In 1968, William Gaud, director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) coined "the Green Revolution" as a term for the massive impact new technologies were having on agriculture: Synthetic fertilizers, hybrid crops, improved irrigation and the introduction of synthetic pesticides. The Green Revolution had actually begun twenty-five years earlier in Mexico with the work of Norman Borlaug, and established an era where crop yields would increase by 50% per decade.
However, seventy years since Borlaug's great work, we are struggling with many unforeseen consequences of the Green Revolution. For this article, I'm not going to get into the population explosion and surrounding social issues, nor am I going to address GMOs or technologies introduced after the Green Revolution. I'm focusing on issues arising out of the Green Revolution and how new technologies such as biologicals are addressing them.
The biggest technology impact of the Green Revolution came from synthetic fertilizers, which have boosted crop production by an estimated 50%. However, they have also caused numerous problems. Because synthetic fertilizers were cheap and plentiful, farmers' natural response to the demand for more production was to use greater amounts. As a result, in many cases more fertilizer was applied than was needed for optimum crop growth. In addition, many fertilizers are water-soluble, and as much as 30% can run off with rain or irrigation water or be carried into waterways by soil erosion (an increasing problem as “wall-to-wall” farming has grown in popularity). This can carry nitrates, phosphates, and other compounds into rivers, lakes and the ocean, resulting in eutrophication, or oxygen depletion; this has already occurred in 48% of the lakes in North America, resulting in "dead zones" with unhealthy marine life, reduced biodiversity, and sometimes toxic algal blooms.
Another significant impact was the introduction of crop pesticides, which eliminated losses of up to 50% of crops due to insect and other pest damage. However, several of these compounds, including DDT, chlordane, and lindane, have been repeatedly linked with cancer. Most recently, neonicotinoids (which are actually permitted under the guidelines for organic farming despite their high toxicity, because they are derived from tobacco leaves) have been linked clearly to honey-bee colony collapse, leading to last month's ban of their use in the EU.
Soil fumigants were a commonly-used pesticide on high value crops such as strawberries that are very vulnerable to soil borne disease; although still in use, they are being phased out. Soil fumigants literally sterilize the soil, wiping out both pests and beneficial organisms. Although beneficial populations quickly rebound (nature abhors a vacuum), farmers and regulators have long recognized the negative toxic effects of these chemicals, and so their market is shrinking.
There is no easy solution. Many well-meaning people point to organic fertilizers as a sustainable alternative, but that's really not so sustainable. Even if all bones, human, animal and plant wastes on the planet were processed for fertilizer, it would be insufficient for replacement of soil nutrients required by contemporary farming. Plus, it often contains pathogens. Organic fertilizer has a role, but it cannot be the entire answer.
There is a rapidly growing trend toward biological solutions to the needs of agriculture. NewLeaf Symbiotics, for example, is pioneering a new approach whereby they harness the natural powers of beneficial microbes already living on plants. Nurtured and applied correctly, these microbes have been demonstrated to speed up germination, help the plant grow more and deeper roots, sprout earlier with more foliage, and ultimately grow significantly more food per plant. NewLeaf has a good analogy for their products, calling them "Probiotics For Plants." One key reason Pangaea invested in NewLeaf was that their technology can provide some of the benefits of soil fumigants without the toxic effects, and while still allowing the beneficial soil organisms to help the crop.
Above the surface, biopesticides (see my earlier article) are seeing mass adoption, especially in light of recent regulatory changes in the EU. Our portfolio company Vestaron Corporation is commercializing pesticides derived from compounds discovered in spider and other venoms, which have no toxic effects on humans, other mammals, birds, fish, marine invertebrates, even bees. Yet the field trials of both 2011 and 2012 showed that these compounds are very effective at controlling leaf-chewing insects. The biopesticides are produced in a low-cost, high-yield fermentation process.
Some of the biggest problems emerging from the Green Revolution share a common cause: Economic analysis based on inputs and crop yields only. When inputs were cheap, and nobody was paying attention to the costs of environmental damage and human or animal health, poor material efficiencies didn't seem to matter. But in the meantime, farmers and ag chem companies alike have had to learn the hard way that EHS concerns bring real, measurable, and sometimes severe, costs. In the last 10 years, ammonia prices have increased from $100/ton to a peak over $1,500 per ton in 2008; the inputs are no longer cheap. Even farmers unconcerned about environmental damage are starting to care about fertilizer losses, for purely selfish economic reasons.
There may be many black spots on the record of the Green Revolution, despite it having averted mass starvation and created an enormous economic surge. However, the continuing spirit of innovation is now addressing those very problems, enabling even greater agricultural production but with reduced, and hopefully eventually eliminated, negative environmental effects.