Unbalancing Act

Agriculture: Green Revolution, Red Alert

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Modern farming produces huge amounts of food, yet more than 800 million people go hungry. Despite its successes, moreover, agriculture can harm our planet—and our health.

Chemical fertilizers allow farmers to keep growing the same crop in the same place. But this uses up the soil's natural nutrients. So, as time goes on, crops require bigger and bigger doses of chemicals.

Plowing vast fields leaves the landscape vulnerable to erosion. Heavy rains wash away acres of good soil.

Chemicals meant to kill insects, rodents, and other pests can be dangerous, and even fatal, to humans and other animals.

As harmful insects adapt to new pesticides, they become ever harder to kill, requiring new and heavier doses of pesticides.

Fertilizers and pesticides can often seep into lakes, rivers, reservoirs-killing wildlife and polluting the water we drink.

Roughly 10,000 years ago, humankind had one of its biggest breakthroughs: the advent of farming. That may not sound glamorous, but agriculture changed everything. Freed from the constant search for food, humans could settle down and form communities. From there came the development of trade, then cities, then science, then technology, and then the world we know today.

Farm. Source: USDA (Tim McCabe) Source: USDA (Tim McCabe)

The first farmers used organic techniques. So did their children, and their children's children. Generation after generation produced food in Earth-friendly ways. It's not that they were early environmentalists. There just wasn't any other way to farm.

video_iconGet a glimpse of traditional rice farming
by gliding along the Mekong River of Southeast Asia.

Options: 56k | 220k (RealPlayer required)
Source: Journey to Planet Earth

Traditional farmers used animal manure as a natural fertilizer. They rotated the types of crops grown on the same piece of land to avoid wearing out the soil. And they let fields lie fallow, or unplanted, every few years to help the soil rejuvenate itself. Most of the time, these farmers' methods did not do major environmental damage. (That was possible because the population was fairly small and land was cheap and plentiful.)


Farmers were always at the mercy of the weather. Just a modest drought could wipe out an entire crop. Even if the weather cooperated, there was always the risk that insects or other pests might devour the harvest. Feeding everyone was often a daunting task.

With each improvement of their relatively primitive farming technology, early civilizations may have begun to harm the land that gave them food. Irrigation ditches, canals, and other changes to the land helped farmers water crops and run their farms—but could have also negatively affected the natural environment.


Dust Bowl, 1930s. Source: NOAA
Whatever the farming technique, it's vital to respect the land. Drought, deforestation, and overuse led to disasters like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Source: NOAA



Then came the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. Biologists and chemists created fertilizers that worked faster and better than manure. After WWII, most farmers began to rely on chemical pesticides, which wiped out weeds and insects. New plant varieties withstood weather fluctuations and yielded more produce per acre. High-tech irrigation methods literally turned deserts green. Monoculture replaced crop rotation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, just when it looked like population growth might exceed our capacity to grow food, technology created the Green Revolution. Scientists developed combinations of irrigation, new seeds, and chemicals to dramatically increase farm yield, but led to other problems such as pesticide runoff.

By 2000, humans grew more food than ever before. And the number of underfed people was reduced to half what it had been in 1970. Still, by 2050, the United Nations Population Report estimates there will be roughly 10 billion people in the world and more than 4 billion of them will suffer from malnutrition. As with most developments in human history, the Green Revolution solved certain problems but created new ones. We are just beginning to grasp how modern, commercial farming can harm the environment.


Some farmers have responded by returning to old techniques. You probably recognize the word "organic" from supermarket labels and farmers markets. Some grocery stores and restaurants specialize in organic foods.


Sales of organic fruits and vegetables. Source: USDA/Cornell University
Sometimes the best way forward is to look back. Sales of organic fruits and vegetables in the U.S. have grown dramatically.
Source: USDA/Cornell University


Some farm machines are getting into the act: they're running on fuel made from soybean oil.


Bugs that eat pests can replace chemical pesticides.
  Other machines use dishwashing soap and vegetable oil as a natural pesticide. Source: USDA
Other machines use dishwashing soap and vegetable oil as a natural pesticide.
Source: USDA


Is it possible to feed all of us with nutritional food without compromising our health and the health of our planet? Answering that question will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century.


health_iconHow does an apple a day keep the doctor away?

science_iconDoes our food supply need a bio break?


Why battle for balance? back_unbalancenext_unbalance Why root for trees?