15 October 2009

Why the Green Revolution has failed us

Since 1945, when the so-called Green Revolution was started in the interests of improving food security, the world’s population has increased and more of us are starving.

Since 1945, when the so-called Green Revolution was started in the interests of improving food security, the world’s population has increased by almost 4 billion people – and more of us are starving.

Every year since 1981, on 16 October, World Food Day has been on the calendar. It was established as a way of recognising the 1948 formation of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Of all our primary needs, food is the most important. It comes before shelter, even. Yet, all around the world, the number of the malnourished is growing.

How can this be so? Surely there is more than enough food?

There have certainly been some successes in terms of improving food security. In 1943, before Mexico helped start the Green Revolution, it imported all its grain. By 1956, it was self-sufficient; by 1964, Mexico exported half a million tons of wheat.

The Green Revolution, however, has come at a huge price. It relies heavily on artificial fertilisers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds and monoculture. The world over, our fragile layers of topsoil are being depleted. Notwithstanding those early successes, the long-term realities of the Green Revolution are depressing.

Farmer suicides
In India, one of the cornerstones of the Green Revolution, farmers find themselves unable to make a living using modern intensive agricultural methods. That country’s National Crime Records Bureau estimates that since 1997, almost 200,000 such farmers have been desperate enough to commit suicide. To put that into local perspective, the population of Beaufort West is less the 45,000.

The question is, if artificial seed generation and land fertilisation is as successful as my school geography teachers suggested, then why are these farmers killing themselves? Surely if the hybrid seeds, and the genetically modified seeds, are all they’re cracked up to be, farmers should be doing well?

Well, no. Green Revolutions methods just aren’t diverse enough to be sustainable, and valuable topsoil is not being maintained properly. We are taking from the earth, but we are not giving back. Farmers have to rely more on fertilisers, fertilisers are costing more every year; and every year, the quality of topsoil is decreasing. It is an ever-increasing downward spiral towards agricultural doom. Thus the farmer can’t keep up.

But it doesn’t have to be hopeless.

The greener revolution
The origins of the word permaculture go back to about 1911, when Franklin Hiram King coined the expression Permanent Agriculture for the title of a book on farming techniques in Asia. In 1978, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren followed up a book called Permaculture 101, based on their studies of what modern farming methods are doing to the earth’s topsoil. As the concept has been absorbed and developed, it has expanded to mean "permanent culture."

Still, all these years later, my 2003 edition of Microsoft Word does not recognise the word. Chances are, most people reading this have never heard of the concept. Don’t feel alone… four months ago, I never knew anything about it either.

A basic definition of permaculture is that it is a holistic, sustainable way of food gardening and farming. The system uses conscious design to create and maintain agricultural ecosystems that are as stable , diverse and robust as healthy, natural ecosystems.

Hard work? Only in theory. In the last month I have been lucky enough to spend time with two permaculture practitioners, and their argument is compelling: in Africa, in South Africa, in your own back yard, permaculture is the way to go.

Even special needs kids can do it
Reggie Pather, the principle at West Park Special School in Mulvern, Durban, and Bharathi Tugh, one of the teachers, are doing extraordinary work.

West Park is a special needs school, and Pather turned to permaculture to address issues of malnutrition, fund-raising and life skills. The school started its garden eight years ago, and for five years has been running permaculture courses. Pather estimates that he and Tugh have instructed 4,000 educators. This translates to food gardens at approximately 1,500 schools across KwaZulu Natal.

It’s vital work. The government’s school feeding programmes fulfill an important gap, supplying schools with samp, beans, rice and sometimes soya meat. But this just isn’t enough for a developing brain. Growing additional foods along permaculture lines, schools are able to give the children a more balanced diet, thus helping build brains that are better developed. According to Neurofeedback Practitioner Kerry Swarts, a brain built on a balanced diet is able to focus for longer, and recall information better.

West Park is part of an initiative that started in 1997, when a permaculture schools competition was launched. In 2004, local retail giant Woolworths came on board as the main sponsor, and the competition also has the Department of Education and SAFM support.

Every year, around 400 schools take part in the competition, with the 70 top schools taking part in the finals in the Gauteng province. There are four categories, from “Emerging Schools” to “Mentoring Schools.” The Mentoring schools spread the message, and a spokesperson at Food and Trees for Africa says there are approximately 20 mentoring schools in South Africa.

So the message is spreading where it really counts. A whole generation of school children is growing up better nourished; they leave school knowing - amid all the geography and maths - how to grow food. Perhaps most importnat, this is an initiative that truly goes a long way to ensure nationwide food security. According to Hazel Mugford of the Wild Olive Farm’s Permaculture Training Centre, with the right planning, as little as two hours’ labour per week is all that is needed to grow a food garden that can keep your family fed the whole year round.

Permaculture seems idealistic until you get dirt under your fingernails, and get to eat what you grow. Food insecurity is a function of short-term thinking. But changing it requires political will. The political will of one. And that “one” is the person staring back at you from your mirror.

(Niels Colesky, Health24, October 2009)


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.