A Tough New Row to Hoe


The Green Revolution that began in 1945 transformed farming and fed millions in developing countries. But its methods over the long run are proving to be stunningly destructive. Alex Roslin reports

The idea was to reduce hunger through the magic of economies of scale. The plan was to implement a new approach to farming across the developing world.

And so, starting in 1945, the U.S.-backed Green Revolution did to farming what the Model T did to auto production. It subsidized peasants in developing countries to abandon centuries-old, small-scale farming techniques that used diverse, locally adapted crops and instead plant vast fields of single crops specially bred for high yields. And, since the new monocrops were often less suited to local conditions, farmers were also encouraged to use plenty of pesticides and fertilizers to improve harvests.

Playing a major role in the Green Revolution was the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up in the Philippines in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations with the collaboration of the Philippine government.

Now, almost half a century later, the Green Revolution's key innovations - chemicals and monocultures - are being blamed for a recent pest and disease epidemic that has ravaged Asian rice fields and sharply curtailed the supply of the main food staple of half of the world's population. The shortages have helped to send rice prices into orbit and sparked unrest across the developing world.

"This pest outbreak is actually man-created," says Kong Luen Heong, an insect ecologist at IRRI's headquarters in Los Banos, 60 kilometres south of Manila. "It's a symptom of an ecosystem breakdown."


The brown planthopper is a nasty-looking little insect that is the scourge of Asian rice farmers. It has devastated crops in Vietnam, China and Malaysia and is one of the main reasons that the price of rice has shot up fourfold since 2003, Dr. Heong says.

Ironically, a growing body of research shows that the plant-hopper is thriving because of the very pesticides that governments and chemical companies encourage farmers to use to control it.

The reason: Pesticides kill the planthopper's natural predators - spiders and crickets - which normally control the destructive insect. In a 14-year study at an experimental rice farm at IRRI, Dr. Heong found that cutting pesticide use by 88 per cent led to 75-per-cent fewer destructive herbivores as a portion of all the insects at the farm.

Dr. Heong's methods have a proven track record. In 1994, he helped the Vietnamese government create a campaign to encourage rice farmers to reduce pesticide use. Use of the chemicals dropped by half, while farm yields remained unaffected and the planthopper vanished.

But early this decade, Vietnamese farmers reverted to their old ways when rice prices started to creep up. The farmers, anxious to safeguard their increasingly lucrative crops, resumed the use of pesticides as a preventive measure and, in so doing, weakened the health of their crops, Dr. Heong says.

That led, in 2006, to the first massive planthopper outbreak Vietnam had seen in years. In order to ensure that there was enough rice for the domestic market, the government temporarily suspended rice exports, which further stoked price increases, which in turn led to more pesticide use, often with the misguided encouragement of government officials, Dr. Heong says.

He warns that should the planthopper infestation spread in Vietnam - the nation worst hit in the outbreak and the world's third-largest rice exporter - the government there will probably reinstate the ban on exports, sharply escalating the food crisis.

"Importing countries will have a panic reaction and that would further drive the price up," he says.

But his biggest fear is that the spiral of orbiting rice prices and greater chemical use could lead to a nightmare scenario of the planthoppers spreading to Thailand, the world's largest rice exporter.


Dr. Heong's views coincide with those of a growing group of food experts who agree that farming methods must change in order to prevent future food crises. They say reform is especially needed because the methods instilled by the Green Revolution are ill suited to cope with climate change. And like Dr. Heong, they say much conventional wisdom about modern agriculture isn't borne out by recent scientific evidence.

David Pimentel, a Cornell University entomologist who has also linked pesticide overuse to planthopper outbreaks in Asian rice fields, says that when Indonesia sharply restricted the use of the chemicals on its rice crops in the 1980s, yields increased by 12 per cent in five years.

In a 22-year study he reported on in 2005 in the journal BioScience, Dr. Pimentel compared organic and conventional crop yields in Pennsylvania and found that organic methods produced the same or better harvests, while eliminating the use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, reducing watering needs and leaving the soil healthier.

In another study that challenged conventional thinking, Mark Winston, a bee expert at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, found that canola farmers in Alberta who let some of their land go fallow saw dramatically improved yields compared with those who planted their entire farm.

The uncultivated land became an oasis for bees, which, in turn, helped the canola flourish with improved pollination, Dr. Winston and his co-authors reported in a 2006 study in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and the Environment. Leaving 33 per cent of a field unplanted would have more than doubled the profit from the remaining crop because of its greater yield, the study found.


"The data is very strong: Plant less and make more money. It's a whole different mindset," Dr. Winston says.

The stakes in all this are significant and go beyond the current food crisis, says David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist who just wrote the book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. He says the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is being replenished, mostly because of Green Revolution-era agricultural methods - such as excessive tilling and monocultures - which leave vast tracts barren after harvest and thus more vulnerable to erosion. "Some day we are going to run out," he says.

Dr. Montgomery found that soil mismanagement was a major factor in the decline of many civilizations, including those of ancient Greece and Rome, early China, the Mayans and Easter Island. "The state of the soil can be seen as helping to define the resilience of a society," he says.

"The challenge in the next century will be to adapt farming to the land. We've been trying to adapt the land to farming. But the earth bats last."


While the Green Revolution did produce higher yields at first, they plateaued in the 1990s. What's needed now, Dr. Heong says, is a new round of changes to farming practices that would amount to a second Green Revolution.

Dr. Heong is no radical environmentalist. His institute, which gets funds from the World Bank, agribusiness and two dozen nations, including Canada, played a major role in encouraging Asian farmers to adopt the very practices he now criticizes.

But in June, at the International Planthopper Conference in Los Banos, he touted what seemed to many the radical idea that Asian government officials must enact policies to rein in pesticide use.

Another solution, Dr. Heong says, is to reduce reliance on monocultures. He is working with Vietnamese officials to encourage farmers to plant a greater diversity of rice varieties and allow parts of their fields to go to grass - methods that he says would create healthier farms without reducing yields.

"In the face of climate change," he says, "more diversity will help the system be more robust."

TAGS: food, pesticides, farm, soil, rice, Green Revolution, International Rice Research Institute, monocultures