Globe and Mail July 19, 2008
Agriculture: world food crisis
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
WHAT’S NEEDED NOW
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
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.”
Alex Roslin is vice-president of the Canadian Centre for Investigative
Reporting. He livesin Lac Brome, Que.