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Green Revolution Food Crisis, A Deeper Shade Of Brown

Politics / Food Crisis Nov 15, 2011 - 10:00 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThere was nothing green about the first Green Revolution of the late 1950s and the 1960s. It was brown oil-coloured from start to finish. World population skyrocketed during the last 35 years of the 20th century, adding as many as 110 million more mouths to feed every 12 months in the early 1980s, before tapering down to the present approximate 70 - 75 million per year. Food crisis remains a real threat.

Despite the near open-door immigration policies of the USA and many of its European allies, and the political posturing in favour of growing populations - more consumers, more taxpayers - both the USA and its major allies see this growth as dangerous and have done so since at least 30 years. In particular and in the 1970s and 1980s they feared that population growth and food shortage in the Third World, now called the Developing South, would tilt these countries to communism. After that, the Third World would ally itself with the Soviet Union which in turn would control their economies, and dominate their oil and other key resource industries. The South would be Red.

Green revolution was the response. Agriculture-sector multinationals operating in fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, irrigation equipment and oil-thirsty machinery massively supported the Green Revolution - which boils down to using more oil to produce more food. Often multiplying the energy intensity of food production, before and after, by 100-fold this surely produced more food, but above all it made farming totally dependent on highly profitable inputs controlled and produced by agroindustrial corporations. While the Soviet Union disappeared from scene as its economy imploded - notably through its fantastic debts - the Green revolution has left enduring damage, not freedom from hunger. Its proclaimed goals of feeding the masses in fact defeats its own objective of making profits, by destroying its basic resources. The damage is systemic and total, starting with soil and water resources and forest cover, ecosystem diversity, and all other real bases of sustainable food production throughout the ecological "value added" chain.

Today's so-called Second Green Revolution, focused on Africa, seeks to solve hunger problems and use less oil to do so, due to this resource increasingly slipping out of the control of western corporations and into tighter supply, now also needed for industrial giant China and industrialising giant India. Oil is higher-priced even for western buyers and consumers. Oil intense agribusiness farming and food production is therefore also higher cost, but due to "no alternative" remains totally dominant in the OECD countries themselves, and in all major food exporter countries outside the OECD bloc, including Brazil, Ukraine, Argentina, Thailand, Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia and others.

You are what you eat, and we eat oil, pesticides, fertilizer residues and a growing host of genetically modified agents. No alternative agribusiness plus out of control population growth is very dangerous. 

What we find is the so-called Second Green Revolution is entirely based on and dependent on the first brown revolution: it needs the same oil-intensive infrastructures and support. Even worse, it has a much smaller potential for raising food production in Africa than the all-brown first "green" revolution. The second revolution, heavily supported by Bill Gates and his Foundation, is perhaps not surprisingly a "soft ag" revolution. It seeks the same profitable business spinoff as the first revolution, but "soft style". It features technical education, agricultural biotechnology and GM crop hybrids, special high-tech and GM animal breeding, and a range of other supposedly new or "soft" agroindustrial methods. These are becoming popular in countries like the US, Brazil, Mexico and Australia, firstly because of higher oil and fertilizer prices, but also because of increasing animal livestock disease, water shortage, pesticide resistance among insects and soil animals, soil erosion and loss, and other factors cutting output and profits in world agribusiness.

Media treatment of the first "green" revolution presents it as starting with the alarm shown by US president Lyndon Johnson when flying over famine-wracked India, in 1964. His administration became more receptive to lobbying from US agro-specialist Norman Borlaug, often called the father of this revolution, already backed by leading US agribusiness corporations. Today, the media and corporate concern focuses low income Africa, and quickly links this to forecasts that the world's still-growing population is expected - or feared - to attain nine billion by 2045 from today's seven billion, but with heavily growing doubt on even this figure, and even more doubt concering global population in 2055 or further out into the century. More certainly, Africa's population will probably grow by about 1 billion in the next 30 - 35 years with the bulk of this solely due to subsaharan Black Africa's population growth.

Media treatment then adds the same crisis question used when launching the first "green" revolution in food production: How will farmers feed everyone, especially in low income Africa?

The lines of the debate are drawn by this - but the unknowns are vastly bigger than the one-sided debate allows us to know. Global population growth measured by its annual increments is already a "fuzzy edge number". Some estimates place it closer to 65 million-a-year than 75. Its rate of tapering down may accelerate, and almost no serious demographer claims the annual increment could start growing again. World population is not truly known to anywhere better than + or - 200 million from any one figure, the equivalent of 3 years population growth.

One thing is however sure, the Second Green Revolution is already an admission that western-invented "modern farming", or oil-based agroindustrial agribusiness is unlikely, or even straight unable to sustainably feed the world. Going further, disaffected former science advisers to the Bill Gates Foundation with long experience in the UN system's specialized food and biology research agencies (such as ICRISAT, CIMMYT and the IUCN) say outright that we have a false debate with the wrong answers. Due to what are now spiralling numbers of negative feedbacks from "brown agribusiness" it will have to be abandoned, soon. At the very least it will have to be deeply modified, reformed and restructured, not only in the Third World but also very soon in its "hearth countries". The countdown to when this becomes obligatory is accelerating: this great (and real) agricultural revolution is for a clearly foreseeable near-term future.

Adopting a hybrid second-time-around version of the failed brown agribusiness model is not rational, in fact much worse than that, for low income African countries, who are the last in line for old-style food solutions and also first in line for the new.

This is well known by the small number of African food and farming experts who challenge what we can call Brown Revolution-2. The African Biosafety Association (AfBSA) of Nairobi, partly aided by the UN Environment Programme (and partly opposed by UNEP, also) starts by citing a very large number of studies, from all regions of the planet. These show that industrial agriculture has been successful in its single goal of increasing food output worldwide, but has caused serious environmental degradation and deforestation disproportionately affecting small traditional farmers and poorer nations. It is also oil-dependent and, using GM plants and animals, has caused a string of increasingly menacing plant and animal genetic change and both local and continental ecosystem damage.

Brown revolution-2, preaching a mix-and-mingle of new and old agribusiness techniques results in the same defeat of its real objective: making money. Exactly as with the exlusively agribusiness-dependent food production in the USA, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Mexico or Ausrralia, widespread use of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation defeat the sole objective of agribusiness: making a profit.

The "soft tech" of Microsoft's founder Bill Gates especially targets reducing water needs, and claims it can cut pesticides and fertilizer needs "with time", but the reality is that exactly the same change is needed to produce the food of anybody who eats in most OECD countries. Big producers like the USA, France, Japan or Australia, totally depend on irrigation and mechanization. Massive agro-irrigation projects now account for well over 70 percent of all water consumption of the entire planet. At least 2 billion people, many of them "advanced urban industrial" live in water-scarce depleting hydrological basins. Oil dependence of "conventional agribusiness" in big producer countries of the OECD group is total and usually exceeds 3 barrels of oil (direct consumption) per hectare per year. In some land-poor countries such as Japan, England and Holland 1.5 to 2 times that amount is common.

The water resource countdown is real and known - but cutting irrigation-dependent agribusiness farming can and will only increase food prices. Only for that reason it does not happen, meaning it can only come suddenly, under environment or energy crisis conditions, signalled by a stepwise increase of food prices.

 Increasing crop yields is the bottom line for groups like the Gates Foundation, but associations such as AfBSA caution that rivalling or surpassing brown agriculture crop yields and productivity with soft tech "silver bullets" like GM hybribs and livestock animal genetic tampering is unlikely, dangerous and self-defeating. And remediating the damage of this tampering always and first causes a big drop in food production. Sustainability should be the goal, which does not rule out biotechnology, but high-tech agriculture is for special applications and sectors like urban regional food production. Biodiversity is given heavy lip-service by the Gates Foundation, of course, but respecting it demands a mix of both modern and traditional farming techniques, like sylviculture-related forest farming. Using what is called "agroecology," which seeks to replace the chemical and biochemical inputs of industrial agriculture with resources found in the natural environment, sustainable and crisis-free food output is possible.

 In March 2011, a UN FAO report showed that small-scale farmers could double their food production in a decade with simple agroecological methods and without "soft tech" gimmicks. This and similar expert reports fly in the face of Second Green Revolutionaries and are rejected or dimissed by them for the sole reason they do not need or depend on high-tech agribusiness, and above all their moneymaking potential is low.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur for FAO on the right to food, and author of the report, underlined that scientific evidence demonstrates agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in maintaining high and reliable rates of food production close to where the hungry live - and especially in unfavorable environments for conventional agribusiness farming. In some cases, as in Malawi, crop yields were raised rather than lowered, by retreating from agroindustrial methods.

More important to Bill Gates, getting new and profitable markets for agribusiness corporations like  Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow requires the sidelining of agroecology, which these corporations refuse to invest in, because it shuts down new markets for agrochemicals, GM or GE seeds, and brown-type agricultural machinery and infrastructure equipment, sold by related corporations. The result is that only government and public action can prevent the one-way drift for world food production that is pushed by the Gates Foundation and similar "non-profit donors", where sustainability in fact means sustainable high profits from unsustainable food output, with a sure and certain rise of food prices.

After spending more than $1.5 billion himself, Bill Gates and other Second Green Revolutionaries are determined to force their one-only answer to how the world grows its food, and completely shut out traditional farming enhanced by agroecology, which is not on their agenda. More seriously even than this negative shift in African farming, locking it on to brown farming and food production, the results will be sure and certain: a rising storm of self-defeating long-term environmental and biological, botanical, genetic and ecological diseconomies, all of them pushing down total food output and raising food prices.

As we know, the Arab Spring revolts were in part driven by rising food prices in countries almost totally dependent on food imports, made worse by constant high rates of urbanization and national development policies ignoring and depreciating agriculture and food production. The same risk applies to many subsaharan African countries, with the same political result. It is however outside the South where the most intense effects of unsustainable and resource-damaging agribusiness will be felt, due to the countdown effect of more than 40 or 50 years of agribusiness totally dominating national and regional food production. Fake solutions like the "soft ag" of Bill Gates and his imitators are surely nice for those who like moneymaking gimmicks - such as presidents and prime ministers - but these non solutions will not prevent heavy environmental damage, serious food shortage and high prices.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2011 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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