Humans striving for increased agricultural production have produced a number of “green revolutions,” or periods of explosive agricultural production. Our collaborative web project deals with the actual and potential consequences of two modern green revolutions.
The First Conventional Revolution: The rise of high-input farming of corn and wheat in the U.S. increased nitrogen application fifty-five times in the last fifty years. Many environmental side effects (or negative externalities) have been documented from the intensification and expansion of agriculture. Agricultural non-point source pollution is a classical environmental problem similar in character to air pollution from cars. After a long period of unawareness, the science of ecology has recognized the problem and the institutions of society and government are now attempting to move toward a solution.
The Second Radical Revolution: The rise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agricultural production is a much newer and different phenomenon. Environmental side-effects regarding GMOs are relatively unknown in the field and in the laboratory. The thrust of the controversy is the potential for catastrophic side-effects that, so far, exist only in theory. Genetic pollution is a completely new environmental challenge that expands the temporal, spatial, and psychological dimensions of classical environmental problem-solving. Amazingly, public social organizations have marched ahead of the science of ecology in raising awareness about GMOs.
Putting the Revolutions Together:
Our society and government have been learning to address classical environmental problems caused by conventional technologies gradually over this century, with most of the progress coming in the last thirty years or so. Our discussion of hypoxia is useful to illustrate how far we still have to go in addressing problems resulting from the first green revolution. When the section on GMOs is read in context with the section on hypoxia the fears and concerns surrounding GMOs becomes even larger. The fact is, while our society has not fully addressed the consequences of the first green revolution, we are hurtling headlong into the second, more radical green revolution. Somehow, we are not concerned with pursuing monoculture the molecular level, when previous intensification has already resulted in unforseen degradation. A damaging first revolution combined with the possibility of a disastrous second revolution should convince our agricultural industry that it is quickly overstepping its wisdom and ability. Moreover, genetic modification is an irreversible threshold and should be crossed with the burden of proof resting on the creators of GMOs. Through intensive fertilization and genetic modification, mankind significantly impacts complex systems. The hypoxia section reveals our inability to predict the environmental consequences of our impacts. We know we are taking on more risk with a new revolution.
What About Justice?
Two powerful values are at risk in the aggressive pursuit of more food output. First is the natural value of biodiversity. It does not matter whether one believes in anthropocentric or biocentric value systems, biodiversity fits neatly into either set of belief. Biodiversity is the totality of all the genes, species, and ecosystems in the world-the “biota.” Viewed objectively each species should promote the stablity of the whole. Humanity should not attempt to increase its niche at the cost of the overall framework's integrity. Viewed subjectively, humans should not attempt to alter their biodiversity life support system because it is still “black box” technology: do not not break what you cannot fix. The second value is the value of future human generations, and it is a purely anthropocentric value. Conventional damages to biodiversity can be reversible in the long run. Potential damages of genetic modification may be irreversible and exponential through genetic domino effects. Is it right to take these steps now without realizing what it may mean for our future generations? Is the long term viability of the human race “just a factor” in our short term risk assessments? Every day, we feel, taste, smell, and see the unintended consequences of our well-meaning but ecologically short-sighted forefathers. We ask the reader to consider both these concepts of justice alongside agribusiness’s claim that increasing food production through environmentally unsound methods is justifiable.