The “Green Revolution:” Its Essence, Achievements & Aftermath


The “Green Revolution” developed largely as a result of the vision and leadership of Norman Borlaug and his supporters, collaborators and followers.  This revolution drastically changed the premise and organization of agriculture in human history.  In a record short period of time — approximately seven decades — the “Green Revolution” produced enough food to allow the Earth’s human population to triple its total size during the lifetime of a single human being.  This, in turn, meant that in the period since World War II,  more human souls came to inhabit the planet than had collectively existed during the entire prior history of the species.  This was a truly staggering achievement by any metric.

Norman Borlaug: A Lifetime Fighting Hunger

This impressive transformation was only made possible throughout the world by transforming agriculture from a solar-sustainable biological process to a petro-intensive industrial system which came to consume more energy and release more carbon than it captured.  On a global scale, agriculture — humanity’s primary production system — had been transformed from a net energy capture system fueling the entire human enterprise into a net energy expending system dependent increasingly upon non-renewable fossilized carbon from the planet’s geological past. 

As ecologists have pointed out for decades, this is, to say the least, a precarious circumstance — indeed it is truly alarming.  When the production of food in any civilization becomes irretrievably dependent upon non-renewable resources, it, too, will eventually be non-renewable.  Momentary spurts in growth enabled by the subsidies of non-renewables may well be possible and produce impressive short range achievements, but in the long run systems based on non-renewables cannot — and, therefore, will not — be renewed. 

As it turns out, the “Green Revolution” may not have “solved” the world’s hunger problems, but rather — in the long run — postponed them and amplified them in magnitude.  Enthusiasts of “Green Revolution” technology have fallen — perhaps unwittingly, but, nonetheless, irretrievably — into the nitrogen “fertilizer trap.”  Not only does the production of nitrogen fertilizer require the combustion of large amounts of fossil fuel natural gas, but in addition, its use produces the byproduct of nitrous oxide, a chemical that is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide itself.   It now appears that if advocates and supporters of the “Green Revolution” approach to agriculture cannot make the paradigm shift from a continuous growth model to a solar-sustainable renewable production model, the world is likely to face repeated, rapid and rude “food crises” in the coming decades.

The importance of Norman Borlaug’s achievement and that of his disciples has been assessed by numerous voices in the decades since it began to have an impact on the global scene.  In some cases, third parties, interested primarily in promoting the “Gene Revolution,” have sought to characterize his work with the “Green Revolution” as a precursor and early stage development of the genetic modification technology that they were seeking to champion.  Other assessments have been more measured, posing some of the key ethical dimensions raised by the impact of the “Green Revolution” itself. 

Understanding the ethical dimensions of the long-term impact of the “green revolution” and its fatal dependence upon fossil fuel dependence has grave and enduring implications for current global food policy.  Large questions need to be asked.  Why, for example, has Bill Gates chosen to embrace and promote the nitrogen-based-fertilizer “green revolution” technology just as international teams of scientists have been revealing that this technology has been a tragic failure for the continent of Africa?  Rather than demonstrating a “forward-looking” policy, isn’t he in danger of being sadly out of date and tragically misinformed about the long term sustainability of what he is promoting?

The critiques of this approach to global food security are decades old.  The reason is simple: petro-intensive agricultural production technologies cannot and will not provide a stable and sustainable future for global food security.  They are based on non-renewable resources and therefore — over time — will not be renewed.

See related issues:

Other assessments include:

As well as:

Alternatives to the “Green Revolution” approach involve rethinking agriculture from the vantage point of the ecological sciences and what they can tell us about sustainability and resource conservation.   See for example: