They’ve been a sometime coming, but they’re here now. NYT is running a story titled “Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds” that speaks of the growth of the superweed, weeds that are resistant to the herbicides used by American farmers, forcing farmers to use even more toxic herbicides and resort to labor intensive farming methods such as pulling the weeds out by hand and plowing.
Monsanto, the maker of the weedkiller, Roundup, boasted that the weedkiller allowed farmers to use an environmentally friendly technique called no-till farming, in which the lack of tilling (or ploughing) alleviates soil erosion, increases the amount of water in the soil and also prevents fertilizer and herbicide runoff.
But evolution is at work again, with the new weeds that are resistant to Roundup. First spotted in 2000, these superweeds are spreading and are a major cause for concern. From the NYT article:
“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”
Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.
“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.”
The Not-so-Green Revolution
Many believe that technology solves all problems, that economic growth is the natural order of things. They tout examples such as the Green Revolution for which Normal Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. What they fail to mention is the environmental impact of this revolution. Once that is taken into account, the revolution is not green at all. Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, intensive water usage, reduction in biodiversity and effects of the pesticides on human and animal health are all well documented. What is less well known is the socio-economic aftermath of this revolution.
According to Clive Ponting’s “A Green History of the World”:
“The use of chemical fertilizers in Asia has risen thirty-eight-fold since 1950 compared with a world average of a six-fold increase during this period. The financial cost of growing the new varieties was therefore much higher than for the types of plant that had been grown for generations. This meant that only farmers who could afford the higher inputs could hope to achieve the higher yields and the ‘Green Revolution’ therefore accentuated existing social differences and accelerated trends towards greater mechanization and larger holdings.”
The net effect was to turn small farmers into landless laborers working for the richer landlords. Zamindars installed by technology.
From “Ecology and Equity” by Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil:
“The strategy of the green revolution has been to pump in water, fertilizer, pesticides and high-yielding varieties to selected areas. It is this strategy that has successfully raised the productivity of Indian agriculture over the last quarter of a century. This success has taken the pressure off the need to enhance productivity on a broader base, a path that would have called for land reform.
Farming in India has traditionally been a system of a rich mix of varieties of cereals and legumes. … Modern intensification has destroyed this diversity – its emphasis is the creation, instead, of homogeneous stands of crop varieties that can perform well only if supplied with large amounts of water and heavy doses of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and protected by intensive application of weedkillers, insecticides and fungicides. Such systems have been perfected only in the case of a few cereal crops such as wheat, rice and sorghum. In particular, legumes, a most characteristic feature of Indian agriculture, are not a part of these systems of production characterized by high inputs and low diversity. … The result is a great scarcity in pulses, a sharp rise in their prices and protein deprivation for the poor.”
The myth of the success of the Green Revolution is such that it has entered the realm of popular culture. In one of the episodes of “The West Wing”, the smart and captivating TV series that provided a peek into the functioning of the White House, the president of an African nation is urging the pharmaceutical companies to provide a free supply of HIV drugs to his nation ravaged by the disease. He invokes the miracle of Borlaug’s work to beseech the US president to help him in his cause. Ironically, the first place the green revolution failed dramatically was in Africa. There are many reasons why this happened, but a key problem was that the reality of farming in Africa didn’t meet the basic requirements that the green revolution needed.
In the book, “The End of Food”, Paul Roberts writes:
“… it has certainly occurred to some to ask whether the Green Revolution’s primary goal wasn’t just building food security but building new markets for American farm inputs.
But the real Achilles heel of the Green Revolution was, and is, fertilizer. By conservative estimates, more than a third of the Green Revolution yield increases came directly from using more fertilizer. And yet, as American and European farmers were also discovering, while fertilizers were a necessary ingredient for modern high-yield agriculture, they were not sufficient to ensure its success. Although African farmers saw massive yield increases within the first few years of adopting the new techniques, in a relatively short time, something odd happened – yields fells unless farmers added steadily greater applications of nitrogen and other fertilizers.”
What is also lost in the discussion is the energy efficiency of the green revolution. According to Clive Ponting, the average traditional agricultural methods yielded energy outputs that were about twenty times the input while modern methods at best yield energy outputs that are only twice as much as the input.
As articles like the NYT one indicate, technology can only go so far. The modern agro-industrial complex poses significant problems for the availability of food. BBC has a site devoted to the subject. Paul Roberts has written a book about it.
What are we doing about it ? Insisting that technology will solve the problem. For example, BBC carried a story in 2008 asking the question: “Could GM Crops Feed Africa ?”. Many think that allowing GM crops in India will help alleviate its food concerns.
Our continuing inability to think outside a modern economic mindset, insistence on technology and an inability to look at problems with an ecological bent will, I fear, leave the world a more dangerous place for our children. For Maya.