Footprint Blog


The ironies of the Green Revolution being debated after Borlaug’s death

Posted in Comment,Diet,Economics,Foodservice Footprint news,Government,International,News,Produce,Sustainability by foodservicefootprint on September 15, 2009
agbioworld.org

agbioworld.org

Norman Borlaug died this weekend. His name will mean little to most, but his work has come to symbolise the ironies that we face in the debate about a greener food industry. Many of these mirror Footprint’s efforts to take a view of all aspects of food – from farm to fork.

Norman Borlaug was a genius and also a Nobel Prize winner. His work as an agronomist caused the Green Revolution and prevented continuous post war global food shortages.

In his crop breeding programme Borlaug developed a clutch of wheat varieties with a short stem. Compared with the taller wheats, the short-strawed types shifted a higher proportion of plant sugars into the seedhead, thus enabling higher yields. However, in order to achieve this, the plant required  huge amounts of chemical fertiliser. This green revolution led to an almost 100% increase in harvests in India and Pakistan during the late 60’s.

According to Graham Harvey in The Times, ‘Altogether more than a billion people are believed to have been saved from starvation as a result of the new varieties’. Borlaug intended this to help people across the planet but instead the agricultural and economic opportunity was seized by industrial countries with the wealth to pay for expensive seeds and fertiliser.

‘Today Borlaug’s ideas underpin the global food system. Three quarters of the world’s cultivated land is sewn to grain crops and oilseed. Most are dependent on massive amounts of oil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers, pesticides, diesel fuel and heavy machinary’, comments Harvey.

The Green Revolution has given the world more food over the last half century but has led to ‘widespread environmental damage that may reduce the planet’s capacity to feed future generations’.

‘No less than 1.9 billion hectares of farmland has been degraded by modern grain growing techniques. Growing annual grain crops such as wheat over lengthy periods inevitably leads to soil damage. The land must be ploughed and cultivated each year and for long periods if left bare, a condition that seldom arises in nature. Stripped of vegetation cover, the soil’s organic matter starts to burn up or oxidise, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and adding to the greenhouse gas burden. The process is hastened by heavy inputs of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. With the loss of organic matter the soil’s structure is weakened so it becomes unstable and subject to erosion, either by wind or rainfall.’

The ambiguity speaks for itself and really highlights the struggle we are facing and why an understanding at industry level is so important.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: