Published November 21, 2011
Fifty years after the Green Revolution, some experts are again calling for a revolution in biotechnology to feed the world’s growing population.
According to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report, 925 million people went hungry worldwide in 2010 and 239 million of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
But a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, a group that studies global environmental concerns, suggests that focusing on growing more crops at the expense of land, water and ecosystems will not end hunger. Through small-scale, eco-friendly practices, the world may not have to choose between feeding the hungry and protecting the environment.
“So much attention is placed just on improving yields and raising yields that we forget about the other parts of the equation,” Worldwatch Institute researcher Danielle Nierenberg said. “Emphasis on yields had made us push aside everything else, including protecting the environment.”
The Green Revolution
The Green Revolution began in the 1960s, when starvation had reached crisis levels in many developing countries, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. While technology in developed countries had increased crop yields enough to sustain growing populations and eliminate starvation, developing countries had been left behind.
By the late 1960s, however, yields dramatically increased in Asia and Latin America as scientists began breeding improved varieties of grains and expanding the use of fertilizers. Cereal production more than doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995 and many leaders declared the Green Revolution a success. But while the initial use of fertilizer boosted production, the continued overuse of fertilizers and other chemical inputs has degraded the land.
“The Green Revolution was a great success in that it ramped up agricultural investment and it ramped up productivity. There was plenty of food to go around,” said Michael Kugelman, program associate for the Asia Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. “The problem is the Green Revolution used a lot of chemical (and) industrial agriculture and it used up a lot of arable farmland.”
Farmers worldwide shifted away from traditional diversified farming systems, in which a variety of crops are grown and animals raised, to industrial farming systems, where high-yielding monoculture crops, like rice and wheat, are primarily grown. While production increased, farmers had no alternative crops to fall back on if their main crop failed.
“Diversified farming systems… are more resilient to pests and disease, climate change, fluctuations in food prices and fuel prices,” Nierenberg said.
Industrial farming systems have also been blamed for the cycle of debt and hunger that has hit many farmers so hard.
Industrial farming requires fertilizer, pesticides, machinery and other expensive inputs. In order to buy these external inputs, farmers take out loans at the beginning of the season with the expectation that they will sell enough crops to repay the loan at the end of the season. However, disaster can devastate farm land mid-season, leaving families penniless and hungry. Some researchers have cited this cycle of debt and hunger as the main factor in the thousands of suicides of Indian farmers in the past 13 years.
Nourishing the Planet
It was desperation of this kind that spurred Nierenberg and a group of other researchers from the Worldwatch Institute to take a two-year trip through sub-Saharan Africa to study malnutrition.
The team’s findings became the “Nourishing the Planet Project”--a project aimed at spreading awareness of these solutions, and serving as a roadmap for the donor community.
Nierenberg and the other researchers discovered that small-scale, agro-ecological innovations were able to feed communities without the environmental degradation caused by bigger, chemical farming methods. Some of these methods include using manure and cover crops to build up soil fertility, growing native vegetables to strengthen local food security, and storing food through simple, low-cost technologies to reduce food loss.
Kugelman also envisions small-scale innovations and organic agriculture playing an important part in solving hunger worldwide, but says that organic agriculture has primarily been used only to sustain small farming communities. Expanding agro-ecological practices to feed entire nations will take time. With climbing food prices, a population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050 needs a more immediate source of food—and industrial agriculture may be able to provide just that.
“By default, there’s going to be a lot of this industrial agriculture just because it brings faster results,” Kugelman said. “It’s a short-term approach to food insecurity.”
However, the question of whether agro-ecological methods can feed the world should not deter investment in sustainable agriculture, according to the Worldwatch Institute's report.
“Evidence indicates that sustainable agriculture can feed a large portion of the world while simultaneously addressing problems such as environmental degradation, livelihood insecurity, and poverty,” the report claims.
While the "Nourishing the Planet" solutions are small-scale, they can be applied all over the world, said Nierenberg. In many cases, communities already know best how to solve their hunger problems, and, with the right resources, these solutions can be replicated in other communities.
In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Nierenberg witnessed women growing food for their families in “vertical farms,” or vegetables planted in sacks of soil. As an estimated 14 million Africans migrate from rural to urban areas each year, small-scale innovations like these are important for feeding the world’s cities.
“What we found on the ground were really inspiring examples of grassroots, ground-up innovations,” Nierenberg said. “I think the misconceptions that we have about agriculture and ‘if we just improve yields everything will be okay’ are really doing these people a disservice.”