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Was the Green Revolution Helpful?

This will be a post on policy. Ideally I should maintain separate blogs for policy/science and personal posts, but I have enough trouble finding the time to maintain one blog, let alone two.

Via LaVidaLocavore

“Prior to the Green Revolution, Indians were poor and starving but their agriculture was sustainable. And the U.S. gave them help – money and technical support – but it was very short-term help. The help we gave, along with the low cost chemicals and seeds their own government gave them, prevented starvation from the 1960’s to the 1990’s only to cause an epidemic of suicides later. And – knowing that – it seems to me that what we gave them in the 1960’s and 1970’s wasn’t actually help.”

I’m speechless. Fortunately typing doesn’t require the use of the voice. In 1968 the population of Indian was 523 million. In 2008 it was 1.15 billion. In the 1960s India was confronted with a stagnant food supply and a growing population. The improved crop varieties of the Green Revolution, along with investments in technology like irrigation and fertilizer staved off the specter of famine from the subcontinent for the past four decades. If Indian farmers had been no option but to continue with their “sustainable” methods of farming prior to the green revolution, India might have continued to “sustainably” produce enough food to feed half a billion people. Which means the other 600 million people living in India are alive today because of the green revolution. Only the most literal and dispassionate definition of sustainability can disregard the lives of more half a billion people. The aid the world provided to India in the 1960s and 1970s really WAS help for those six hundred million lives. Help that bought four decades for technology to advance and global population growth to slow.

I’m not saying the Green Revolution has not produced some negative side effects. The author mentions issues with salinization of farm land, and increased debt for small farmers, leading some to the tragedy of suicide. These are real concerns, and there is a lot more we could be doing to address these issues, particularly the higher stakes input intensive agriculture place on small farmers who don’t have the resources to rebound from even a single bad harvest. But to argue the Green Revolution was no help at all is comparable to arguing we should stop treating cancer patients, and that further research is harmful, because many of the therapies meant to kill the cancer cells cause negative side effects for the patient as well. 

I hope that almost everyone would agree treating cancer is preferable to allowing the disease to run its course, and is there anyone at all who would argue against further research to increase cancer survival rates while decreasing the negative side effects of treatment? Similarly the proper response to flaws of the Green Revolution should not be to dismantle the progress that has been made, but to continue the search for more effective, less costly, and yes, more sustainable technologies, crop varieties, and agricultural techniques. Always keeping in mind that we have an obligation to keep from starvation all of the many and varied people of the earth today, not simply that number of people we might consider ideal for the Earth to support.

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