The Green Revolution Saved Lives? A Poison Meme That Just Won’t Die

Recently, in honor of Norman Borlaug’s 95th birthday, Ron Bailey of Reason Magazine posted a quote from his 2000 interview with Borlaug. For those unfamiliar with him, Borlaug was the most famous pioneer of the “Green Revolution” seeds of the 1960s, credited with a drastic expansion in food production. The claim that Borlaug saved a billion people from starvation is a persistent meme on the Internet.

In keeping with his rather in-your-face attitudes in favor of genetically-modified organisms and against anything organic, Bailey’s excerpts from the interview consisted mostly of digs against organic farming.

For example, Borlaug dismissed claims on behalf of organic farming as “ridiculous,” adding that “this shouldn’t even be a debate.”

Now, just as an aside, whenever a spokesmen for the establishment view on any subject fails to correctly and honestly state the issue of contention, he pretty much loses all credibility with me. Even if you don’t have personal knowledge of the empirical data that would falsify the claims of one side or the other, if one side doesn’t even frame the question correctly you can discount their opinion from the start. For example, when a registered dietitian repeats the little gem about vitamin doses above the RDA just creating “more expensive urine in your toilet,” they’re missing the whole point. First of all, the RDA is simply the minimum dose for preventing outright deficiency-related diseases, not the ideal dose to promote optimal functioning. Higher doses continue to provide benefits, on a diminishing return basis, in the case of Vitamin C up to a dose of several grams a day for most people. Second, that obnoxious little bumper sticker slogan ignores the whole idea of antioxidants: each molecule of (say) ascorbic acid in your urine has a free radical attached to it.

Along the same lines, it’s interesting that, in making his arguments against organic farming, Borlaug displayed an almost total lack of awareness of what the available organic techniques actually are.

For example, he claimed it was impossible to get enough nitrogen from organic material. Existing nitrogen inputs organically, he said, “would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure.” This would require enormous sacrifices of wild land for forage. “There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.”

Indeed there is. Apparently Borlaug, a professor of agronomy, has never heard of green manuring with nitrogen-fixing cover crops. You don’t need additional land to grow the legumes—you grow them on the land you’re fertilizing. And they reproduce themselves—you just have to save the seed. Once you have fertile soil, you don’t need continuing inputs from off-site; intensive, closed-loop recycling of crop residues and human and animal waste will maintain fertility.

Borlaug also asserted that, if all agriculture were organic, “you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.”

He apparently conflates the distinction between large and small agriculture with the distinction between chemical and organic. He seems to assume that “organic farming” is simply the mechanized row-cropping that prevails in conventional agribusiness—but minus the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

But in fact, small-scale agriculture is almost universally more productive than large-scale agriculture. The prevailing techniques used in American-style agribusiness were not introduced primarily to economize on land or maximize output per acre. After all, in most parts of the country the largest agribusiness operations have had privileged access to large tracts of land, going back in many cases to land grants at the time of first European settlement. For example, in California many of the largest operations were built on expropriated haciendas dating from Mexican or Spanish colonial times. No, the prevailing techniques of American agribusiness have focuses on the substitution of capital for labor, in order to increase output per man-hour and reduce the agency problems of labor—even at the cost of reduced output per acre. And small-scale operations, accordingly, tend to have both lower outputs per labor-hour and higher outputs per acre than large ones.

What’s more, it’s simply incontrovertible that the most intensive organic techniques produce far more per acre than conventional agribusiness. For example, John Jeavons’ raised bed technique can feed one person on a minimum of 4000 sq. ft. That’s one tenth of an acre. And it’s done, by the way, without cattle manure or additional land for foraging them. Of course, it’s a relatively spare diet—about 80% legumes, cereal grains and starchy tubers, and only 20% green vegetables and fruits—but that only demonstrates the theoretical limit. We’re not, in fact, limited to anything near as low as a tenth acre of arable land per capita. And where there are genuine constraints on access to land, they’re generally political: e.g., the more than half of arable land enclosed in Latin American haciendas and latifundia that are held out of development, while surrounding peasants hire themselves out as day laborers to the patron because they can’t support themselves on their inadequate family plots.

Borlaug asserted that “if we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares…”

But that’s dirty pool. That assumes that the only available choice is Borlaug’s preferred method in use today, versus “the technology of 1960.” In such a cramped little intellectual schema, there was only one technologically determined path for advancement; the only choice was to take the one correct path or to remain static.

There is no such thing as neutral or generically “efficient” technology, and very few technological imperatives that remain constant independent of institutional and power considerations. The most “efficient” farming methods depend on who will be using them. At any given time, there are numerous alternative paths of technical advance. The main selective factor determining which one is adopted is the power needs of the dominant political and economic institutions.

The proper comparision, therefore, is with the path not taken.

“Green Revolution” seeds and technology, for example, were developed to be usable primarily under the conditions prevailing in large-scale cash crop production on land from which peasant subsistence farmers had been evicted: i.e., heavily subsidized irrigation water and other large-scale inputs like expensive chemical fertilizer.

Frances Moore Lappe eschews the term “high-yield varieties,” preferring to call them “high-response varieties,” because they only have high yields under the artificial conditions prevailing in politically privileged and subsidized, large-scale cash crop production. Under the conditions prevailing for peasant small-holders, without subsidized irrigation water or synthetic nitrogen inputs, relying primarily on careful soil stewardship and rainwater recycling, the most productive varieties are often the native and traditional varieties–drought-hardy, and otherwise adapted to local conditions over many generations.

The very claim that Borlaug “saved a billion lives” starts from a false assumption: that the main cause of Third World starvation was economic, rather than political. It assumes that starvation resulted mainly from insufficient production, from a lack of land, or from the inadequacy of farming techniques. In fact, the main cause of Third World starvation was what Franz Oppenheimer called “political appropriation of the land”: great landlords and landed oligarchs holding fertile land out of cultivation altogether, or tractoring off peasant smallholders so the land could be used to grow cash crops for export. The real source of starvation is the hundreds of millions of people living in shantytowns who might otherwise be supporting themselves on their own land, but who now can’t afford the “more efficient” crops produced on their former land at any price, because they don’t have any money.

To take just one example of the arbitrary assumptions concealed in Borlaug’s “now vs. 1960” contrast: Lappe has shown that the absolute calorie value of Third World food output during the period under consideration was sufficient to provide a protein-balanced diet of 2000 or 3000 calories per capita. The problem was that so much of that output was used as livestock fodder to raise meat for export, rather than domestic consumption. The problem, in other words, is who owns the land and whose interests it’s being used in.  You can make your own comparison to the Irish potato famine, when the great landlords were actually producing wheat for export.

Another irritating thing Borlaug said in the interview, not excerpted in Bailey’s birthday piece: “As far as plants are concerned, they can’t tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter.”

That’s a bit like saying your body can’t tell the difference between an ascorbic acid molecule in your food from one in a pill. The molecule itself may be identical, but it makes a huge difference to biological absorption whether it’s part of a synergistic complex of bioflavonoids and other phytochemicals, many of which have yet to be isolated or available in pill form. Likewise, in agriculture, there’s a big difference in bioabsorptive function when nitrogen is put into the soil through bacterial decomposition, as opposed to a handful of white pellets. And as regular commenter P.M. Lawrence helpfully pointed out, it’s quite likely that nitrogen spikes from synthetic fertilizers have a different effect on plant growth compared to the slow release of nitrogen from organic decomposition—much like the harmful effects of insulin spikes from injection compared to the body’s manufacturing it on-demand. Borlaug completely ignores the bacterial ecology of the soil and root systems (like the need for appropriate flora and fauna like nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizae coexisting symbiotically with root hairs), along with the importance of soil friability and osmotic quality.

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