02
Mar
10

The Green Revolution’s bitter fruit: a Biblical plague?

There’s an interesting and frightening story in Wired this month about the potential catastrophe represented by puccinia graminis, or Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust in wheat. Writes Brendan I. Koerner:

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

This is a thorough look at what could develop into something truly awful. Massive starvation is a not implausible result, if a few opportunistic spores blow into the wrong spots. (Some scholars apparently believe stem rust was one of the Biblical plagues, FWIW.)

But I have to voice my objection to a basic premise of the article, the characterization of the Green Revolution as a “lifesaving agricultural movement.” Koerner asserts  that the Norman Borlaug-led Revolution “produced multiple disease-proof, high-yielding crops capable of feeding once-hungry populations.”

Which is pretty much a spot-on reflection of the consensus on Borlaug as a selfless, indefatigable Man of Science who fed the world’s starving populations. The consensus, however, glosses over the fact that the Green Revolution created many more problems than it solved. More than a half century after Borlaug’s Rockefeller Foundation-funded trip to Mexico, the state of affairs in the nations saved by the gift of Western agriculture are at best parlous.

Writing in Grist just after Borlaug’s death last Fall at the age of 95, Tom Philpott offered a dissenting take on Borlaug’s achievement:

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while [Borlaug biographers] Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.

Philpott is careful to point out that he’s not demonizing Borlaug:

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

Koerner paints a vivid picture of scientists working with great urgency to develop new seed varieties that are immune to Ug99. I wonder how much, if any, of the big scientific push is taking into account Philpott’s “other” things that matter, especially the biodiversity consideration. My Googling has turned up no answers to this question up until now.

I admit I am laboring in the dark here. This may be an ignorant question, but what about OLD varieties? In past outbreaks, did stem rust afflict EVERY strain of wheat in ALL conditions? I really don’t know. I do hope some of these scientists are working on re-diversifying the seed stock, instead of trying to engineer one or a couple varieties so the monocrop paradigm can continue uninterrupted.

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