Bitter Harvest — How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Robert Zeigler, is head of IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), one of the key groups who are carrying forward Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. Yes, the Golden Rice people. His essay for COSMOS makes me both sad and angry at the same time.

As an intellectual direct descendent of the architects of the Green Revolution, like Norman Borlaug (pictured above), it is truly heartbreaking to see their noble endeavors attacked by people claiming to defend the environment and the interests of the poor. From Norm Borlaug to Peter Jennings, all these greats had something in common: a fire in the belly to try and make a mockery of the doomsday predictions of Ehrlich and the Paddocks brothers. The role of science was precisely to make the future different from the past. Sadly, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash.

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Our understanding of genetics and the ability to proactively manipulate how plants behaved and responded to the environment was becoming a reality. Many of us saw this as a way to reverse the negatives of the Green Revolution and open the way for, in the words of Sir Gordon Conway, a “doubly green revolution.”

It was foreseeable that we could engineer into crops resistance to insect pests and pathogens that would eliminate the need for spraying toxic chemicals that sickened every organism they touched. Even better, we could now help the people left behind because they lived on lands plagued by droughts or floods that wouldn’t support modern crop varieties. I have seen this dream validated. India’s untouchable communities often farm on marginal flood-prone land. IRRI’s flood-tolerant rice is most useful to these farmers and promises to transform the lives of millions.

In short we saw modern biology as a driver for transforming agriculture into a tool for protecting the environment, meeting food needs, and reversing millennia of injustices that condemned certain segments of the population to the worst land.

Sadly, while we were working to make our dreams reality, the strange brew of anti-corporate sentiment, extreme environmentalism, romanticized traditional organic but land-hungry agriculture and fear of new technologies boiled over to create a powerful anti-technology backlash. The extreme regulations for GMO crops demanded by self-proclaimed protectors of the environment, had the perverse result that only the largest multinationals could afford to develop such crops. Predictably, this resulted in the same camp denouncing the growing domination of agriculture by multinationals.

As costs for developing crop varieties escalated, the few seed companies that could afford the work focused only on areas with large markets. The marginal farmers were once again excluded.

This time, though, who is to blame?

Please see also Norman Borlaug: “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa”. In the Easterbrook interview Borlaug said

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”