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Criticism of Borlaug’s Wheat
In recent years, the green revolution has received heavy criticism from environmentalists, who object to Borlaug’s fertilizer- and irrigation-intensive agriculture. Journalist Patricia Orwen points out that the fertilizers and massive irrigation that “created such a bountiful harvest proved disastrous for the land, causing soil erosion, air pollution, waterlogging, and salting” in some countries growing Borlaug’s wheat (Orwen, 1994). While she may be exaggerating the problems, using huge quantities of fertilizer and water can have adverse affects on natural ecosystems—runoff into streams can cause eutrophication, years of cultivation can leave high levels of salt in the soil, and depletion of freshwater supplies can stress fragile environments already struggling with human encroachment. Water is a particularly critical issue, as water supplies are limited. Africa, for example, can never fully apply the green revolution; much of its soil is eroded, nitrogen-deprived, and lacking in organic matter. Fertilization could overcome these deficiences, with sufficient water, but “arid Africa does not have the water” (Mann, 1997). Corn and wheat crops introduced to Ethiopia “died of thirst” because they lacked the ability of traditional Ethopian crops to grow in dry conditions (Orwen, 1994). Africa has the additional trouble of social and economic issues that remain a major obstacle to development.
Another potential problem with Borlaug’s wheat and the agricultural style it created is the issue of pest resistance. Although Borlaug’s wheat is resistant to some forms of disease, it will not be resistant to new pests or microbes. If farmers are practicing monoculture, planting single high yielding crop varieties instead of a traditional genetically diverse crop, a pest could wipe out the food source of an entire nation. “Genetic uniformity,” warns the FAO, “invites disaster because it makes a crop vulnerable to attack from a pest or disease” (qtd. In Orwen, 1994).
Even Borlaug himself is skeptical of the future of high yield crops. Crop yields have increased at less than 1% annually for the past decade (Orwen, 1994). Borlaug acknowleges that “agricultural research alone cannot produce miraculous improvements in many of the more marginal production ares. Some of the biological limitations are simply to overpowering for science to overcome” (Borlaug, 1983).
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Page maintained by Sarah Parker, Davidson College class ‘05
Last modified 11 February 2004