Last week I read Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, by Vandana Shiva. These days I only read books that make me angry. It’s my new thing. Stolen Harvest is an impassioned critique of the Green Revolution, a flurry of innovation that introduced dwarf grain varieties (and the chemicals needed to grow them optimally) to Latin American and India. If you’ve been paying attention, the Green Revolution is exactly what the authors of Enough–the last book I wrote about–are promoting. That book profiled Norman Borlaug, the “father” of the Green Revolution, and wrote positively about his efforts. And they were probably right to do so. Maybe.
The Green Revolution is also what Bill Gates and co. are hoping to bring to Africa through the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa. So what is the Green Revolution? Why is Bill Gates excited about it, and Vandana Shiva against it?
The Green Revolution, as stated above, centered around dwarf varieties of grain which could support a larger seed head (the part you eat) without falling over. These varieties are capable of producing much more grain than most traditional varieties. But. They require a lot of fertilization, a lot of water, and since they are typically grown in large monocultures to utilize economies of scale, they need a lot of pesticides. But what gets Vandana Shiva particularly worked up is the way these commercial varieties push aside the biodiversity of traditional rice seeds, which have been passed down from farmer to farmer for centuries.
All of these things make the Green Revolution model extremely difficult for small-holders. The capital intensive nature of large-scale monocultures requires a lot of borrowing. Shiva documents an epidemic of suicides among Indian rice farmers linked to default on loans for seed and fertilizer. Moreover, the introduction of soybeans and soybean oil has pushed aside the production and processing of mustard oil, thus putting countless small-scale processors out of business in favor of large-scale soybean oil processing plants. in general, Green Revolution-style agriculture favors capital-intensive large-scale production and processing. So often, the rich get richer and the poor are competed out of the market when the Green Revolution comes to town. That’s Vandana Shiva’s analysis anyway.
And that’s not even mentioning the next step in industrial agriculture’s development: genetically modified organisms. Shiva reserves particular scorn for GMOs and the companies (especially Monsanto) that produce them. Genetically modified grains have the same downsides as the previously mentioned hybrid dwarf varieties. But the GMOs on the market today are not just created for maximum yield. In fact, the most commonly used GMO in the world is Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Soybean. This soybean can be sprayed with Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide (glyphocate) and suffer no ill effects, while the weeds around it die off. The advantage to farmers is easier weed control. The advantage to Monsanto is increased Round-Up sales. Win-win, right? Except that extensive use of any herbicide is bound to result in resistant weeds. And extensive use of any one commercial variety is bound to push out the biodiversity on which our food supply may very well depend in the long run. So says Vandana Shiva, who is (I think rightly) angry that Monsanto is modifying the gene pool of a food plant so it can sell more chemicals.
But what’s the final verdict here? Should we cast aside the Green Revolution, GMOs and industrial monocultures? Is Norman Borlaug a hero or a saint?
The answer, like most things in life, is complicated. First of all, we should consider the Green Revolution varieties separately from the subsequent developments by the increasingly monopolistic seed companies (Monsanto and Dupont effectively control a majority of the market). So. What did Norman Borlaug do? He created the most quickly replicable solution to the grain shortage problem. Since it was replicable (in the short term) to a wide variety of circumstances, this solution spread quickly in Latin America and India. And it is extremely likely that this saved the lives of millions of people. But it also strained aquifers, increased income inequality and decreased the use of organic matter for soil fertility. The other possible solution to the grain shortage problem would have been the widespread use of biointensive, labor-intensive, soil conservation agricutlure. This would have looked differently from region to region, and even from farm to farm. There would be no silver bullet, no one variety and little to no profit to be made by corporations, therefore no incentive for the rapid spread of information.
The road not traveled may be the way forward, now that breeding of staple grains has brought us near the edge of maximum possible yields. And it is likely that the monopolies currently held by companies like Monsanto are directing innovations toward corporate profit, rather than food security. So is Vandana Shiva right? Mostly, I think so. The Green Revolution may have bought us some time by keeping global food production ahead of population growth. But it cannot be sustained as rising oil prices make chemical fertilizer more expensive. And if the future involves a more biodiverse, sustainable system we need as many of the traditional varieties that Shiva supports as we can get. The potentiality of the gene pool may be our best bet for food security in the future.
More on GMOs later. They deserve their own discussion.