In Honor of Earth Day

April 19, 2008

For those working to protect the environment, the month of April is like New Year’s; the arrival of spring reminds us of the beauty and majesty of the natural environment.  We renew our resolve to protect that environment and Earth Day festivities help to educate and engage individuals and communities on a range of environmental issues. In light of all this, it makes sense that the Goldman Fund announces its annual Goldman Environmental Prize winners every April. Once again this year, six environmental activists, one from each continent (except Antarctica), received this prestigious award.  And once again, I am fortunate enough to know one of the recipients: Marina Rikhvanova from Russia.  Marina’s organization, Baikal Environmental Wave, is one of the cornerstone environmental NGOs in her country.  Despite a government which has become increasingly hostile towards the NGO community, Marina and her colleagues can claim some amazing accomplishments.  First and foremost was the successful fight to keep construction of the world’s longest oil pipeline away from the world’s deepest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal.  Oil and gas development are not the only threats to the lake and the surrounding region.  Marina is now leading the effort to stop the construction of a uranium enrichment center near the lake.  Taking on both the oil industry and the nuclear industry in Russia is no small task and Marina does this despite personal and professional risks.  Not everyone faces such daunting challenges, but recognizing those who do can and should inspire us to do more to protect the natural world around us in ways big and small.

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The man many refer to as the “Father of the Green Revolution,” Dr. Norman Borlaug, received the Congressional Gold Medal on July 17, 2007. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to develop high yielding maize and wheat varieties. Winning these two awards puts Dr. Borlaug in the good company of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel, a clear indication that Dr. Borlaug’s efforts have made a worldwide impact. What is not clear is whether the long term results of his work have truly benefited its intended audience.

The history of agriculture is a history of adaptation. In the 10,000 or so years that humans have been growing food, they have adjusted the scope and approach to meet the demands of changing civilizations. The so-called “Green Revolution” is the latest stage in this history. In the mid 1940s the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, along with the US government, funded a program to increase agricultural production in Mexico. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center was a pilot project intended to increase crop yields in response to a rapidly growing global population and to avoid predicted widespread famines. The most intensive activity lasted until the early 1970s and was used in many parts of Asia. Dr. Borlaug was part of that initial effort in Mexico and continues to support biotechology to this day through a variety of venues, including the World Food Prize.

So how dramatic were the results of the Green Revolution? Very. According to Walt Parks at the University of Georgia, 300,000 metric tons of wheat were grown in Mexico in 1950. By 1970, due to the technology associated with Green Revolution, 2.6 million metric tons were grown. Worldwide, from 1950 to 1990, crop yields jumped from 14 million tons to 144 million tons, the number of famines decreased, caloric consumption per capita increased 25% and there was an overall rise in incomes and standards of living. At the same time, the ability to get more out of the same amount of land prevented the spread of farmland and the destruction of valuable forests and other ecosystems.

This initial overview seems to portray the Green Revolution as an undeniable success, but there have been some significant downsides. The biotechnology of the Green Revolution is dependent on pesticides, irrigation and fertilizers, all things which increase agricultural production costs, favor large farmers over small subsistence farmers and cause a number of environmental problems (e.g. salinization of aquifers, top soil erosion, and soil nutrient depletion). In addition, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations points out that in looking at the Green Revolution “two general trends are apparent: the wealthy have benefited more from technological change in agriculture than the less well off and men have benefited more than women.”

Do these negatives take away from the accomplishments of Dr. Borlaug and his Green Revolution colleagues? I say no. Yes, the problems caused by agricultural biotechnology are significant and clearly the Green Revolution did not accomplish all that was promised. Like any human endeavor it was not perfect. Dr. Borlaug himself has acknowledged that fact. Poverty and hunger still exist in the world, but the reality is that it will take more than just an increased amount of food to resolve the sources of those problems. As a global community we need to address the way in which resources are used and distributed if we are going to ensure that everyone has enough.

What I think is important about the story of Dr. Borlaug is that he did something. It may not have been the perfect resolution to the problem he was addressing and it may have had some unintended consequences, but it helped good number of people. Some people talk about billions when they talk about the numbers of beneficiaries of the Green Revolution.

How many people have you helped today?