Is the Green Revolution Fading?

Friday, April 11, 2014


By Jainie Winter, EWG Press Intern

Just days after Congressional leaders installed a statue of agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug in the U.S. Capitol, the head of the International Panel on Climate Change made the startling assertion that Borlaug’s ideas for feeding millions of people were losing relevance.

“It’s now becoming evident that the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ has probably reached close to a plateau,” Rajenda Pachauri, the panel chair, said.

Congress was right to recognize Borlaug and his advances in science. He is famed for creating a strain of disease-resistant hybrid wheat that led to higher yields. In the 1940s and 1950s, this new wheat variety helped impoverished countries like Mexico and India produce enough food to avert famine.

The New York Times characterized Borlaug as, “the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself.”  He is the only American to receive the trifecta of humanitarian awards and the National Medal of Science for his lifelong quest against global hunger.

“It is clear Borlaug’s solutions worked during the 20th century,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources.  “It is unclear whether they will work in the 21st century. It is hard to argue that biotechnology is the magic bullet that will meet the critical challenges agriculture faces in this century.”

Modern-day farming practices have shown to pollute air and water, erode soil, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and harm wildlife.

Expanded production of genetically engineered crops to maximize yields has led to increased use of herbicides on farm fields. Between 1996 and 2011, farmers used 527 million pounds of herbicides, according to estimates published by Washington State University professor Charles Benbrook.  Herbicide-tolerant crops have spawned so-called “superweeds,” which have actually increased the use of even more toxic herbicides, such as dicamba and 2, 4-D.

As Pachauri suggested, crop yields have leveled off.  In 2012, the science journal Nature published an analysis that found crop production was stagnating or slowing in some regions. And a 2013 study by researchers at the Institute on the Environment found that farmers cannot rely on better yields alone to meet the world population’s demand for food by 2050.

“Increasing productivity and efficiency in our ability to produce crops using less fertilizer and water, and fewer fossil fuels, will be a huge challenge for agriculture in the future,” Cox said. “Will biotechnology play a role in that? It remains to be seen. But is biotechnology the answer to those three complex problems? No.”

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