The Doric Column


January 4, 1999

Grist for a Greener Revolution
Acres of Exports
"Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity"
An Ecosystem in Upheaval
Country Fairs and Microbial Genomics

Grist for a Greener Revolution

Despite the long drive, I've never tired of traveling by freeway and two-lane from the Twin Cities to Glacier Park, Montana.

The drive gives you a front row seat on some mighty big sky and deep horizons. Plus you get to see the "amber waves of grain" on the way to the "purple mountain's majesty" described in the song.

But last July, on my return trip, radio stations and newspapers reported that the waves of grain had no place to go. Collapsing Asian markets combined with a glut in domestic supply meant falling prices for wheat farmers. Farmers were going out of business in droves. Congress was called into action.

Then came David Tilman's essay "The Greening of the Green Revolution." It appeared in the November 19th edition of Nature , the prestigious British science weekly.

The Green Revolution is the spectacular scientific and humanitarian legacy of Norman Borlaug, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and a University graduate in forestry and plant pathology. The vast fields of dwarf wheat that flowed from his breeding experiments have saved many lives in developing nations.

How many? The form of agriculture Borlaug preaches, wrote Gregg Easterbrook in the Atlantic Monthly  magazine two years ago, "may have prevented a billion deaths." It has been a gift unmatched in human history.

Tilman is a distinguished McKnight professor in the University's department of ecology, evolution, and behavior and also director of the Cedar Creek Natural History Area north of Minneapolis. He is a rising star in a rising field. Not to put too fine a point on it, the field is the study of the "ecological effects of human domination of the earth."

I first read about his work in the October 6th edition of the New York Times.  I bought the paper at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris with francs I was trying to get rid of after investigating my roots in rural southern France, where nature and people appear to be in ancient harmony. The article, by veteran science writer William K. Stevens, was an account of Tilman's efforts to find mathematical patterns in highly complex ecosystems, in this case Cedar Creek.

The globe is his focus in the Nature  essay, and the patterns he examines have to do with human activity in agriculture, how we are changing global ecosystems in detrimental ways, and what we can do about it.

"No other activity has transformed humanity, and the Earth, as much as agriculture, but the environmental effects of high-intensity farming increasingly haunt us," he writes. "In a small world awash with the waste products of humanity, there is a great need to find new approaches to agriculture."

What we need, Tilman writes, is "a greener revolution" than the one Borlaug is known for, a revolution that "incorporates accumulated knowledge of ecological process and feedbacks, disease dynamics, soil processes and microbial ecology."

Acres of Exports

One day in the late-1950s, my parents' landlord offered to pay my brother and I a dollar each if we would pick up rocks and stones from a field adjacent to our yard on the edge of a small town in south central Minnesota.

He wanted to clear the field so it could be planted with soybeans, a crop that was coming fast in those parts back then.

The field was ideal in its constitution but not in its location. It was situated between our yard and the Blue Earth River, which would flood every other spring or so and chase the garter snakes right up into our yard. But that didn't matter. An economic imperative was at work.

As my brother and I helped to clear the field, we were unwitting accomplices in an emerging enterprise, cash crop farming.

A quarter century later, Philip Raup, now University professor emeritus in agriculture and applied economics, described the costs of cash crop farming in an interview I conducted with him in 1981.

The United States is "selling" its soil fertility in grain exports while effectively creating substitutes for land through fertilizers and more intensive management practices, Raup told me.

"Single-crop farming leads to loss of soil resiliency--a lack of bacterial life," he said, adding that the elaborate export marketing structure for cash crops is keeping American farmers hostage to uncertain foreign demand.

The next time I saw Raup was nearly two decades later, last summer, at luncheon hosted by the French-American Chamber of Commerce at the Minneapolis Club. Collapsing world markets for agricultural commodities had him very pessimistic about the immediate future.

But even more telling to me than Raup's predictions coming true was a comment by my traveling companion to Glacier Park who grew up in the same community I did, a fellow who quit farming in 1984 during one of its customary down cycles.

At a recent get-together, my brother and fellow accomplice in stone-picking for soybeans mentioned something about coyotes. I said I didn't remember coyotes around when I was growing up.

"That's because there weren't any," said my friend. "I think they are there now because you don't have as many people on farms down there. The whole countryside is changing."

Then the hog market collapsed.

"Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity"

The debate over whether Thomas Malthus was right two hundred years ago continues into the present era. And it's heating up.

In an anonymous essay called "An Essay on the Principle of Population As it Affects the Future Improvement of Society" (1798), Malthus, the English economist and mathematician, predicted that the world's population would grow faster than the earth's capacity to feed it.

My only direct participation in Malthusian activities came as an undergraduate in 1969, when I attended a talk at Northrop Auditorium by the much-heralded author of The Population Bomb  (1968), Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.

Actually I couldn't get into  Northrop because of the crush, so I joined hundreds of others in front of Northrop. The plaza floodlights and Ehrlich's pronouncements about mass famine and global catastrophe over loud speakers combined to make it a somewhat apocalyptic experience.

That on top of a nuclear arms race, anti-war agitation on campus, and the takeover of Morrill Hall by student protesters. Times certainly seemed more Malthusian back then, three decades ago.

Last month, the American Anthropological Association met in Philadelphia to re-examine the ideas of Malthus and his disciples. The dire predictions of Malthus, Ehrlich and others hadn't come true, at least not yet. One of the reasons cited was the success of the Green Revolution, the development of high-yield wheat and rice by Norman Borlaug and his colleagues.

In the Atlantic Monthly  article, "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity," author Gregg Easterbrook described what Borlaug had helped to accomplish working out of his International Maize and Wheat Center in Mexico:

"The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres--a 170 percent increase from one percent more land."

Without high-yield agriculture, he wrote, quoting Borlaug, "'either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation--losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion.'"

Then came Easterbrook's bombshell: "The trend toward harvesting more from fewer acres, often spun in the media as a shocking crisis of 'vanishing farms,' is perhaps the most environmentally favorable development of the modern age."

Only in past half century or so have people taken less land from nature than their parents, going back well before Malthus, said Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station in the Easterbrook article.

This might be cast as the paradox of a tillable plot: Depending on how you till it, the plot can deal with the weighty issues of world hunger, famine and prevention of deforestation, or it can deal with the local food economy in harmony with local ecosystems.

Are the worlds of high-intensity farming and sustainable agriculture really that irreconcilable? Can intensive practices be made sustainable? Can sustainable practices be made to produce more?

An Ecosystem in Upheaval

David Tilman begins his Nature essay, "The Greening of the Green Revolution," on a seemingly ambivalent note but moves quickly to the position that current agricultural practices cannot be sustained without ever-more ecological damage.

"It is not clear which are greater--the successes of modern high-intensity agriculture, or its shortcomings," he writes. "The successes are immense. Because of the green revolution, agriculture has met the food needs of most of the world's population even as the population doubled during the past four decades.

"But there has been a price to pay, and it includes contamination of groundwaters, release of greenhouse gases, loss of crop genetic diversity and eutrophication of rivers, streams, lakes and coastal marine ecosystems (contamination by organic and inorganic nutrients that cause oxygen depletion, spread of toxic species and changes in the structure of aquatic food webs)."

Tilman's essay is the opener for a research report in Nature by Laurie Drinkwater, Peggy Wagoner and Marianne Sarrantonio of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. The report provides evidence that regenerative agricultural management practices based on organic fertilizer can produce the same yields as conventional systems that use synthetic fertilizer.

A "locally closed nitrogen cycle" that such approaches entail would go a long way toward reducing the release of pollutants into the water and air and thus easing the burden on many agricultural ecosystems, in Tilman's view. Advances are needed both in sustainable agriculture and precision agriculture in which the use of synthetic fertilizer is minimized.

Such advances would also help address the biological, environmental and marketplace risks associated with large-scale livestock operations--the hazards of high-density housing and low genetic diversity.

Greater recognition of these hazards, in his view, might even help save the family farm.

Country Fairs and Microbial Genomics

The only political agitation in a rural setting I've ever witnessed first hand was not in Minnesota but in Maine.

It was at the annual Common Ground Country Fair outside of Augusta. The year was 1980, and the draw that September, besides the homey, back-to-the-earth booths and demonstrations everywhere you looked, was Barry Commoner, presidential candidate and a pioneer in the grass-roots environmental movement.

I was in Maine visiting a friend who had enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono to pursue a graduate degree in organic farming. Maine was then and is today the heartland of the organic movement.

I don't remember what Commoner had to say that day to the grandstand crowd. It wasn't enough to propel him in the polls over Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, or John Anderson. But the radical barbs he hurled at the technologists and government officials were wildly applauded.

I applauded. I ate and relished the organically grown vegetables along with the wild blueberries and Maine lobster. I didn't tell anyone that I was raised in cash crop country. Moreover, the fact that (at that time) American consumers paid an average of less than 17 percent of their disposable income on food, half that of, say, the Japanese, probably allowed me to travel to Maine in the first place.

But can anyone be comfortably "on the fence" in the high-intensity vs. sustainable agriculture tug-of-war? Is there really the prospect of a middle way?

What seems obvious in all this is that

  • hungry people are not particularly interested in nitrogen and carbon cycles, and they will go where the food is, even if they have to cross borders to get there

  • soil can be overtaxed, making it less fertile for the next generation

  • rivers can be polluted and cleaned up, with technology having a hand in both, and

  • economic forces usually have it their way, whether you live in the city or town, the suburb, or on a traditional farm, unless there is a lot of public resistance.

Agricultural and ecosystems research is not a panacea for population pressures, tired soil, depleted biodiversity, and waste looking for a home. But its role will have to grow if we are to keep up, let alone treat the earth as Gaia, an inter-connected living system.

The new field of genomics is key on the scientific front. Genomics brings together scientists working in the fields of genetics, molecular biology, and information technology. Research initiatives like the University's proposed Center for Plant and Microbial Genomics have the potential to help bridge the requirements of nature and those of people.

There are those who say it can't be done. But there were those who told Norman Borlaug that India would never be able to feed itself.

And there are those who doubt David Tilman in his efforts at Cedar Creek, as William K. Stevens describes it, to measure nature's mosaic, one plot at a time.

    --William Hoffman    hoffm003@tc.umn.edu

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.


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Nobel laureate and University graduate Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution