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16.3 Getting Beyond the Green Revolution

4 months ago

11 min read

The Anthropocene marks a step change in the relation between humans and our planet. It demands a rethink of the current modes of production that currently propel us on unsustainable trajectories. Until now, such reflexive commitments have not been required of agriscience research and development. It is worth remembering that the Green Revolution, in both its ambitions and methods, was for some time uncontroversial; agriculture was to be intensified and productivity per unit of land or labour increased (Struik 2006). Without doubt, this project, whose technological innovations were vigorously promoted by governments, companies and foundations around the world (Evenson and Gollin 2003), was phenomenally successful across vast scales. More calories produced with less average labour time in the commodity system was the equation that allowed the cheapest food in world history to be produced (Moore 2015). In order to simplify, standardise and mechanise agriculture towards increases in productivity per worker, plant and animal, a series of biophysical barriers had to be overridden. The Green Revolution achieved this largely through non-renewable inputs.

In the Anthropocene, this agricultural paradigm that marked the Green Revolution runs up against (geological) history. Growing awareness is that this 'artificialised' agricultural model, which substitutes each time more ecological processes with finite chemical inputs, irrigation and fossil fuel (Caron et al. 2014), literally undermines the foundations of future food provision. The biophysical contradictions of late-capitalist industrial agriculture have become increasingly conspicuous (Weis 2010). Moreover, the dramatic environmental, economic and social consequences of contemporary models of high-intensity artificialised agriculture have become an escalating concern for a globalised food system manifesting accelerating contradictions (Kearney 2010; Parfitt et al. 2010).

During the post-war period (mid-40s—70s), secure economic growth was founded on the accelerated extraction of fossil fuel, and as Cota (Cota 2011) notes, agriscience development during this time progressed more in tune with the geochemical sciences than the life sciences. Agricultural production designed around the cheapest maximum yields had been simplified and unified into monocrops, made to depend on mechanisation and agrochemical products. Although highly effective when first implemented, the efficiency of these commercial inputs has witnessed diminishing returns (Moore 2015). Following the oil crises of the 70s, the productivist ideals of the Green Revolution fell more upon the life sciences, particularly in the guise of agri-biotech, which has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Feeding the globe's exploding population has been the key concern in a decadelong productivist narrative that has served to secure the prominent position of agricultural biotech in our current food system (Hunter et al. 2017). The great shock is that this highly advanced sector has done little to improve intrinsic yields. World agricultural productivity growth slowed from 3% a year in the 1960s to 1.1% in the 1990s (Dobbs et al. 2011). Recently, the yields of key crops have in some places approached plateaux in production (Grassini et al. 2013). Mainstream agroscientists have voiced concern that the maximum yield potential of current varieties is fast approaching (Gurian-Sherman 2009). On top of this, climate change is estimated to have already reduced global yields of maize and wheat by 3.8% and 5.5%, respectively (Lobell et al. 2011), and some warn of sharp declines in crop productivity when temperatures exceed critical physiological thresholds (Battisti and Naylor 2009).

The waning efficiency gains of artificial inputs added to the biological limits of traditional varieties is a situation that, for some, further underscores the need to accelerate the development of genetically engineered varieties (Prado et al. 2014). Even then, the greatest proponents of GM—-the biotech firms themselves—-are aware that GM interventions rarely work to increase yield, but rather to maintain it through pesticide and herbicide resistance (Gurian-Sherman 2009). As such, agricultural production has become locked into a cycle that requires the constant replacement of new crop varieties and product packages to overcome the growing negative environmental and biological impingements upon yield [2]. Melinda Cooper's (2008: 19) influential analysis of agro-biotechnology has traced how neoliberal modes of production become relocated ever more within the genetic, molecular and cellular levels. As such, the commercialisation of agrarian systems increasingly extends towards the capture of germplasm and DNA, towards 'life itself' (Rose 2009). Cooper's (2008) diagnosis is that we are living in an era of capitalist delirium characterised by its attempt to overcome biophysical limits of our earth through the speculative biotechnological reinvention of the future. In this respect, some have argued that rather than overcoming weaknesses of the conventional paradigm, the narrow focus of GM interventions seems only to intensify its central characteristics (Altieri 2007).

Amidst the deceleration of yield increases, the estimated targets of 60—100% increases in production needed by 2050 (Tilman et al. 2011; Alexandratos and Bruinsma 2012) appear increasingly daunting. As compelling and clear as these targets may be, concerns have been raised that productivist narratives have eclipsed other pressing concerns, namely, the environmental sustainability of production (Hunter et al. 2017) and food security (Lawrence et al. 2013). The current agricultural paradigm has held production first and sustainability as a secondary task of mitigation (Struik et al. 2014).

Thirty years of frustrated sustainability talk within the productivist paradigm are testament to the severe difficulties for researchers and policymakers alike to bridge the gap between sustainability theory and practice (Krueger and Gibbs 2007). 'Sustainability' as a concept had initially had revolutionary potential. Key texts such as the Club of Rome's The Limits of Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), for instance, contained an imminent critique of global development narratives. But researchers have pointed out the way that 'sustainability' throughout the 80s and 90s became assimilated into neoliberal growth discourse (Keil 2007). We now have a situation where, on the one hand, global sustainability is almost unanimously understood as a prerequisite to attain human development across all scales—-from local, to city, nation and the world (Folke et al. 2005)—-whilst on the other, despite substantial efforts in many levels of society towards the creation of a sustainable future, key global-scale indicators show that humanity is actually moving away from sustainability rather than towards it (Fischer et al. 2007). This is in spite of the increasing regularity of high-profile reports that evermore underscore the grave risks of existing trends to the long-term viability of ecological, social and economic systems (Steffen et al. 2006; Stocker 2014; Assessment 2003; Stern 2008). This situation—-the widening gap between our current trajectory and all meaningful sustainability targets—-has been discussed as the so-called 'paradox of sustainability' (Krueger and Gibbs 2007). Prevailing discourse on food security and sustainability continues to galvanise growth-oriented developmental imperatives (Hunter et al. 2017).

Agriscience research and development proliferated in accordance with the dominant politico-economic structures that defined planetary development over the last 30 years (Marzec 2014). Although the negative effects of the so-called 'Chicago School' of development have by now been well documented (Harvey 2007), biotechnological innovation remains rooted within neoliberal discourse (Cooper 2008). These narratives consistently present global markets, biotech innovation and multinational corporate initiatives as the structural preconditions for food security and sustainability. The empirical credibility of such claims has long been challenged (Sen 2001), but seem especially relevant amidst the accumulating history of chronic distributional failures and food crises that mark our times. It is worth repeating Nally's (2011; 49) point: 'The spectre of hunger in a world of plenty seems set to continue into the 21st century... this is not the failure of the modern food regime, but the logical expression of its central paradoxes'. The situation is one where malnutrition is seen no longer as a failure of an otherwise efficiently functioning system, but rather as an endemic feature within the systemic production of scarcity (Nally 2011). In the face of such persisting inconsistencies, commentators note that neoliberal appeals to human prosperity, food security and green growth appear out of touch and often ideologically driven (Krueger and Gibbs 2007).

The Anthropocene is a time where ecological, economic and social disaster walk hand in hand as modern economies and institutions geared towards unlimited growth crash against the finite biophysical systems of the earth (Altvater et al. 2016; Moore 2015). Cohen (2013) describes the Anthropocene as an 'eco-eco' disaster, paying heed to the rotten relationship in which economic debt becomes compounded against the ecological debt of species extinction. Now more than ever, faith in the modernising powers of neoliberal food interventions proclaiming just and sustainable futures wears thin (Stengers 2018), yet the resemblance noted by some commentators (Gibson-Graham 2014), between our food system and the unhinged financial systems of our neoliberal economies charts an alarming trend. It's worth noting this resemblance runs deeper than the mere production of debt (one being calorific and genetic, the other economic). The truth is our food system hinges on a cash nexus that links trade tariffs, agricultural subsidies, enforcement of intellectual property rights and the privatisation of public provisioning systems. Viewed from above, these procedures constitute a pseudo-corporate management of the food system, which according to Nally (2011: 37) should be seen as a properly biopolitical process designed for managing life, "including the lives of the hungry poor who are 'let die' as commercial interests supplant human needs". Petrochemicals and micronutrients, it seems, are not the only things being consumed in the Anthropocene; futures are (Collings 2014; Cardinale et al. 2012).

What once might have been considered necessary side effects of the modernising imperative of the Green Revolution, the so-called 'externalities' of our current food system, are increasingly exposed as a kind of 'deceptive efficiency' bent towards rapid production and profit and very little else (Weis 2010). The disturbing realisation is that the food system we inherit from the Green Revolution creates value only when a great number of costs (physical, biological, human, moral) are allowed to be overlooked (Tegtmeier and Duffy 2004). A growing number of voices remind us that costs of production go beyond the environment into matters such as the exclusion of deprived farmers, the promotion of destructive diets (Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010) and more generally the evacuation of social justice and political stability from matters of food provision (Power 1999). The relation between agrarian technological intervention, food security and sustainability emerges as far wider and complex issue than could be acknowledged by narratives of the Green Revolution.

Situating the contemporary food system within dominant recent historical processes, the above discussion has paid particular attention to destructive links between modern agriculture and the economic logics of late capitalism. It is important, however, to remember that numerous commentators have cautioned against oversimplified or deterministic accounts regarding the relationship between capitalist relations of production and the Anthropocene problematic (Stengers 2015; Haraway 2015; Altvater et al. 2016). Such a discussion is made possible by close to four decades of critical investigations by feminists, science and technology scholars, historians, geographers, anthropologists and activists, which have endeavoured in tracing the links between hegemonic forms of science and the social/environmental destruction caused by industrial capitalism (Kloppenburg 1991). This 'deconstructive' research ethic developed important understandings of the way modern agriscience progressed down trajectories that involve the neglect of particular physical, biological, political and social contexts and histories (Kloppenburg 1991). In many instances, the modernising narratives of 'development' like those put to work in the Green Revolution became seen—-by anthropologists, historians and indigenous communities alike—-as a kind of modified successor to pre-war colonial discourse (Scott 2008; Martinez-Torres and Rosset 2010). In anthropological terms, what these studies taught us was that although modern agriculture was rooted in developmental narratives of universal prosperity, in reality, 'progress' was achieved through the displacement or indeed destruction of a great diversity of agricultural perspectives, practices, ecologies and landscapes. It is for this reason Cota (2011: 6) reminds us of the importance of the critical work that explicitly positioned the biopolitical paradigm of industrial agriculture 'not first and foremost as an economic kind of imperialism, but more profoundly as an epistemic and culturally specific kind of imperialism'.

This is a key point. The Green Revolution was not merely a technical, nor economic intervention, but involved the spread of a more profound reconfiguration of the epistemological registers of food provision itself. It was a process that deeply influenced the way agricultural knowledge was produced, propagated and implemented. As Cota (2011: 6) explains: 'the use of physicalist and probabilistic discourse, a purely instrumental conception of nature and work, the implementation of statistical calculations disconnected from local conditions, [as well as] the reliance on models without recognizing historic specificities' were all ways of enacting the biopolitical agenda of the Green Revolution. This list of commitments describes the fundamentals at the sharp end of the Green Revolution, but as we have seen, such commitments alone have proven insufficient for the task of creating a just and sustainable food system. It becomes apparent that any research agenda fit for the Anthropocene must learn to move beyond the modern food paradigm by forging a different research ethic with different commitments.