Farming a better future by learning the lessons of the previous Green Revolution

After the facts, the Green Revolution of the 1960s has been criticized for having caused negative consequences on farmland. It is true that some intensive agricultural practices have brought serious damage to soils and water reserves, but it is also true that the actions taken have increase food production and they averted the risk of a devastating famine in India.

Today, humanity is facing another major challenge to meet agricultural production to meet the demand of an increasing population. The term “agricultural revolution” has come back in the news and this is a good opportunity to reflect on how to handle future actions.

This time, there is one major difference. With 9 billion people in sight by 2050, the consequences of our actions will have much more impact, negative as well as positive, depending on where we live. In 1950, there were “only” 2.5 billion people on Earth. Compared with today, one could argue that there was some margin for error by then. This margin for error is now gone. Therefore, it is necessary to think ahead and consider all the things that might go wrong. We must anticipate before we have to react.

What can we learn from the Green Revolution, then?

The first lesson is that when humans decide to put all their knowledge together and give themselves the means to succeed, good things happen. Food production increased and people were fed.

The second lesson is that our actions have consequences and that we need to be vigilant about what we do and how we do it.

Of course, it is always easy to criticize after the facts. Pinpointing the negative effects of the Green Revolution is only relevant to a point. Using the mistakes from then as an argument to not engage in further modernization and progress is at least as destructive as bad practices implemented without thinking. Not taking action to develop new practices, new techniques and new technologies –three very different concepts- comes down to giving up. This is not acceptable. This is not possible. To meet future food demand, farmers and all the players involved in food production will need to be innovative and daring. Being innovative and daring does not mean being reckless. We cannot accept this behavior, as the consequences could be too serious.

When looking back at the Green Revolution, the question is not so much “What did they do wrong?” as it is “Did they know something wrong would happen?”

We know today that heavy mechanization, intensive monoculture and use of chemicals caused soil erosion, loss of fertility and soil and water contamination. Is that something that the farmers and the agribusiness of that time realized was happening? Did they have a possibility to know it? Some might answer “No” and others will say “Yes, I told you so”. Could have things been done differently, and helped feeding the people while not damaging the farmland?

For the future, we need to asks ourselves similar questions and develop a plan that helps us 1) succeed, 2) limit risks and 3) have alternatives in the case problems come up.

To figure out what can go wrong, the best is to listen to the opponents of the practices, techniques and technologies considered to be used. In a very short time, it is possible to set up a whole list of potential problems. To do this, it is also important to keep an open mind, because the past has shown that often what actually goes wrong had been mentioned at some time in the debate, even it might have sounded irrelevant. “The Lorax”, the movie by Dr. Seuss gives a good representation of debate between industrialists and environmentalists. The question to answer is “What if the risks actually happen?” and to develop an extensive action plan to restore control on the situation as soon as possible. In food production, the control has to occur within a limited number of areas: soil fertility, water quality, climate (to some extent), weeds, pests, diseases, bacteria (including the good ones), insects (including the good ones), worms, all animals that live on and interact with “farmland” (on the land and in the oceans) and their habitat, genetic diversity, and ability to living organisms to reproduce.

Every time progress is made, there is a struggle between the enthusiastic and those who fear change. There is a tension between action and precaution. This is very human and normal. It is necessary to take the time to review the whole process thoroughly and accept that things do not change as fast, or not as slowly as some think they should. In the end, progress must help humanity improve and prosper, and not just on the short term.

The key is preparing ourselves, and as the saying goes: “The failure of preparation is the preparation of failure”.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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