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
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
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 Program (www.sanrem.uga.edu),
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 our world.
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
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
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.