Friday, November 05, 2004

The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution has had a profound impact on the lives of the
people around the world. It may be the most important agricultural
shift in the history of human kind. And most of us have never heard
of it.

In the 1940s, Mexico was struggling to feed itself. Many people were
suffering from Chronic Persistent Hunger (CPH), either through
Undernutrition (not enough to eat) or Malnutrition (not enough variety
in the diet).

(When we think of starving kids in Ethiopia, we think of famine
conditions. Famine is the terrible condition where sudden changes
(ecological pollution, severe drought or flooding) cause drastic food
shortages. Famine is sad and does kill people, but CPH is much more
widespread and and serious condition. An estimated 800 million
worldwide suffer from CPH.)

As a result, Mexican agriculturalists decided to experiment with with
new techniques in cross-pollinating grain seeds to bring out their
desired genetic traits and suppress the less desired. As I understand
it, the process is akin to, for example, breeding the stubby nose, bug
eyes, and all-around alien appearance of a Pug (which is a dog).

As a result of this grain cross-breeding, Mexico went from a net
importer in the 1940s to feeding its population in the 1950s to being
a net grain exporter in the 60s. Frankly, it looked ingenious.

Similarly, during the 60s, India tried the same thing with its five
staples - wheat, rice, sorghum, maize, millet. The results were
amazing: India quadrupled its grain production in 20 years.

The key to the process is breeding seeds that grow larger, funnel more
of the water and nutrients to the grain itself rather than the stalk,
and have a shorter harvesting period.

It sounds like heaven, right? But there's always a "but." Here's
what's wrong with the Green Revolution:

1) Monocropping.... this revolution has largely led to the
corporatizing of the agriculture industry. "Bigger, faster, better"
led to companies buying up cropland and then implementing a practice
of planting only one crop on a plot of land. Having only one crop
allows for less skilled labour and easier harvesting, but also is a
major contributor to degrading soil quality and advancing erosion.
Essentially, the greater diversity of crops in a field, the more
healthy the land is.

2) Exploitation of environmental laws in developing nations...
"Bigger, faster, better, more cropping" has, again, led big
agri-business to search the globe looking for the nations with the
slackest environmental laws. These companies love doing business with
developing nations who would rather take the quick buck and allow the
pesticide use and erosional practices to continue. Dangerous
ecological practices.

3) Decreased plant diversity.... Cross-breeding and monocropping has
*drastically* reduced plant diversity around the world. This
contributes to degraded soil and increased resistance to pesticide
use. For an example of our loss of diversity, check this: 100 years
ago, there were bout 7000 different types of apples on earth. Now
there are only 1000. suggests we've lost up to 50% of
plant diversity over the last few hundred years.

4) Water.... Some of these new super-kick-ass seeds require 3 times as
much water and fertilizer as their ancient (by today's standards)

5) Widening poverty gap.... these new seeds (combined with
monocropping) are easier to harvest with machines, which put
traditional farm labourers out of work. As well, the practice of
monocropping and profiteering on food has encouraged big Agri-business
to purchase land in developing nations - land that was traditionally
farmed by the native peoples of the land. This is cause a big
increase in landless poor, those who used to farm the land they were
born on, but have been pushed out by business and harvesting machines.

The reality is that even though the Green Revolution has dramatically
increased food production worldwide, there is still a huge number of
people who don't eat. So where is all this grain (that the developing
world is growing) going?

To North America, of course. To feed our cows, pigs, and chickens, to
sit on our grocery store shelves, and to get thrown out when we waste

It's a crazy situation!

Hopefully, my next few blogs will include the topics of the New Green
Revolution (it's upon us now) and an emerging concept of sustainable
food production and consumption.


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