noting that the US produces 9 billion chickens, 60 million hogs, and 100 million cattle each year.

Clearly, the Green Revolution saved millions of people from starvation.  But today the world is in a new place, and moving forward, we have to reassess our knowledge, resources, and values. 

In considering the lessons learned from the Green Revolution, I ask: Was the problem a Western one-solution-fits-all approach?  Is the solution more local control over food production?

No comments:

Post a Comment