By 2050, the human population of our planet could reach 10 billion people for the first time. That is a lot of mouths to feed and we currently don’t know if our planet can sustain that many people. There is a precedent, however, that we can look to for hope: The Green Revolution.
In the days following the various wars of the 1940s, food was incredibly scarce in many parts of the world. There were severe famines and droughts which struck many nations, creating even more problems with the food supply. People were going hungry at record rates.
Then the Green Revolution came along. By using new fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, farmers could produce better yields. Selective breeding practices, along with genetic modification, allows crops to produce more with fewer resources.
This gave us food to eat. It also created a number of pros and cons to consider, as we were changing the very landscape of how we grow food.
List of the Pros of the Green Revolution
1. It allowed us to create a consistent food supply.
According to Oxfam, the world is able to produce almost 20% more food than is currently required to provide every person with a balanced diet. This is possible because of the consistencies in crop growth offered by the Green Revolution. With just one new strain of wheat, crop production levels were able to triple in just two decades.
2. It creates cheaper consumer prices.
The laws of supply and demand are always in play. When there is more food available, then it becomes cheaper to purchase. The Green Revolution made it possible for farmers to produce more from their existing fields, creating bigger harvests with the same amount of work. That lowered production costs, which ultimately lowered consumer costs, while profits actually rose.
3. It gives us a chance to protect the environment.
Because we can produce more food from our current croplands through the Green Revolution, there is less of a need to convert other land types into more croplands to feed a growing population. Even though human population levels have doubled since the 1960s, our food production rates have tripled. At the same time, the rate of land conversion has been reduced to just 10%.
4. It eliminates the need for fallowing.
In dry climates, farmers often practice fallowing as a way to preserve their land. That means no crops are grown on the land for an entire year, which gives soil moisture levels a chance to be restored. Through the work of the Green Revolution, the need to fallow disappears because irrigation, fertilization, and weed control make it possible to continue producing food. As a secondary benefit, farmers receive more income in dry climates because their croplands are now more productive.
5. It gives us predictability within the food supply.
There was always a level of uncertainty in the food supply before the 1940s. If weather conditions were not favorable, then the harvest would be reduced. That meant less food availability, higher pricing in the market, and an increased risk of food deserts. Because of the Green Revolution, we are now able to have predictable harvests. Weather conditions can be managed at each field, which reduces the impact of poor growing seasons.
6. It created more jobs.
In the developing world, the most common type of job that is available is in the agricultural sector. Two out of three global jobs are impacted directly or indirectly by agricultural work. With more jobs, we have more income. When there is more income, there is a chance to create a growing economy. That gives more people a chance to pull themselves out of poverty over time.
7. It creates more harvests from a single field.
One of the biggest winners from the Green Revolution is India. With their annual rainy season, it was impossible to have more than one crop grown each year. That eventually led to famine in the 1960s, which devastated the country. New techniques offered by the Green Revolution allowed some regions to double, and sometimes triple, their output, which provided the country with more access to staple crops: rice, corn, millet, and wheat.
8. It encourages growth in multiple economic sectors.
The ability to grow more crops does more than provide additional food or jobs. It creates a need for more tools. It requires farmers to have equipment that can handle the additional yields. It requires barns, silos, and commercial storage options to maintain the quality of the harvested food. Each changes produces a need for more jobs, which creates more income, which gives people more opportunities to eliminate personal food insecurity.
List of the Cons of the Green Revolution
1. It creates the potential for environmental harm.
Although the techniques used by the Green Revolution have increased food availability, there are times when this comes at a steep cost. The various fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used to produce more food also have the ability to produce higher levels of erosion and soil pollution. This can impact local water tables, exposing people to concentrated chemicals at times, which has a negative impact on the environment and personal health.
2. It has created high levels of food waste.
Before the Green Revolution, food waste within the supply chain was virtually unheard of. Most foods were produced locally for local consumers. Now that food can be grown quickly and cheaply, much more waste occurs in the system. Up to 40% of a single harvest in the developing world can be lost before it is even processed. Up to 40% of a harvest can also be lost at the consumer level. In total, more than 1 billion tons of food is wasted every year.
3. It creates resistance issues within the food supply.
The reason why we have been able to see larger harvests is because pesticides and herbicides were new to the growing environment. Over the past 50 years, a growing resistance to these products has developed, which has caused food production levels to decrease when this issue is severe. That means our challenge now is to counter this resistance to maintain our food supply. Otherwise, we may see growing human population levels and decreasing food outputs from our croplands.
4. It may create seed sterility in certain staple crops.
One of the biggest issues we face in the current days of the Green Revolution is patenting. Developers who genetically modify crops are given the option to patent their work to protect their profits. One of the characteristics that is potentially available is called a “terminator” gene. This genetic profile would prevent the seeds from genetically modified crops from growing, forcing farmers to continually purchase new seeds from the developer. That means higher prices for everyone involved.
5. It comes with a financial cost.
Although many farmers have been able to benefit from the technologies developed by the Green Revolution, that is not the case for everyone. The cost of fertilizer, for example can be more than $100 per ton. For some crops, the return from the field is around $35 per ton. That means during a difficult year, it may be almost impossible for farmers to achieve a financial profit for their work.
6. It has changed the emphasis of farming.
Because staple crops do not fetch the same prices as cash crops, farmers have shifted away from food items to cash products to create better guarantees of profitability. Although croplands are producing at rates never before in history, there are fewer fields being planted with wheat or rice. Corn has turned into a fuel product, especially in the United States. Cacao and pineapple plantations are growing, as are tobacco plantations in some areas. That might mean more income for the farmer. It also means more food insecurity for the world.
7. It can change the land.
Soil provides a finite level of resources to the crops being grown. If those resources are depleted, then the croplands become unusable. Unless fallowing occurs, the field could become unusable. Even in the United States, were modern farming practices work to prevent this type of issue, about 7.5 million acres of farm land is lost every year because of the impact of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Since 1988, almost 350 million acres have been lost to these impacts.
8. It only creates positive impacts in difficult climates.
Not every farmer has been able to financially profit from the Green Revolution either. In regions of the world where growing conditions are consistent, the yields produced have remained consistent as well. It is only in the difficult growing regions, where crops are difficult to produce, where the biggest gains from this effort have been seen. That means the financial benefits of this process have been unequal.
The pros and cons of the Green Revolution give us hope for the future. We still have challenges to face when working to stop hunger, such as improving our food distribution networks. There are legitimate concerns about soil health to consider as well. We solved this problem once. We can solve it again.