Sustainable Agriculture and the Green Revolution
Each year, the average person in the U.S. consumes about 2,000 pounds of food (Aubrey). This, combined with the ever-growing population, amounts to a huge need for increased agricultural production. However, the situation is not as simple as it seems. As history reveals, agricultural expansion can have disastrous effects on the environment, in many cases counteracting the benefits of increased food supply. To find an appropriate balance, we need to learn from history and understand the consequences of agriculture.
The Green Revolution, an agricultural revolution sparked by a global need for food, saw developed countries send technological innovations to developing countries to increase agricultural output and ease the suffering of citizens. It was characterized by innovation in irrigation, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Overwhelmingly successful in its goal, the Green Revolution initially saw increases in agricultural productivity worldwide, especially in areas such as India (Singh). Despite this, wanton action and poorly planned policy led to many environmental setbacks. For example, the overuse of pesticides and intensive farming in India disrupted the food chain and left soil depleted. Furthermore, the use of hybrid crops led to the extinction of native crop varieties (John). Together, these effects often decreased agricultural productivity in the long run, nullifying much of the new technology’s benefits. Though the technology from the Green Revolution offers hope for the impoverished and those suffering from malnutrition, reckless use of this technology without consideration for the environment could have the reverse effect and exacerbate existing issues.
One major problem behind agriculture is the expansion of arable land. Estimates predict that to double global food production, an 18% increase in arable land will be needed, a size equal to the entire country of Argentina (Tilman). Clearing land and devoting it to agriculture would endanger many native species and release unprecedented levels of CO2, making it an unsustainable practice. This can especially be observed in the case of slash and burn agriculture. In slash and burn agriculture, forested land is cut and then burned, leaving behind a nutrient rich layer. However, this process erodes soil, contributes to air pollution, and contaminates water sources. Furthermore, the nutrient rich layer only lasts for a few years, meaning that more land will need to be cut down (“Slash and Burn…”). In 2020, unsustainable agricultural practices resulted in the loss of about 2.1 million hectares of primary forest (Voiland). Notably, primary forest is incredibly biodiverse and carbon-rich, meaning that removing such forests releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, worsening the effects of global warming (Ruiz). It would also destroy existing ecosystems.
Another way of producing more food is through agricultural intensification, which is centered around fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation, and mechanization (Philpott). When farmers overuse fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus, the excess runs off into groundwater (“The Sources and…”). This can result in eutrophication and algal blooms, processes by which algae grows uncontrollably due to the increase of otherwise limiting nutrients. Over time, eutrophication creates dead zones, oxygen depleted areas that are uninhabitable by fish and many other marine organisms. Additionally, fertilized soil can release ammonia and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful to the environment. Pesticides are another type of chemical that are dangerous to both humans and wildlife. Pesticides can be found in trace amounts in the food we eat, which can threaten our wellbeing, especially with their long-term accumulation in our bodies. Furthermore, pesticides commonly contaminate soil and water, unintentionally harming native wildlife (Aktar). To fully appreciate the dangers of pesticides, one can direct their attention to DDT. In the 1970s, the insecticide DDT was responsible for the extreme decline in bald eagle populations (“The Case of…”).
To combat the dangers of careless expansion, we should strive to employ sustainable agriculture whenever possible. Sustainable agriculture is simply a way to increase agricultural production while easing the negative effects (Feenstra). Farmers can use GMOs and other sustainable methods to reduce nutrient loss, minimize water usage, and lower pollution levels (Chamberlin). Just as importantly, consumers such as us can purchase goods grown with the environment in mind and minimize food waste whenever possible.
The whole world is currently at a defining moment in its history. With climate change and other environmental issues on the rise, how we respond to the growing need for agriculture will shape our future for years to come.
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Aubrey, Allison. “The Average American Ate (Literally) A Ton This Year.” NPR, NPR, 31 Dec. 2011, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2011/12/31/144478009/the-average-american-ate-literally-a-ton-this-year.
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Tilman, David. “Global Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Expansion: The Need for Sustainable and Efficient Practices.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 96, no. 11, 1999, pp. 5995–6000., https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.96.11.5995.
Voiland, Adam. “Sizing up How Agriculture Connects to Deforestation.” NASA, NASA, 2021, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/148674/sizing-up-how-agriculture-connects-to-deforestation.