The End of Plenty

SUBHEAD: "The Green Revolution - Part 2" will lead the global food crisis.  

By Joel K. Bourne Jr on 24 May 2009 in National Geographic -

[IB Editor's note: This is the closing of a long article available through the link above.]

Image above: The Jolly Green Giant leading the revolution. Graphic by Juan Wilson

 But is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world's food crisis? Last year a massive study called the "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development" concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world's poor.

The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world's 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.

The green revolution's legacy of tainted soil and depleted aquifers is one reason to look for new strategies. So is what author and University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Pollan calls the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods: a dependence on fossil fuels.

Natural gas, for example, is a raw material for nitrogen fertilizers. "The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides," Pollan says.

"That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility." So far, genetic breakthroughs that would free green revolution crops from their heavy dependence on irrigation and fertilizer have proved elusive.

Engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought "has proven a lot harder than they thought," says Pollan. Monsanto's Fraley predicts his company will have drought-tolerant corn in the U.S. market by 2012. But the increased yields promised during drought years are only 6 to 10 percent above those of standard drought-hammered crops.

And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production.

Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India's harshest critic of the green revolution. "I call it monocultures of the mind," she says. "They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution."

Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. "If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need," adds Shiva.

In northern Malawi one project is getting many of the same results as the Millennium Villages project, at a fraction of the cost. There are no hybrid corn seeds, free fertilizers, or new roads here in the village of Ekwendeni. Instead the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project distributes legume seeds, recipes, and technical advice for growing nutritious crops like peanuts, pigeon peas, and soybeans, which enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen while also enriching children's diets.

The program began in 2000 at Ekwendeni Hospital, where the staff was seeing high rates of malnutrition. Research suggested the culprit was the corn monoculture that had left small farmers with poor yields due to depleted soils and the high price of fertilizer. The project's old pickup needs a push to get it going, but soon Boyd Zimba, the project's assistant coordinator, and Zacharia Nkhonya, its food-security supervisor, are rattling down the road, talking about what they see as the downside of the Malawi Miracle.

"First, the fertilizer subsidy cannot last long," says Nkhonya, a compact man with a quick smile. "Second, it doesn't go to everyone. And third, it only comes once a year, while legumes are long-term—soils get improved every year, unlike with fertilizers." At the small village of Encongolweni, a group of two dozen SFHC farmers greet us with a song about the dishes they make from soybeans and pigeon peas.

We sit in their meetinghouse as if at an old-time tent revival, as they testify about how planting legumes has changed their lives. Ackim Mhone's story is typical. By incorporating legumes into his rotation, he's doubled his corn yield on his small plot of land while cutting his fertilizer use in half. "That was enough to change the life of my family," Mhone says, and to enable him to improve his house and buy livestock.

Later, Alice Sumphi, a 67-year-old farmer with a mischievous smile, dances in her plot of young knee-high tomatoes, proudly pointing out that they bested those of the younger men. Canadian researchers found that after eight years, the children of more than 7,000 families involved in the project showed significant weight increases, making a pretty good case that soil health and community health are connected in Malawi.

Which is why the project's research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr, is alarmed that big-money foundations are pushing for a new green revolution in Africa.

"I find it deeply disturbing," she says. "It's getting farmers to rely on expensive inputs produced from afar that are making money for big companies rather than on agroecological methods for using local resources and skills. I don't think that's the solution."

Regardless of which model prevails—agriculture as a diverse ecological art, as a high-tech industry, or some combination of the two—the challenge of putting enough food in nine billion mouths by 2050 is daunting. Two billion people already live in the driest parts of the globe, and climate change is projected to slash yields in these regions even further.

No matter how great their yield potential, plants still need water to grow.

And in the not too distant future, every year could be a drought year for much of the globe. New climate studies show that extreme heat waves, such as the one that withered crops and killed thousands in western Europe in 2003, are very likely to become common in the tropics and subtropics by century's end.

Himalayan glaciers that now provide water for hundreds of millions of people, livestock, and farmland in China and India are melting faster and could vanish completely by 2035. In the worst-case scenario, yields for some grains could decline by 10 to 15 percent in South Asia by 2030. Projections for southern Africa are even more dire. In a region already racked by water scarcity and food insecurity, the all-important corn harvest could drop by 30 percent—47 percent in the worst-case scenario.

All the while the population clock keeps ticking, with a net of 2.5 more mouths to feed born every second. That amounts to 4,500 more mouths in the time it takes you to read this article. Which leads us, inevitably, back to Malthus. On a brisk fall day that has put color into the cheeks of the most die-hard Londoners, I visit the British Library and check out the first edition of the book that still generates such heated debate. Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population looks like an eighth-grade science primer.

From its strong, clear prose comes the voice of a humble parish priest who hoped, as much as anything, to be proved wrong. "People who say Malthus is wrong usually haven't read him," says Tim Dyson, a professor of population studies at the London School of Economics. "He was not taking a view any different than what Adam Smith took in the first volume of The Wealth of Nations.

No one in their right mind doubts the idea that populations have to live within their resource base. And that the capacity of society to increase resources from that base is ultimately limited."

Though his essays emphasized "positive checks" on population from famine, disease, and war, his "preventative checks" may have been more important. A growing workforce, Malthus explained, depresses wages, which tends to make people delay marriage until they can better support a family.

Delaying marriage reduces fertility rates, creating an equally powerful check on populations. It has now been shown that this is the basic mechanism that regulated population growth in western Europe for some 300 years before the industrial revolution—a pretty good record for any social scientist, says Dyson.

Yet when Britain recently issued a new 20-pound note, it put Adam Smith on the back, not T. R. Malthus. He doesn't fit the ethos of the moment. We don't want to think about limits.

But as we approach nine billion people on the planet, all clamoring for the same opportunities, the same lifestyles, the same hamburgers, we ignore them at our risk. None of the great classical economists saw the industrial revolution coming, or the transformation of economies and agriculture that it would bring about.

The cheap, readily available energy contained in coal—and later in other fossil fuels—unleashed the greatest increase in food, personal wealth, and people the world has ever seen, enabling Earth's population to increase sevenfold since Malthus's day. A

nd yet hunger, famine, and malnutrition are with us still, just as Malthus said they would be. "Years ago I was working with a Chinese demographer," Dyson says. "One day he pointed out to me the two Chinese characters above his office door that spelled the word 'population.'

You had the character for a person and the character for an open mouth. It really struck me. Ultimately there has to be a balance between population and resources. And this notion that we can continue to grow forever, well it's ridiculous."
Perhaps somewhere deep in his crypt in Bath Abbey, Malthus is quietly wagging  a bony finger and saying, "Told you so." .

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