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What Was the Green Revolution?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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In mankind’s ancient history, up until civilization emerged about 12,000 years ago, our primary food sources were meat and fish. This high-protein diet was necessary to sustain human growth and power our unusually large brains. Other foods, such as berries, nuts, and roots, served as small snacks to tide us over between meat-based meals.

After a time, agriculture began to take off, allowing us to exploit the nutrient sources in plants far more effectively than mere gathering would allow. Today, grains supply 70% of the food energy that feeds humanity. In the mid 20th century, farmers were already exploiting about 10% of the earth’s landmass for growing crops, and further expansion seemed doubtful, as the new lands have poor characteristics for farming. The only alternative was to increase yields on the farmland we already had.

In the decades after WWII, we developed techniques to permit higher crop yields, significantly increasing worldwide food production and allowing our global exponential population growth to continue unhindered. The two main fields that experienced rapid advancements were plant genetics and synthetic fertilizers. These advancements and their consequences are so significant that they were given a name: the green revolution.

As part of the green revolution, synthetic fertilizers were mass produced using new nitrogen-fixation techniques, mainly derivatives of the Haber-Bosch process. In the Haber-Bosch process, atmospheric nitrogen is processed into usable fertilizer at high temperatures and pressures. This released our dependency on preexisting sources of fixed nitrogen, such as bat guano, which had to be exported all over the world from South America prior to synthetic fertilizers. The green revolution changed all this.

Beginning in the mid-1940s, botanists experienced breakthroughs in their understand of plant genetics and began to breed strains of wheat that vastly increased production. Mexico alone experienced a threefold growth in wheat production between 1944 and 1964. The 1970 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Norman E. Borlaug for his work on increasing crop productivity. In the 1960s, the so-called “miracle rice,” IR-8, was planted worldwide, allowing rice production like never before - the green revolution.

Part of the advantage of these new plants was that they flowered more easily than previous strains. Wheat and rice require a certain number of light hours per day – called the photoperiod – in order to flower and begin producing grain. New strains developed as part of the green revolution decreased the necessary sun exposure per day, allowing crops to be planted and harvested more quickly, and in a wider range of climactic and seasonal conditions. These advances particularly benefited the poorer nations of the world, who lack advanced agricultural technology but have ample farmland to plant any seeds available on the world market. These nations benefitted the most from the green revolution.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By Glasshouse — On Jan 14, 2011

@ valleyfiah- The green revoultion has been beneficial to humanity in many ways, but that does not make it perfect, nor does it make up for the agricultural shortcomings that pelestears is talking about. The effects of the green revolution on the past few decades are nothing when compared to the challenges of maintaining future populations into the unforeseeable future. The human population will likely top out somewhere between 9.8 to 12.1 billion people and all but a few of the planets biogeochemical systems are at or above their tipping point. We are experiencing overshoot in almost all the planets major life support systems, meaning that we are living on borrowed time.

The green revolution has created a food economy where the poorest nations are dependent on the industrialized world to eat, where bioengineering has been moving forward nearly unregulated because of a lack of institutional capacity to deal with scientific advances, and a system where energy has started to compete with food for crop space. While the green revolution cannot be demonized, we cannot sit around on our thumbs thinking that everything is all right. We need to alter the current system so that it is based on objectives rather than past performance.

By ValleyFiah — On Jan 11, 2011

@ PelesTears- The planet's population would not be sustained were it not for the green horticulture revolution. We can't demonize a system that has worked quite well for the past five or six decades.

By PelesTears — On Jan 11, 2011

The green revoloution is not all that it is cracked up to be. In a way, it prevented innovation in agriculture. The green revolution has led to poor land management practices, and as a result, soil erosion is occurring at an unsustainable rate. The planets water resources are also under stress form monoculture and the green revolution. The heavy application of chemical fertilizers is causing eutrophication in fresh water bodies and at the delta's of rivers worldwide, resulting in hypoxic dead zones. The green revolution is an evolutionary step back in agriculture. It has led to an inefficient agriculture system that is having a ripple effect on other natural resources.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All Things Nature contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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