Richard (Rick) Mills
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As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information
The second half of the 20th century saw the biggest increase in the world’s population in human history.
Our population surged because:
- Medical advances lessened the mortality rate in many countries
- Massive increases in agricultural productivity because of the “Green Revolution”
The global death rate has dropped almost continuously since the start of the industrial revolution - personal hygiene, improved methods of sanitation and the development of antibiotics have all played a major role.
The term Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfers that happened between the 1940s and the late 1970s.
The initiatives involved:
- Development of high yielding varieties of cereal grains
- Expansion of irrigation infrastructure
- Modernization of management techniques
- Distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers
Tractors with gasoline powered internal combustion engines (versus steam) became the norm in the 1920s after Henry Ford developed his Fordson in 1917 - the first mass produced tractor. This new technology was available only to relatively affluent farmers and it was not until the 1940s tractor use became widespread.
Electric motors and irrigation pumps made farming and ranching more efficient. Major innovations in animal husbandry - modern milking parlors, grain elevators, and confined animal feeding operations - were all made possible by electricity.
Advances in fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, antibiotics and growth hormones all led to better weed, insect and disease control.
There were major advances in plant and animal breeding - crop hybridization, artificial insemination of livestock, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Further down the food chain came innovations in food processing and distribution.
All these new technologies increased global agriculture production with the full effects starting to be felt in the 1960s.
Cereal production more than doubled in developing nations - yields of rice, maize, and wheat increased steadily. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased by over 250% - and the world added over two billion more people to the dinner table.
The Green Revolution
The modernization and industrialization of our global agricultural industry led to the single greatest explosion in food production in history. The agricultural reforms and resulting production increases fostered by the Green Revolution are responsible for avoiding widespread famine in developing countries and for feeding billions more people since. The Green Revolution also helped kick start the greatest explosion in human population in our history - it took only 40 years (starting in 1950) for the population to double from 2.5 billion to five billion people.
Norman Borlaug, an American scientist, is often called the Father of the Green Revolution (GR). In 1943, he began conducting research in Mexico regarding developing new, disease resistant high yielding varieties of wheat. Mexico then combined Borlaug's wheat varieties with the agricultural technologies being developed at the time and was able to become a wheat exporter by the 1960s - prior to Mexico’s Green Revolución the country was importing almost half of its wheat supply.
Improving seeds is what people have been doing since the beginning of agriculture - people selected the biggest seeds that were easiest to thresh and stored them for planting the next crop. But in Mexican test plots something special happened - improved varieties of short stemmed wheat dramatically increased yields.
“Borlaug’s innovations would change wheat production worldwide forever. Borlaug began by tackling stem rust, a highly contagious mold-like fungus that breeds on a variety of grasses and transfers to wheat just as it comes to maturity. Stem rust could ruin entire fields of wheat at once. After extensive testing, MAP staff discovered that while foreign varieties were more resistant to stem rust than native wheat varieties, foreign varieties tended to mature late in the season. Furthermore, higher-yielding wheat varieties were more rust-susceptible than lower-yielding ones.
The MAP wheat program made three key discoveries. First, enhancing soil, particularly through nitrogen supplementation, increased wheat yield even with ongoing stem rust problems. Second, to make new hybrid crosses, in 1945 Borlaug began “shuttle-breeding,” or moving seed from Chapingo, with its early growing season, to Sonora, which had a later growing season. Shuttle breeding cut development time in half and fostered varieties that could thrive across a variety of conditions. Finally, Borlaug began working with “Norin” dwarf wheat imported from the U.S., a short straw variety that was both rust-resistant and higher yielding. When it was incorporated into the elaborate crosses already developed, wheat production rose dramatically. Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1956, and in MAP’s first twenty years, Mexico tripled its wheat production.” The Mexican Agriculture Program (MAP),
What makes these improved plants successful are:
- Plants with the largest seeds were selected for breeding to create the most production
- By maximizing the seed or food portion of the plant, the plant is able to use photosynthesis more efficiently because the energy produced during this process went directly to the food portion of the plant
- By selectively breeding plants that were not sensitive to day length, researchers doubled a crop’s production because the plants were not limited to certain areas of the globe based solely on the amount of light available to them
These high yield plant varieties need:
The “revolution" in Green Revolution is well deserved. The new seeds along with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and more irrigation replaced traditional farming practices in many areas of the world.
The Green Revolution's use of hybrid seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, farm machinery, and high-tech growing and processing systems combined to greatly increase agriculture yields. The Green Revolution is responsible for feeding billions - and likely enabling the birth of billions more people.
Unfortunately the high yield growth is tapering off and in some cases declining. This stagnation, and in some cases decline, in productivity is due to a depleting natural resources base such as a steep fall in ground water table levels because irrigation has depleted water aquifers and chemical fertilizers and pesticides have impaired water quality, while their overuse has contributed to a deficiency of micro-nutrients in the soil and overall deteriorating soil health.
Narrowly focusing on increasing production as the Green Revolution
did cannot alleviate hunger because it failed to alter three simple facts;
An increase in food production does not necessarily result in less hunger - if the poor don't have the money to buy food increased production is not going to help them. The most severe consequences of non-existent or more expensive staple foods are first felt in developing countries whose citizens spend an exorbitant percentage of their incomes feeding themselves and their family compared to families in the western world. Almost half of the planets population lives on less than $2.50 a day - roughly 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. When food prices soar these people lack the money to feed themselves and their children - when your living on a couple of dollars a day, or less, and most of your income already goes to feed your family there’s no money to cover a price spike in the cost of survival.