Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Some emails and lots of postings this week about the death at 95 of Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution".

The National Academy of Sciences credits him with saving millions of lives, and those with whom he worked and lots of Iowans, apparently, revere him. As one plows through the coverage, it seems pretty clear that he was a deeply compassionate, humble man. And he was a competent scientist.

What has distressed me, though, is that this has provided an opportunity to silence or diminish critics of the green revolution - despite what we now know about its lack of sustainability.

We should not be surprised that The News Hour did this, greenwashing the green revolution.
After all, look at their sponsors: agrichemical companies.

But we need to be honest about the fact that yesterday's best science is not necessarily the greatest hope for the future. High tech agriculture that relies on fossil fuel inputs and synthetic pesticides is not sustainable for most of the world's population - either economically or ecologically.

There will be those of an older generation, like Borlaug, who see such high tech solutions as GMOs, the key to the "new green revolution" ("green revolution 2"? "son of the green revolution"?) as the way forward, and condemn their critics as elitists, immune to the plight of the hungry.

And there will be those like John Jeavons, in South Africa right now, working with folks who want to support small scale local farmers in sustainable growing techniques.

And there will continue to be a place for science, but working with local culture and biodiversity to find the most appropriate strains of seeds, searching for best biological practices to manage plant and animal pests and build soil fertility, and helping share knowledge among different locales as climate change brings about shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns.

The era of better living through chemistry, of the magic bullet, is over. But its saints are still on our calendar, in spite of the unintended consequences, as a reminder that we all strive to do the best we can to respond with compassion to our world in our times.

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