BIODIVERSITY CONVENTION BRIEFINGS No. 2
FAO Asian Chief Calls for Move Away from Green Revolution
THE Green Revolution method of agriculture may have passed its prime in Asia, where it was introduced some thirty years ago, and a period of decline in crop yields could be in store.
Urgently needed are new, or newly rediscovered, ways of growing food which minimise the use of chemical pesticides and mineral fertilisers, and are in harmony with natural and ecological principles.
This perspective of Asian agriculture is quite common among the region's environmental groups. Recently, however, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's regional office for Asia and the Pacific based in Bangkok has added its considerable weight to the growing critique of the Green Revolution and the search for alternatives.
In an interview during a FAO expert consultation on Sustainable Development and Rural Development, the FAO's regional head called for a moving away from the Green Revolution model, and the phasing in of ecologically and socially sustainable forms of agriculture.
"There is a need to review the Green Revolution model as a whole, and we have to move away from this model, although we many not yet have all the answers as to how to do this," said Mr Obaidullah Khan, the FAO's assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific.
Mr Khan added that in Asia there was clear evidence that the rice farming system, which is dominated by the Green Revolution technique, is in a state of decline. "If we have to produce more, we need a new technological paradigm."
The Green Revolution is a technological package that makes use of seeds with a high response to big doses of inorganic fertilisers and chemical pesticides. These few seed varieties underpinning the Green Revolution have displaced a large number of traditional seeds, thus resulting in the erosion of crop biodiversity. Scientists and environmentalists have also noted a wide range of ecological problems associated with the technique, including increasing soil infertility chemical pollution of land water resources, pesticide poisoning and pest infestation caused by growing pest immunity to pesticides.
Asia has often been held up as a success showcase of the Green Revolution. Its spread throughout the region was facilitated by Northern research aid, World Bank credit and the FAO's technical assistance. Although initially yields from the new seeds were higher than those from traditional varieties, they have declined in recent years in several places.
Mr Khan said that there was now sufficient evidence that the Green Revolution model which relied on intensive use of inputs and resulted in intensive resource use and high waste is not sustainable either ecologically or economically, due to rising costs and falling yields.
He added there was increasing deficiency of trace elements such as sulphur and zinc in the soil because of intensive use of mineral fertilisers. The continued high dependence on pesticides was also not technologically sustainable.
Mr Khan revealed that recent studies had shown that there was a yield decline of one to three percent per year on some fields using the Green Revolution technique, a situation that was described as "a recipe for disaster within one generation" by the FAO's officer for integrated pest control, Peter Kenmore.
Mr Khan said that the apparent benefits of monoculture agriculture (where only a single crop is grown, as in the Green Revolution method) had been overestimated whilst the productivity of traditionally grown varieties had been understated. When comparisons were made between the two systems, only the yields of the single crop were measured. This, said Mr Khan, neglected to calculate the value of other crops or other activities carried out in the same farm area in the traditional system, which no longer existed in the monoculture system.
A proper comparison should take into account the total farm output in terms of the different crops (such as rice and fruit trees) and other resources (such as fish in rice fields) in the same acreage in the traditional system, as against the output of the single crop (with little or no other accompanying crops or resources) in the Green Revolution model. Using this method of calculation, the total yield of the traditional agricultural system would be more accurately reflected and thus its efficiency better appreciated.
Mr Khan proposed that Asian agriculture should move away from the Green Revolution technique. "We are still learning how to move into sustainable agriculture which is ecologically sound, but we still do not know enough in this respect," he said. The non-governmental organisations involved in sustainable agriculture had a comparative advantage in identifying and promoting sustainable agriculture.
Besides the ecological factor, it was just as important that conditions are provided for rural communities to be assured of sustainable livelihoods, added Mr Khan. It is unclear how the liberalisation of markets in agriculture would affect the livelihoods and incomes of farmers.
Mr Khan also lamented that the great concern for the need for agrarian reform, once so prevalent, now seemed to have been forgotten. "Rights of the farmers and communities in relation to land security, trees and other common resources are crucial factors for sustainable agriculture. We can't achieve sustainable agriculture without carrying out land tenural reform."
Earlier, in opening a FAO expert consultation on sustainable agriculture and rural development in Asia, Mr Khan had remarked that "there is a consensus that sustainability should not be limited to the physical and the material aspects of ecological integrity. It must incorporate political empowerment, social justice and equity and the richness of cultural diversity. It must recognise human dignity, human potential and solidarity."
Mr Khan's call for a movement away from the Green Revolution towards ecologically sustainable agriculture was welcomed by the leaders of several NGOs attending the consultation. "We have for years been criticising the Green Revolution technology advocated with our government for a change to chemical-free, organic agriculture," said Nicanor Perlas, president of the Philippines-based Centre for Alternative Development Initiatives.
"By adding his voice to the critique of the Green Revolution, Mr Khan has boosted the NGO efforts towards sustainable agriculture, especially since the FAO had played such a prominent role in technically assisting in the introduction and spread of the Green Revolution technology in the region in the past."
The significance of Mr Khan's remarks could well extend beyond the Asian region, since there are now large-scale efforts to introduce and spread the Green Revolution to Africa. Its proponents often point to the "success" of the Green Revolution in Asia as the reason for promoting the technique in Africa.