The Green Revolution Protects the Environment
Heinrich von Loesch
Keywords:  Green Revolution; Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). 
Correct citation: Loesch, H. von (1996), "The Green Revolution Protects the Environment." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 29, p. 24. 

Eric Ross criticised the Green Revolution for de-emphasizing a structural approach to poverty and food scarcity in favour of technological solutions (Monitor No. 26). In response, Heinrich von Loesch argues that technology is essential to close the demographic and economic gaps in agriculture. The Green Revolution has not only overcome its initial environmental problems, it has also prevented a global environmental disaster.

It is flattering although somewhat exaggerated that Eric Ross considers the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) "an important vehicle, helping to shape the global economy". If indeed, the CGIAR is an important vehicle, it is jointly owned by both North and South. It is not, as Ross suggests, following western corporate interest. About 45 per cent of the members are developing countries. The CGIAR is an international consortium for agricultural research for developing countries, with the objectives of poverty alleviation, sustainable development, and food security. Technology is, of course, only one factor of a solution for rural subsistence problems. Agrarian reform, effective gender policies, removal of anti-agricultural policy biases, and investment in rural infrastructure and development are other important avenues toward an overall solution. The CGIAR can make valuable contributions mainly in the field of technology generation, policy advice, and research support. It does not have the competence for agrarian reform or "structural solutions". This responsibility is serviced by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), especially its Rural Development and Agrarian Reform Division.
The CGIAR performs research on food crops and aspects of livestock, fisheries and forestry production that are ignored by the private sector due to poor commercial potentials of such areas. The CGIAR is governed by the principle of consensus, with no voting rights.

Now that some misunderstandings about the CGIAR are removed, other questions by Eric Ross can be addressed: has a technical solution, as offered by the CGIAR, perpetuated the problems of rural subsistence? At the prehistoric technology level of hunting and gathering, as practised before agriculture was invented, the world’s currently used arable land would feed only about one per cent of the earth’s present population, or 60 million people. The invention of agriculture and the gradual improvement of crops and livestock over 10 millennia allowed a hundredfold increase in population density by changing, but not destroying, the environment.
Farmers tend to clash with the environment when their technology levels are operating below effective demographic and economic demands. This has been the situation in developing countries since about 1950. Massive forest losses in tropical and subtropical areas, salination of irrigated lands, erosion of hill sides, pollution from intensive farming and livestock production are consequences of inappropriate technology and farm management. However, had technology not developed as it did, environmental strain would have been unimaginably stronger. Had crop technology in developing countries remained at 1970/74 levels, they would additionally need the equivalent of the combined arable lands of the USA, Brazil and Canada to produce today’s harvests. Clearly, not even a fraction of this additional land would be available for cultivation in the developing regions, not to mention the need for its even distribution throughout all four regions. Science has helped prevent an environmental disaster of truly global proportions, and science must continue to do so with more vigour in the future. The demography and technology gaps must be closed if agriculture is again to become part of an environmentally stable system.

Scientists essentially perform the same kind of gradual crop and farm improvement that billions of farmers have pursued since the inception of agriculture. The difference is that scientists work much faster. Scientists, in tandem with current and future generations of farmers in developing countries, must attain the higher levels of technology and farm management needed to ensure rural prosperity and protect the environment. Currently farmed marginal lands must be allowed to return to their original state; forests must be allowed to grow back where they are essential; the biological diversity of nature must be protected and enhanced. Farming inputs must be used judiciously.

Finally, there remains Eric Ross’ preoccupation with the Green Revolution. In 1965, India harvested 12 million tonnes of wheat. Thirty years later, India achieved a fivefold increase in output: 63 million tonnes. Thereby India has overtaken the USA, becoming the world’s second largest wheat producer after China. These stunning figures are perhaps more revealing about the Green Revolution than many scientific (and less scientific) treatises. Whatever the shortcomings of the early years of the Green Revolution, mainly in environmental terms, the Green Revolution was and remains tremendously successful. It is supported by countless millions of small farmers whose livelihood is benefiting from the productivity and hardiness of modern high yielding varieties.
Heinrich von Loesch

Information Adviser at the CGIAR Secretariat, Washington DC, USA.

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