Peak Food: Can Another Green Revolution Save Us?
By Nicholas C. Arguimbau
31 July, 2010
Norman Borlaug, widely seen as the father of the "Green Revolution," was a true savior. Many have considered him misguided or worse, but it is hard for a compassionate person to argue with what he accomplished: saving "more human lives than any other person in history."2 It seems to be a professional disease among saviors, though, that only part of their message is heeded. The Green Revolution, like so many technical fixes, would only be, as he said when he picked up his Nobel Prize, "ephemeral" if we didn't deal with underlying social and economic problems, in this case, population and poverty.
Borlaug grew up in a remote corner of rural Iowa - a place with twelve- grade one-room schools from which most youngsters dropped out by the eighth grade, a place with one car, no telephones, no electricity, but the Iowa Corn Song ,3 proudly sung like the Star-Spangled Banner at the start of every school day:
There was no future, other than growing corn, but "Norm Boy's" grandfather had another vision, and inculcated the boy with a determination to obtain a higher education. He arrived at the University of Minnesota at age 20, "as a student athlete [whose] ability to do university work was questioned" 4 but left years later clutching a Ph.D in plant pathology,.
Assigned during World War II to Dupont, where he helped to develop DDT as part of the war effort, Borlaug was offered the sky, but given the choice between Dupont and sub-subsistence science for sub-subsistence Mexican farmers, he chose the. latter, working. with the Rockefeller Foundation, in a project to stave off a looming food crisis in overpopulated Mexico.5
The project goal was to breed strains of wheat that could withstand adverse climates, survive wheat's fungal diseases, and produce prodigiously on dwarf plants, then convince tradition-bound farmers to adopt forthwith the new hybrids and the technology that accompanied them.. It was a race against time, and an extraordinarily demanding task in the pre-DNA era. Borlaug set up field
operations in two locations with disparate climates and growing seasons so he could have plants accustomed to multiple climates, and could grow two generations of seedlings each year.
Borlaug shortly achieved his goal, and Mexico's food crisis was over in a decade. On to Asia, where the same thing was happening: overpopulation, courtesy of modern medicine.. India was home to some of the poorest people in the world. Famine was widely forecast for the mid-seventies. It was the era of Ehrlich's Population Bomb. Stanford professor Ehrlich was an icon for the rising environmental movement, but overnight, stubborn farm boy Borlaug appeared to prove him wrong. In a few short years, the Green Revolution turned a land of undernourished millions into the second largest wheat producer in the world. Borlaug became the hero of millions of peasants, and also of those who spoke for unlimited growth, and in the next twenty years The Population Bomb disappeared from the environmentalist lexicon, leaving the population boom unquestioned.
The Green Revolution, which was to go on producing wonder strains for other crops and other countries, had three central parts. The other two were irrigation and chemical fertilizer. These changed agriculture fundamentally, from a primarily solar-energy craft dependent upon local weather and soil conditions, to a fossil-fuel technology designed to force the land to produce mightily regardless of its natural limitations. Borlaug, summarizing in his Nobel lecture, warned that the new hybrids had not resulted in major yield improvements without both irrigation and "a strong responsiveness and high efficiency in the use of heavy doses of fertilizers."6 Plentiful water, plentiful chemical fertilizer - that's the secret to how in the last half century India - and California - turned arid lands almost instantly into wildly productive garden baskets. It may not be a sustainable solution, but at the time, the world needed a quick fix.
In his Nobel lecture, Borlaug talked proudly about how the new practices had given near-starving subsistence farmers surpluses they could sell, the money to buy oil-driven water pumps and tractors, and the influence to insist upon doors opening to the broader world. If you'll permit me a broad brush, the Green Revolution had doubled and tripled grain production for multi-millions who had been on the brink of starvation, but turned locally self-sustaining agriculture into hydroponics. And it turned subsistence farmers, dependent on the whims of the soil, sun and rain, into small-time contractors dependent on the whims of the discount rate, the commodities markets and the petrochemical industry.
It weakened their umbilical cord to Mother Earth, and eased a process in which millions would find themselves drawn to seek their fortunes in the cities, providing cheap labor to run the Indochinese economic machine. But those were events far in the future when Borlaug performed his magic, and it's hard to quibble when several hundred million people are about to die of starvation..
The agricultural end of food production uses staggering amounts of water. As an illustration, here's the author's recipe for a quarter-pound cheeseburger:
Ingredient /Water used in production
Lettuce (1/4 cup)..............................0.8 gal
Bun (2 bread slices equiv) .......................... 22.0 gal
Tomato (1 oz paste equiv) ......................... 6.1 gal
Cheese (1 oz.)............................................. 58.3 gal
Ground beef (4 oz) ......................................641.2 gal
TOTAL....................................... 728.4 gal
8-oz. Glass of milk........................... 50.0 gal 7
The reason water consumption for meat and dairy products is so much higher than for vegetables and grain, is that, very approximately, it takes two pounds of grain to produce a pound of chicken, five pounds to produce a pound of pork, and ten pounds to produce a pound of beef.
The Green Revolution doubled the world's irrigated acreage from 346 million acres to 690 million acres, and increased by a factor of nearly five its consumption of chemical fertilizer .8 Where does all the irrigation water come from? Wells, largely; as the World Bank has pointed out, groundwater comprises 97% of the world's accessible freshwater reserves.9
Wells are a classic case of Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" 10 - if the aquifer is shared by multiple individuals or multiple villages and there are no rules on how much anyone can use, then the users are individually, although not collectively, better off if they use as much as they want until the wells all run dry. So unless everyone follows the Golden Rule or there is an elaborate legal "groundwater management plan," controlling how much everyone gets, the wells DO run dry. The first thing you need to begin fair and sustainable allocation of groundwater supplies is records of pumping from wells. They don't exist. And farmers everywhere, from the one-acre plots of North China to the 1000-acre ranches of California, rebel against interference with their freedom. Even if there were the will and the way to adopt rational groundwater management programs around the world, the task would take many decades to accomplish - unless another farm-boy-savior-scientist comes down from the sky, to whom the farmers and bureaucrats can relate.
So where does that leave us? The United States is in a relatively good position because only one fifth of its grain production comes from irrigated land, but the figure is three fifths in India and four fifths in China.11 The world-wide picture is bleak:
* The annual overdraft from the U.S. Ogallala Aquifer, producing cattle and grain in quantity, is said to be about equal to total yearly flow of the Colorado River.12 It was declared by the USDA over a decade ago to be "near depletion," with Texas having already lost 1.4 million acres of irrigated land and the irrigated land supported by the aquifer expected to be reduced 50% by2030, an acreage accounting for roughly 10% of US grain production.
* In China, the world's greatest grain producer,13 pumping from a fossil aquifer in the North China Plain is relied upon to produce half the nation's wheat and a third of its corn, approximately 40 million tons per year or 10% of the nation's grain production; 14.
* Northern India is also overdrawing its groundwater supplies to maintain grain production. Although the overdraft is apparently much less severe than in China or the United States, nonetheless, if the current level of unsustainable groundwater overdraft continues, government experts have concluded that "India could face severe water shortages."15
* Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, reports that fifteen nations containing half the world's population, rely on groundwater overdraft for irrigation.16
These practices cannot go on for long, and in this writer's opinion, water development and conservation are unlikely to come to the rescue. large surface reservoirs and desalinization are unlikely to save the day, because these projects do not ordinarily pay for themselves and for the foreseeable future governments are unlikely to be in a position to subsidize multi-billion-dollar investments in concrete and steel to feed the poor. As for water use efficiency, it might theoretically permit savings of anywhere from 10-40%, but implementation and enforcement have all the hurdles of groundwater management plans, plus the additional hurdle that tens of millions of farmers were taught decades ago that plentiful water was essential to high yields. Changes may occur, but they will most likely be incremental and slow. So dropping grain production appears
inevitable in the US and China, and likely in much of the rest of the world, in the absence of major increases in acreage and/or yield per acre.
As for increased acreage, there is general agreement that the acreages have been at best essentially "flat" for decades17 and in any event it is hard to envision major investments being made in land development to feed the undernourished and virtually destitute bottom seventh of our population when the same land could be used, if at all, to produce beef or biofuels for the top seventh.
Yields? They are still increasing at approximately 1% per year, not enough to keep up with population increase; in fact, world per capita grain production peaked in 1986.18 Steady 1% per year yield increases cannot, of course, solve the problem of exhaustion of fossil aquifers, likely to occur close to the same time as exhaustion of the oil supply. There are disputes as to whether or how long genetic tinkering can continue to improve yields. Eventually we have to hit the maximum efficiency at which photosynthesis can occur, but there are radically different educated views as to how close we are.19
In Lester Brown's view, "Unless population growth can be slowed quickly, there may not be a humane solution to the emerging world water shortage."20 The statistics appear to show that he should have said population growth must be "reversed quickly," rather than merely "slowed quickly."
So when the aquifers run dry, a return to the days when agriculture was limited to natural precipitation, is inevitable. This means, on top of the present inability of yield increases to keep up with population increases, a relatively abrupt loss of at least 10% of production.
What about the fertilizer? That comes from mining operations, too. That is literally true of phosphorus, although it wasn't before we came along. There are more phosphorus-rich bones walking the face of the earth than ever before in geological history; humanity is hoofing it around with 5 billion kg or 11 billion pounds of phosphorus ,21 which comes from mines,22 - NONE of it recycled. This has happened only since half of us moved to the cities, taking our personal wastes with us; petrochemical fertilizers replaced natural ones; and community sewers were invented. Mama Nature can't afford this kind of progress for long.
In fact, the world phosphorus reserves are expected to be depleted within 25 to 70 years, depending upon where you are. Humanity will apparently go extinct for lack of phosphorus within a century unless we resume recycling,.23 This writer is unaware of any government plans anywhere, to do so.
And phosphorus isn't the perceived serious problem. Nitrogen is. We have a reasonable amount of nitrogen in the air for the present, but the nitrogen has to be processed into ammonium nitrate or something comparable with a high energy input, and the starting material is natural gas, 5 % of which globally is used for production of nitrogen fertilizers.24 There are presently no alternatives. Natural gas accounts for 90% of the cost of nitrogen fertilizer, so the cost of the latter is pretty much proportional to the cost of the former.25 When the petroleum supply starts to go, fertilizer prices will spiral upward.
Of course nitrogen fertilizer can also be produced by nitrogen-fixing legumes, but that necessitates alternating between nitrogen-fixers and market crops. In his Nobel lecture Borlaug spoke of a dream of nitrogen-fixing grains being introduced in 1990 that would free peasant farmers from the need to purchase chemical fertilizers, but then, he said, he would wake up, disillusioned. It was only a dream. 35 years and 3 billion more people later, he would have to tell the New York Times, "This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people. Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over."26
So at present, grain yield is not keeping up with the population, and things will get worse as fertilizer and water become expensive and scarce. Will a large part of the population die when they are curtailed? Not necessarily, because of how we allocate the use of the grain we produce.
To see the whole picture, we need to understand a little about the grain market, which is the dominant food market.. There are at this time three competing demands for the commodity: food (i.e. direct consumption by people), fodder, and fuel. Before fuel became part of the mix, the division between food and fodder was 60:40, with the "fodder" component capable if used as food, of providing the caloric needs of 3.5 billion people.27 But we are squandering the 40% "cushion."
The mix in 2008 was said by Worldwatch Institute to be 47% food, 35% fodder, 18% fuel. The 18% figure may not be a 2010 reality, but no one claims less than 9%, and use of grain for bioalcohol is projected to double in the next decade.28 The 18% that we burn or apparently will burn is more than sufficient to fill the stomachs of the record 1 billion people who are undernourished today. Does it give you a warm and fuzzy feeling that we burn the grain that is sufficient to eliminate world hunger? Me neither. And If we engaged in a modest conservation program in our gasoline use and gave the saved grain to the hungry, no one would have to go hungry, at least for the moment The feed use is increasingly for beef, and the fuel use is primarily bioethanol - an attempt to use the "cushion" in world grain production to let the middle class, particularly in the
US and China, indulge in quarter-pounders and gas guzzlers for a few more years, while the poor's burgeoning undernourished try to maintain themselves on an ever-slimmer portion of the grain production.
Feed and fuel compete with food not only for consumers, but for land. The EU has adopted a policy requiring 17% of its farmland to be devoted to biofuels in place of food.29 Land from Brazilian deforestation (which of course many of us would rather see not at all) could produce grain for food, could support range cattle, or could produce sugar cane (or grain) for ethanol. Not surprisingly, biofuel and beef are Brazil's primary products from destruction of the rainforest.30 Food comes out as a poor third in competition with feed and fuel both for grain and for land. No wonder there were riots over bread in 2008.
And we have hardly looked at the inevitable consequences of an agriculture dependent for more than half its productivity on fossil fuels, outside the control of one-acre farmers in the Third World or even of thousand-acre farmers in the US. Two of the simpler ties between fossil fuels and food are the costs of fertilizer and water for a typical Third World one-acre farm. With most of the cost of fertilizer(although varying widely year-to-year and place-to-place, $100/acre is a reasonable figure) coming from the cost of natural gas, its cost is going to go up rapidly as oil runs out and (if it happens at all) as the world starts to do something about global warming. And the cost of gasoline at $3/gallon for pumping the water from an -all-too-typical 500-foot-deep well sufficient to irrigate an acre for a year is about $200.31 So rising fossil fuel costs are likely on the near term to drive up fertilizer and water coss by hundreds of dollars per acre The Ogallala-Aquifer farmer may be able to "pass the cost along to the consumer"(Brace yourselves, Americans!), but the farmer in India or China or Bangladesh has mostly to pass the cost on to herself. Where will it come from? Less fertilizer, less water, less food, with one billion people hungry already. These are of course just illustrative costs, but he writer suspects they are more accurate than the assumptions made by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization in its food supply projections for the next decade, that the international community will invest $200 billion per year for technological improvements in agriculture, that oil production will meet demand and that its costs will hardly budge.32 So even if the world can produce enough food, most folks may soon be unable to pay for enough.
The story of how we got here is complex - a confluence of population boom, oil boom and bust, the tragedy of the commons, misallocation of resources between rich and poor, the almost-deliberate blindness of America to the consequences of biofuel production -. the list goes on. There is an ongoing academic argument about whether the plight of the poor is one of inequitable distribution "or" population, but it is quite clear at this point that the answer is "Both." There is also a sociological factor - the separation of people from the land, which has allowed us to "commoditize" land, to block the recycling of phosphorus and nitrogen, to separate sustenance from daily life, to warehouse in China's cities the millions who had recently been attached for millenia to the cycles of sun and rain and soil. Out of sight, out of mind. We will not treat the earth sustainably when we do not see it and feel it in our daily lives and know directly that what surrounds us is what keeps us and our descendants alive and healthy.
There are too many of us to go "back to the land," but we must preserve the connection. In coming decades necessity will dictate that everyone produce their own food wherever and however they can, but more important, we must reconnect ourselves to the earth we have abused. You who put aside a little corner of your urban homestead where things green can flourish are preserving the connection as best you can, and must teach others to do likewise. You are preserving an essential thread to our past, which will, if we are lucky, allow us to have a future.
But it's a slim thread.
It didn't need to be this way. Norman Borlaug, far from viewing himself as the man who proved the doomsayers wrong, knew what was coming if we didn't take care. In his Nobel lecture he described the Green Revolution as giving the world a "breathing space" until the year 2000, but then referred to an "impending doom" imposed upon us by the "Population Monster ," and told his audience that"the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only."
Dr. Borlaug said in his lecture that whether and how we deal with the population problem is a"test of the validity of "sapiens" as a species epithet." We have so far failed the test and squandered the thirty years he gave us. But the substantial fraction of the grain crop not used directly as food can, if we act quickly, allow us without famine to put ourselves on a sustainable population track, one recognizing that we don't presently feed ourselves and that on the present track, things will get much worse. And of course no technical fixes can give the bottom seventh of the world population the wherewithal to pay for what they eat, so the looming food crisis will not just be fixed with a theoretical food supply for which they cannot pay. These things must happen. Is that likely? Probably not, given past history. But it is necessary.
Once again we 6.9 billion people are on our own, without leaders or guidance. But we know what we must do, as individuals and nations: we must avoid gasohol and beef, because we cannot take food from the mouths of the hungry; we must manage and conserve our diminishing water supplies, we must work to eliminate abject poverty so that people can pay for what they eat and we must begin to decrease our numbers by limiting ourselves to one child per family.33 There is no evidence that we can avoid famine otherwise. The Green Revolution was a one shot deal, because we cannot again double irrigated acreage or multipy use of chemical fertilizers by five; and because the Green Revolution was a program of the oil age, which is fast departing. Modest crop-yield increases may keep up with population growth for a while (although they haven't for 25 years), but all indications are that the prices of what food there is will rapidly climb above the budgets of billions of us.
"Norm Boy," the Iowa farm kid, died last year. He was 95.
The writer is a California-licensed attorney currently residing in Massachusetts. He has had professional experience trying without success to implement groundwater management in California's vast agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Research and writing were supported by Urban Garden Magazine, which reserves copyright and all other republishing rights except the right to online submissions by the author. He wishes to thank Patricia Lemon and David Steele for invaluable editorial assistance.
1. This article will be published by Urban Garden Magazine in mid-August.
2. Bruce Alberts, President, NationalAcademy of Sciences
3.For the full lyrics, see
4.Mark Yudof, President, University of Minnesota.
5.Biographical information from Vietmeyer, Borlaug, Volume 1 (2004), unless otherwise indicated..
6. Dr. Borlaug’s Nobel lecture:
7.See Dr. Thomas Stein, sakia.org, 2007,
harts-units_converted.pdf for a general compilation of different foods and their
water needs for production, together with a link for explanations as to how these
8.See chart, Global Education Project, Food and Soil,
http://www.theglobaleducationproject.org:80/earth/food-and-soil.php. A hectare,
a 100-meter square, is 2.2 acres. Spend an hour studying these charts, and you
will know more than the average Ph.D. about modern agriculture.
9. World Bank, Groundwater,
10. (Garrett Hardin, 1968 paper published in the journal SCIENCE (162:12431248).
If you aren’t familiar with it, read it, and then go for a vacation and
meditate on it for a week.
11. Lester Brown, Aquifer Depletion, 2006,
12.Patricia Muir, http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/waterlim.htm
13. UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Agricultural Outlook 20102019
14. Lin Shujuan, China’s water deficit 'will create food shortage', Science and
Development Network, 2007,
and Lester Brown, WATER DEFICITS GROWING IN MANY
COUNTRIES: Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages,
15. T. V. Padma, Thirsty Indian farming depleting water resources, Science and
quoting scientists from NASA and also citing the Indian Ministry of Water Resources..
17. See e.g. the graphs shown in Staniford’s article cited below.
18. Patricia Muir, http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/waterlim.htm
19. Stuart Staniford, Food to 2050, The Oil Drum,
http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3702, discussing both sides of the dispute. See
also Grain Production, http://www.whole-systems.org/grain.html, and Science’s
February, 2010 issue devoted to food security.
20. Lester Brown, WATER DEFICITS GROWING IN MANY COUNTRIES:
Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages, above.
22. UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Current world fertilizer
trends and outlook to 2011/12, Table 4, ftp://ftp.fao.org/agl/agll/docs/cwfto11.pdf
23. For a recent and very readable discussion of the phosphorus situation, see D.A.
Vaccari, Phosphorus: A Looming Crisis, Scientific American June 2009,
24. Wikipedia, Fertilizers, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertilizer.
25. GAO, Domestic Nitrogen Fertilizer Production Depends on Natural Gas
Availability and Prices, 2003, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d031148.pdf.
26. K. Bradsher and A. Martin, The Food Chain: Shortages Threaten Farmers’ Key
Tool: Fertilizer, New York Times,
27. United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Food from Animal Feed, World
Food Supply, http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/food-crisis/page/3565.aspx). R.
Segelkin, US could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell
ecologist advises animal scientists, Cornell University Science News, 1997,
28. Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs, Grain Harvest Sets Record, But Supplies
Still Tight, 2009, http://www.worldwatch.org/vs2009.. The UN Food and
Agricultural Organization says the figure is only 9% for biofuels at this time, but
also says that the amount of grain being turned to alcohol will double in the next
decade. OECD-FAO, Agricultural Outlook 2010-2019. So if 18% isn’t correct
today, then it is likely to be correct in a decade...
29. X. Navarro, The European Commission says no to reviewing biofuel
30. OECD-FAO, Agricultural Outlook 2010-2019.
31. 1 gallon [U.S.] of automotive gasoline = 97,181,192.2530305 foot pounds.
1 acre pumping from 500 ft.: 3 acre-feet of water = 975,000 gal water x8 lbs/gal x
500 ft = 3,900,000,000 ft lbs/ 97,181,192.2530305 ft lbs/gal gasoline = 40.131 gal
x $3/gal = $120, assuming a 100% efficient pump, or $200 assuming a 60%
32. OECD-FAO, Agricultural Outlook 2010-2019
33.There is a time lag of 30-40 years built into any population policy based upon
birth control, because a rapidly-growing population over-represents the age group
under reproductive age. Consequently, a “ZPG” birth rate does not result in ZPG
for decades. Moreover, the water and energy problems imply that an overall
population reduction is necessary.