Friday, October 7, 2011

Raj Patel Talks Green Revolution and Sustainable Farming

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2011 at 9:33 AM

Economist and food activist Raj Patel spoke to a crowded room at Boise State Thursday night. His speech centered on the Green Revolution of the 1940s-1970s and the ways it has contributed to inequality in modern world food systems.

Patel has a B.A. from Oxford in philosophy, politics and economics, a Masters from the London School of Economics, and he received his Ph.D. in development sociology at Cornell. He has worked for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization—both institutions that he now heavily criticizes. Currently he’s a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy and an adviser to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

He started off the night by discussing the history of international markets in food, which he noted is a very new phenomenon, historically speaking. About 130 years ago, British colonialists in India began shipping cheap wheat out of the country to supply the working class folks in places like Liverpool and Manchester.

“When you introduce markets in grain you introduce two very simple rules,” said Patel. “The first rule is that if you have money you get to buy the grain; you get to eat. If you have money you can buy food from half way around the world. But if you do not have money, and if you are too poor to be able to afford the food on the market, you starve.”

He noted that prior to British colonization, India averaged about one famine per century. Afterward, Indians suffered from famine once every four years.

This set the precedent for the spread of food markets across most of the world and the eventual Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution does not refer to a proliferation of windmills or solar panels. It was about U.S.-backed international institutions promoting the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and various types of farm support in rural communities. The goal, ostensibly, being that the world could have the ability to feed itself.

“The Green Revolution is kind of a battle in a class war,” said Patel. “You have a class of landlords and a class of peasants. And agricultural policies tend to favor the landlords, while land reform tends to favor peasants. The Green Revolution favored those that have land. Fertilizers and pesticides work when you have a lot of land. The bigger the farm, the more efficient these will be.”

The Green Revolution started with U.S. scientists in Mexico during the mid 1940s. At the time, Mexico had transitioned from a leftist government to a conservative government, and the country was having trouble feeding its people. The scientists went there with the goal of drastically increasing wheat production per acre so that the people could eat.

Patel suggested that hunger in Mexico was causing instability. When poor people go hungry, they start to riot and turn to communism. This was during the Cold War, and the United States had interests in making sure its neighbor to the south stayed firmly planted in the markets.

“What we have is an intersection, not only of worries about population growth […] but you have the middle class worrying about the poor, and then you also have this worry about communism. Now, that is why the Green Revolution is called the Green Revolution, because it is the alternative to the Red Revolution,” said Patel.

Propagated by the United States and various international institutions, the Green Revolution eventually spread throughout the globe, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, said Patel.

Patel noted that investment in farming is essential for food production, that international actors lending to farmers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, for the Green Revolution to work, it necessitated authoritarian states as well.

“Because [the Green Revolution] was a class project about people with land versus people without […] the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Chile, Indonesia; all of them required strong authoritarian states […] in order for the Green Revolution to work as we know it, it required not only better seeds but guns,” said Patel.

Patel stated that food production during the Green Revolution did, in fact, increase faster than population growth. Which is a good thing, as long as you get to eat. Statistics show that from 1960 to 1990 the number of hungry people actually went down. However, if you take China out of the equation and look solely at countries where the Green Revolution was implemented, the number of hungry people increased by 11 percent. In South America, for instance, food production rose by 8 percent, but the number of hungry people rose to 19 percent. Currently there are more than a billion people that are hungry, even though there are more calories being produced per person than any other time in human history.

“Having one in seven people go hungry is unconscionable,” said Patel.

Patel argued that these farming techniques also carry a heavy environmental cost. Constant application of fertilizers and pesticides, combined with the continual draining of groundwater in the places where the Green Revolution was heavily implemented, caused close to a quarter of the soil to turn worthless. Point being, this model is not sustainable. If humanity wants to avoid a Malthusian crunch, where population surpasses food production, we have to reform our food system.

Patel closed the discussion by talking about some potential solutions to the current agricultural model. Most notably, people need to reconnect with food. When food is grown and consumed locally, it tends to taste better. Eating healthy local foods also facilitates discussion and bonding. He talked about the joy that comes with eating and sharing in the pleasure of food.

Patel also noted the importance of small-scale farming. Farmers are scientists, that over thousands of years have devised different methods for making seeds and growing crops. It’s important to foster an environment where farmers can work together and share notes to create sustainable, climate change-proof methods of producing food.

Patel stated that markets aren’t always a bad thing, sometimes they work well. However, large agribusiness corporations have to be reined in, and government needs to focus on investing in local types of farming.

“All of this requires a certain kind of politics and a commitment to it, and a belief that change is possible,” said Patel. “And that’s what’s exciting about living right now—particularly when it comes to food and hunger—right now there is widespread dissatisfaction with the way our food and other systems work. Now these ideas are much more on the agenda. The only thing that stops us is us not realizing how powerful we can be.”

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