High yield agriculture is behind the “green revolution”
April 29, 2008 by Pat Tiggers
What’s the secret of our success? Why is America the richest nation in history? What do we do that everyone else doesn’t?
What's the secret of our success? Why is America the richest nation in history? What do we do that everyone else doesn’t?
Man’s economic activity starts with food. You need food every day. With the money and time you have left after obtaining food, you can do other things. It’s these other things that ordinarily measure wealth and affluence—education and recreation, for example.
The easier it is to obtain food, with the least amount of time and income, the more wealth and affluence you can have. That’s true for individuals and it’s true for nations. And, that is why America leads.
Those reading this might know as well as I do that our younger generation is pathetically deficient in agricultural knowledge (among other things). But if I had to pick the one thing that bothers me most it would be that they don’t learn about the Green Revolution. In fact, they’ve never even heard of it! How tragic! Today’s kids associate the miracle that built this country, saved billions from starvation, and saved millions of acres of wildlife habitat, with the farce that today goes by the name of “environmentalism.”
The word “green” is now associated with advocacy, not with “growing” things.
Joe Snyder, formerly of People for the USA, said it best: “The greatest gift to the environment in modern history has been the Green Revolution—‘green’ as in farming, not ‘green’ as in environmental.
“Indeed, the real ‘Green Revolution’ has completely passed by most of the loud, overbearing environmentalists whose grasp of the big picture and vision of the future extend as far as the end of their noses.
“While clueless activists hug trees, rail against ‘unnatural’ farming, bray global warning theories they don’t understand, and provide endless theatrics and lawsuits that are actually hurting their cause more than helping it, the real greening of the planet is quietly being accomplished by modern agriculture.”
Today, the abundance of food is a given. Agriculture is ignored simply because we do our job so well. Just look at a modern supermarket—three square blocks of food. Textbooks, television and teachers are indifferent to the reason America lives so well.
Technically the Green Revolution began in the US during the 1930s when farming switched from “horse” power to “tractor” power. Productivity per manhour increased dramatically as the latter could accomplish more in a day than the former could do in a week.
Within the first decade after the coming of tractors, 30 million acres previously used to feed horses could be used to feed people. This alone was a green miracle, but the best was yet to come. Yields were gradually increasing in the 1930s with the development of hybrid corn and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer but progress was slow. It took a war to make it a “revolution.”
With the entry of the US into World War II in 1941, attention focused on agriculture. The country needed more food and fiber for our men and allies fighting overseas and, not only did we need it right now, we needed it way over there. Research money poured in and the entire country got behind the effort to “feed our boys.”
And, look what we accomplished! Plant breeders developed varieties that were faster growing, and more resistant to drought, pests and disease. Major improvements were made to the three main food crops, rice, corn and wheat.
Irrigation methods improved and federal dollars helped build more and better delivery systems, which gave more farmers access to water. Synthetic fertilizers improved along with soil testing techniques. And in each issue of this magazine, Manure Manager cites the gains that we continue to make with the use of manure in nutrient management.
All this has gone hand-in-hand with advances in animal protein production. Feed efficiency ratios improved, carcass yields shot up, animal death rates dropped dramatically with new vaccines and medicines.
In the 1960s the revolution spread to the developing world with research stations funded by US and European money. By 1990 world food production had tripled, keeping pace with population growth.
The miracle of all this is not just the human lives saved from starvation. The Green Revolution has been an environmental miracle. We tripled food production and we did it on the same amount of cropland. In 1950 the world was farming about 5.8 million square miles. Today, worldwide, we are still farming about the same, and in the US cropland has actually gone down.
If, however, land use had gone up along with food production, the world would now be farming at least 15 million square miles. High-yield agriculture is already saving 10 million square miles from the plow. And, that’s a lot of acres for wildlife, wetlands and rainforest.
Pat Tigges is administrator of EAT First! (www.eatfirst.org), a fact-based, proactive educational program focused on counteracting misinformation about the environment, agriculture, and the technology used in high-yield production. Pat has been active in the agricultural community for over 30 years. She has a Masters Degree in Nutrition from the University of California at Davis.