Hidden Downsides of the Green Revolution: Biodiversity Loss and Diseases of Civilization

With the horticultural shift of the Green Revolution, industrial agriculture has been producing more calories than ever, but the lack of micronutrients in the resulting diet is causing widespread disease.

| June/July 2014

For decades, urgent international debate about whether sustainable agriculture can feed the world has foundered on a false assumption. We’ve been sucked into a game rigged by the constrained doctrine of the Green Revolution, the 20th-century shift to high-yielding rice, wheat and corn varieties that are dependent on irrigation and heavy fertilization. We’ve made the mistake of focusing on crop yield — on mere quantity — but there is so much more to this equation.

Rural India is as good a place as any to begin digging to the roots of the problems with industrial agriculture. Poor farmers there have long been offered the Green Revolution’s so-called miracle crops, and many have said, “No, thanks.” Stories such as this are legion within the vast network of breeders and agronomists charged with spreading the miracles worldwide: poor, starving farmers weeping and pleading to be permitted to keep growing their treasured local varieties of rice instead of obeying a government decree that they plant the “new and improved.” Why would a destitute farmer refuse these “blessings”?

The Root of the Matter

H.E. Shashidhar, a gene-jockey agronomist employed at a monkey-infested lab near Bangalore, India, dug until he got an answer to this question — actually, layers of answers. Each layer, peeled back, can help recast our thinking about sustainability everywhere. Shashidhar took the somewhat radical step of asking farmers who grew unirrigated, dryland rice why they persisted in cultivating long-cherished local landraces instead of science’s best varieties, which yielded sometimes four or five times as much food. Ignorance? Superstition?

For one thing, said the farmers, the landraces tasted better — but then what’s taste if you and your children are starving? A lot, it turns out, but put taste aside for a minute. Here’s the more obvious point: The miracle crop varieties do indeed yield well — most years. But they are delicate, and in more vicious drought years, they fail altogether. If a hut full of starving children depends on you, better to have a small, dependable crop year after year than to face catastrophe one year out of five. Ignorance? No. Rather, a cold calculation completely based on local realities, and one that set Shashidhar to thinking and tinkering. So why not have it both ways? Why not gather and cross-breed local landraces with the new varieties to create a high-yielding, drought-tolerant variety customized to local tastes?

To be resilient, crops — not just in India, but in desiccated areas worldwide — must be drought tolerant, requiring longer roots to reach deeper for water. The landraces do indeed have long roots. The improved varieties don’t, but they have short stems, which was what the Green Revolution was all about: short plants, dwarfing. We think it was about fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and monocrops, but all of these were really derivative of dwarfing. By breeding plants to invest less energy in producing stems, more energy goes to grain. Further, short plants have the architecture necessary to support the extra weight of seed heads swollen fat by fertilizer and irrigation.

The miracle that forestalled mass starvation in the mid-20th century — and let’s give it its due for doing exactly that — was simply the dwarfing of rice and wheat. So what Shashidhar really needed was a rice plant with a short stem and long roots, and he set about to make one. He tracked and guided his work with genetic markers, which is not genetic engineering but a common method of conventional plant breeding. Yet his genetic markers yielded a discovery lying right at the heart of the issue: One can’t breed a rice plant with a short stem and long roots because both traits are controlled by the same gene, making it, really, a single trait. It’s either long and long or short and short. This means the world has been fed now for a couple of generations by short-stemmed and short-rooted plants, which has had unintended consequences for humans and plants alike.

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