Response to the Recent New York Times Op-Ed on the Green Revolution

The New York Times published an op-ed written by Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner and entitled “We Need a New Green Revolution” on January 4, 2016 (page A19).  My father Wendell Berry, friend Wes Jackson (The Land Institute), and I wish to share our response to this op-ed submitted to the New York Times.  It reads:

Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner, in their call for “A New Green Revolution” in agriculture (New York Times, page A19, January 4, 2016), display an astonishing lack of reference to the time and the negative consequences, both ecological and social, of the Green Revolution. Of course, grain yields more than doubled here and there, but beyond the geneticist’s contribution there were traditional methods largely ignored but available to meet essential human needs at once more ecologically sound and socially just. Norman Borlaug won a Nobel Prize in 1970 for his leadership in that venture. Even the Nobel Prize, however, did not disguise or alleviate the serious problems imposed by his work upon farmers, their farms, and their communities.

The concern of Prof. Sharp and Mr. Leshner, both eminent scientists, is occasioned by reference to sensational events, in this case climate change, the California drought, and the much belated public anxiety about water. They mention also the increase of “invasive weeds, pests, and pathogens,” which is at least potentially sensational.

What is remarkable, but unsurprising, is that these two gentlemen managed to write an entire column about agriculture without mentioning farmland or farmers. As they think of it, the present convergence of sensational problems reveals a condition of technological backwardness caused by inadequate funding for scientific research. This, they say, foretells a sensational calamity that can be prevented only by the appropriation of a lot more public money to employ “more of the brightest of minds” to do research leading to “innovative solutions.” And this warning they base upon history, which allegedly “has shown that science can solve the nation’s agriculture and food production problems,” if research funding is increased “enough.”

This leads us to ask if history actually has shown any such thing. It seems fair to start here in the United States, where the “Green Revolution” in fact began. It was here that our methods served as something of a prototype for the increasingly industrial approach to food production. It was here that we increasingly began to rely on a sufficiency of non-renewable resources, rather than ecological and cultural capacity, to increase yields.

In 1940, the year from which Prof. Sharp and Mr. Leshner date their suppositional “green revolution,” 23 % of the American people were farming, farm communities (43% of our population then) were beginning to thrive again at the end of the Depression, and with the help of the Soil Conservation Service old scars upon the land were being healed. Three-quarters of a century later, the farm population is somewhere below 1%; most of the rural communities and small towns, coherent and vital in 1940, are now disintegrating or have disappeared; and much of the vast acreage now in corn and beans is seriously eroding, the runoff carrying immense tonnages of top soil and toxic chemicals into streams. These are the results of generations of expensive scientific research directed toward innovation and agricultural technology, but with little regard for the health of farmland, farm families, and farm communities. There is no question that during those years production was dramatically increased, but at an insupportable cost.

We are obliged to conclude that even eminent scientists, who propose to improve agriculture exclusively by scientific research and technological innovation with no regard for land and people, know little about agriculture. The ignorance of Professor Sharp and Mr. Leshner is revealed by their failure to speak of the solutions to agricultural problems that are well-known but are not used. For example, the necessary solution to the problem of dry weather is a healthy soil capable of absorbing and holding the available water. And desert lands should not be farmed if they can be farmed only by the depletion and eventual exhaustion of aquifers. For another example, probably the most necessary ways of controlling pests, pathogens and weeds are crop rotation and the use of a diversity of crops and animals. For another, the sure solution to disease epidemics in confinement poultry factories is to disperse the birds outdoors in the care of independent farmers. For another, the only solution to soil erosion is to quit cropping on slopes and to provide adequate year-round plant cover upon the fields.

None of those solutions requires research or innovation. They require only healthy land and enough good farmers, neither of which is presently available, owing to the history of exactly the misplaced faith and lavish funding for which some scientists apparently are again begging. This is not to say that there is no place for innovative agricultural research. Indeed, a revolution towards greater ecological intensification of farming would benefit from well considered, publicly funded research programs. Costs to farmers would go down.

But if we continue our practice of researching and innovating while ignoring the interests of the land and the people, which is still vigorously ongoing in the land grant universities, the agricultural bureaucracies, and the agribusiness corporations, the results are too easily foreseeable. A lot more money will be paid for scientific research, farmers will be charged a lot more money for new technologies, and we will continue our unacknowledged long-term “farm policy” of soil erosion, water pollution, and the ruin of farmers and rural communities.