In 1944, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations established an agricultural experiment station in Mexico, and only four years later, Mexico became food self-sufficient. Wheat production, for example, improved from 700 kg/ha (1.9 tons/acre) in 1930 to 2400 kg/ha (6.5 tons/acre) by 1965, a factor improvement of 3.4. However, potato production was more spectacular, with a ratio increase of 7.46. A young Iowa wheat expert, Norman Borlaug, one of the first employees of the Mexican station, went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1970. My early partner in the Blue Revolution, Hawaii State Senator Richard Matsuura, worked with Borlaug in India.
No one realized this was a green revolution until U.S. Agency for International Development director, William Gaud, in 1968, coined the term. What agronomists did was increase grain production and durability by using new hybrid strains (through cross-breeding), multiple cropping, simple irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and heavy machinery. Part of the magic was due to the use of petroleum. The worldwide grain production increase bordered on the fantastic: 14 million tons in 1950 versus 144 million tons in 1990. Famine decreased by 20% and caloric consumption per capita increased by 25%.
Wheat is an incredible life form. Its 21 chromosomes contain 16 billion base pairs, supposedly 40 times more than rice and five times that of humans. About 11,000 years ago, in what is now Turkey, wheat was first planted, and has gone through several mutations. This grain reached Europe in 3000 B.C. and China around 2000 B.C., where rice was already being cultivated. Rice itself has been reported in Science Daily to have the smallest of its 12 chromosomes having 22 million base pairs, so the genetics of grain appear to still be evolving. Today, there is a bit more than 200 million hectares (ha, 500 million acres) of wheat in production and 150 million ha in rice.
Mind you, anything good has its critics, too. Vandana Shiva of India wrote that the Green Revolution was a failure, as genetic diversity was reduced, crops became more vulnerable to pests, soil fertility dropped, small farmers gave way to large corporations, and the subsequent family impoverishment led to increased conflicts. There is now a need for Green Revolution II, as yield increases have, indeed, diminished, aquifers are drying up, top soil is disappearing, salt concentrations are more and more contaminating the land, pests are becoming chemically resistant, the population is still rising, environmental problems have grown and costs are increasing. Distribution problems are particularly still messy.
Then, there is the matter of genetic engineering. Europe and Japan are particularly careful about Franken or transgenic foods, and the United States, somewhat surprisingly, seems bullish on radiated and genetically modified (GM) supermarket products. Ah, again, the power of the farm lobby.
There will be controversy. Monsanto and Conagra could well become the next primary industrial defendants in the courts. But, more and more, GM foods will provide natural vaccines against infectious diseases, higher nutrient value and lower costs (because crop maturity can be accelerated, for time means money). Much of this transition—because they don’t have to be eaten—will occur in GM cotton, flowers and fibrous plants to make plastics and transportation fuel. Irrigation water is a looming crisis. Let me repeat this: we will increasingly have severe problems with irrigation and drinking water in the coming decades. The bottom line, though, is that water is a cost of energy issue, unless you live in Kansas or Las Vegas, where severe measures will need to be taken before 2100.
Finally, I have been advising a group with a patent to grow land crops in the ocean. Can you imagine if someone had the patent to grow land plants on land? So someday you might actually see “amber waves of super-grain” on the ocean.