“How will we feed a global population of 11 billion?”
It’s the biggest challenge facing food system stakeholders: how to feed the earth’s rapidly growing population, ideally without destroying the environment in the process. In the discussions and the media, talk of “a second Green Revolution” comes up regularly. But should we really be using the original Green Revolution as a model for food systems intervention?
Spoiler alert: no.
If you’re not sure why, you’ll want to watch the video of award-winning writer, activist, and academic Raj Patel giving this week’s Edible Education 101 lecture. In fact, you should watch it either way. (Update: the video is here: http://vimeo.com/album/2192316/video/85993436.)
Patel’s talk, “The Green Revolution and the Economics of the Food System,” was a fascinating, morbidly funny look at how food systems interventions are used as political tools to keep the urban poor from causing trouble — plus a better approach to building food security. (Also Terry Gilliam references, which none of the students actually enrolled in the class were old enough to get. Kids these days.)
Back to the Green Revolution. Short version: the myth is that the Green Revolution was a humanitarian project to feed the world’s poor, who were facing disastrous food shortages. We shared our advanced agricultural technology and miracle seeds, and the recipients of our largesse were able to grow enough food for everyone.
Except that’s not really what happened, or why. As Patel said:
“The Green Revolution was not intended to feed the rural poor. It was intended very explicitly to make sure that the places that got the Green Revolution (particularly India but throughout southeast Asia and Latin America) — that these places did not become any more Communist than they were.”
Motivations aside, the implementation was deeply, willfully flawed. The wonderful science and technology were resource-intensive and environmentally destructive. The program ignored what was appropriate to local conditions and cultures, dictating wheat in Mexico, corn in India. Inputs were expensive: irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. Instead of creating food independence, the system depended on government subsidies, whose beneficiaries were not the impoverished smallholder farmers, but large-scale commercial growers — not to mention the corporate and political interests driving the program.
The worst part: although the countries that were part of the Green Revolution did significantly increase their food production, a higher proportion of the populations went hungry.
This is the problem with people using “But we need to grow more food!” to justify using contested technology (GMOs, pesticide) despite unknown risks or even demonstrated dangers. The solution to world hunger wasn’t — and still isn’t — simply a matter of producing more food.
It isn’t even just a matter of distributing calories, making sure the hungry get their ration of cheap bread. And, regardless of motivations, it’s not something that a group of experts can do for (or to) the poor. Solving hunger, Patel says, requires social, economic, and political change. Want to feed 9 billion people? Create gender equality (which has the added benefit of reducing population growth) and social equity, ensure access to land and water, provide affordable credit and market access, and enable peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and seeds.
Raj Patel is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. His lecture, “The Green Revolution and the Economics of the Food System,” was the second in this year’s Edible Education 101 series, which Patel co-teaches with Michael Pollan.
You can watch the talk here: http://vimeo.com/album/2192316/video/85993436.