It was the chemically supplemented Green Revolution of the 1960s that helped India end its cycles of famine.
Yet a series of new reports reveal a dark side to dependence of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation, including disease, environmental decline and social decay, the latter often driven by bad government planning.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that health problems previously unheard of are proliferating in the northwestern Punjab state — ground zero for the Green Revolution in India, and known as the nation’s breadbasket.
Local medical clinics and health officials speak of a surge in cancer, muscular disorders in teens, early menstruation in young girls, lower sperm counts and more frequent stillbirths.
According to the BBC, new questions have also emerged about the Green Revolution’s long-term ability to support ever-growing human populations.
These include fears that agriculture is hitting the limits of what a plant can produce, no matter how hybridized and chemically supplemented.
A lack of quality farmland also limits productivity — and there’s an additional, human cost at the grassroots: Debt, and despair.
Some farmers who can’t afford to keep up with the cost of intensive farming take their own lives.
“In the old days we practiced subsistence agriculture and we felt a sense of control,” a Punjab community activist told the BBC. “Now everything is more complicated and lots of people are desperately in debt.”
Punjab uses 18 percent of the entire country’s fertilizers, with just 1.5 percent of India’s farmland.
The New York Times reports that bad planning has led to depleted water tables, lower yields, inadequate research and financial support programs for farmers, and dependence on foreign food imports.
Some advocates see a solution in organic farming, which is more biologically diverse and eschews chemical infusions.
Proponents face many obstacles, however, chief among them the Indian government, which remains committed to Green Revolution methods as the best way to feed more than 1.1 billion people.
The Chronicle also notes that less than 5 percent of Punjab farmers currently use organic methods.
–Lauren Riggs & Newsdesk.org staff
“Some Indians fear Green Revolution is a killer”
San Francisco Chronicle, July 28, 2008
“In Fertile India, Growth Outstrips Agriculture”
New York Times, June 22, 2008
“The limits of a Green Revolution?”
BBC News, March 29,2007