February 16, 2006: “Green
Revolution.” Even now the name sounds promising. In
the 1960s, the intensive production of new dwarf grain varieties
of major cereals was touted as the answer to world hunger.
That unfulfilled panacea—and concomitant chemical assault
on the environment—has been largely replaced with the
even loftier promises of today’s “Gene Revolution.”
The reality is that sustainable developments depend on long-term
research based on natural biological systems that tend toward
regeneration. Shortcuts don’t work (though they do have
the habit of lining pockets).
The Green Revolution relied on the intensive use of chemical
pesticides and fertilizers with little acknowledgement of
their cumulative negative impacts on health, wildlife and
the environment. “Inefficient” varieties that
had sustained peoples for generations and had adapted to specific
microclimates were forsaken in favor of heavier producers.
The cultural synergy of having grains that also served as
roof thatch was somehow lost in the technology transfer.
In addition to impacts of introduced toxicants and reduction
in straw, the market-driven overproduction of cereal grains
led to a diet bereft of the diversity upon which sound nutrition
is based. A rice-and-bean diet can satisfy most human protein
requirement; a rice, rice and more rice diet certainly cannot.
IPM no panacea either
Beginning in 1970s, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) was
used to apply economic and ecological criteria to the application
of chemical insecticides in order to attempt to reduce their
impact. This is nothing like the cold-turkey approach toward
chemical use taken by organic agriculture. We look at this
IPM approach as something akin to a system for smokers to
learn more cost-effective ways of not kicking the habit. This
really does not get to the heart of the problem: senseless
and destructive chemical addiction.
But there is reason for optimism. In 2004, the U.S. Agency
of International Development took an historic step forward
by opening a program called Sustainable Agriculture and Natural
Resource Management (SANREM) Cooperative Research and Support
which puts the environment on par with production prerogatives
in international agricultural development. We embrace this
evolution as a more sensible effort to provide better resolution
of real health and environmental challenges currently facing
After all, there is plenty of evidence of degradation of
our collective health and environment from short-term productivity
approaches with a narrow viewpoint, poor implementation and
no consideration of future generations.
The United States Agency for International Development supports
countries to build up their infrastructures to improve quality
of life for their citizens. Until very recently, the agricultural
development focus has been on Green Revolution-type intensive
monocultures. The SANREM program is a good indication that
sustainable agriculture is strongly entering the mainstream.
And it’s about time.
Genesis of longer-term thinking
In 1981, The Rodale Institute® established a field trial
to investigate the major limitations of organic agriculture
as stated in USDA analysis. This trial, now called The Rodale
Institute Farming Systems Trial®, has clearly shown how
to overcome the obstacles to organic agriculture (such as
the nitrogen-supply and weed-control challenges highlighted
by a 1980 USDA Report and Recommendation on Organic Farming).
We clearly showed that initial findings of compromised corn
yields in organic systems did not hold up in the long term.
Furthermore, long-term studies showed corn yields were better
in drought years due to the superior water-and-nutrient-holding
abilities of organic soils.
Now in its 26th year, The Rodale Institute Farming System
Trial has spurred other researchers and institutions to develop
their own long-term studies. The North Carolina State University
(NCSU) long-term trial is one standout. Thanks to a SANREM
grant, we have the opportunity to collaborate with NC State
and other institutions under the leadership of Virginia Tech
University. The real and pressing agriculture problems facing
our world are bigger than any single institution can handle.
The challenges of longer-term thinking
Paul Mueller, PhD, a crop science professor at NC State,
and Denise Finney, the university’s SANREM coordinator,
are key collaborators in our efforts to develop literature
on field applications and other strategies for sustainable
agriculture that address natural resource conservation issues
in the tropics and subtropics. Paul and Denise were brainstorming
with us about this when they visited us in early January.
They gave us a virtual tour of NCSU’s Center for Environmental
Farming Systems and its ongoing projects, including their
long-term organic agriculture trials.
One of Dr. Mueller’s first observations was the challenge
of setting up these trials and the difficulty of keeping them
going (their trial is fast approaching 10 years). Although
these types of experiments are the only effective way of judging
the long-term impacts of agricultural practices, this value
is often forgotten when funding is needed; thus, it becomes
extremely difficult to keep such efforts going. Another obstacle
is the ability to maintain continuity by retaining key personnel.
Dr. Mueller mentioned that even a decade into the project,
they consider it a bit early to detect significant soil organic
matter changes among their farming systems because field variability
is so great.
Changing our working paradigm
A while back I went to a federal-funding conference where
the sponsors explained that short-term programs were standard
to support junior scientists in their quest for tenure. I
brought up the nearsightedness of this approach, from my perspective,
and explained that bigger collaborations of multiple scientists
from distinctive disciplines are a necessary approach to attacking
the large, complex problems we face in the field of agriculture
science and technology.
These sentiments fell largely on deaf ears.
It comes to mind that we must strip our process of vested
interest and get into problem-solving mode if we are to positively
influence the big long-term challenges facing us as a society.
This will require multiple institution, multiple discipline
work for sustained periods, with a wide-angle approach that
goes far beyond issues of junior faculty tenure. We must also
be proactive in preventing problems before they occur, thereby
circumventing an emergency response mode.
If we are to keep with ancient medical wisdom of “first,
do no harm,” how can we do anything but take a cautionary,
long-term approach? This doctrine of the ancients reflects
precisely the wisdom of supporting long term experimentation.