A Greener Revolution for a Sustainable Future

Modern agriculture subscribes to the paradigm of ‘productivity above all else,’ and the costs of productivity are high: farms account for eighty percent of consumptive water use in the United States1, spray nearly a billion pounds of pesticide each year2 (less than one percent of which actually hit target), have tripled fertilizer use since the 1960s3, destroy valuable topsoil that is slow to replenish, and account for seventeen percent of U.S. fossil fuel use.4 In other words, modern agriculture relies on high levels of inputs. The heavy consumption of the types of resources listed above raises the question of sustainability in two separate senses. First, is the question of whether the rate at which we consume these resources is sustainable, and second is whether or not the use and application of these resources is ecologically sustainable. The productivity gains achieved by modern agriculture have been great; however, to ensure they last an ethic of sustainability must be integrated into our agricultural pursuits.

Modern agricultural methods trace their roots to the Green Revolution—which, ironically, was anything but green in the modern sense of the word. To be fair, the name “Green Revolution” was not intended to describe the movement as an environmental one. Instead, it was mean to be an agricultural foil to the political, Soviet Red Revolution or Iranian White Revolution. In fact, William Gaud, former administrator of USAID, coined the phrase “Green Revolution” in a speech in 1968 when the Soviet and Iranian revolutions would have been fresher in the public’s mind.5

The goal of the Green Revolution was to use technology, largely through genetically modified crop varieties designed to produce greater yield, to meet the rising global demand for food. The philosophy underlying the movement was that by planting a few varieties of modified, high-yielding crops and providing them with the right combination of inputs—water, fertilizers, and pesticides—yields could be maximized in almost any environment. As Frederick Kirschenmann puts it, “In modern, conventional agriculture, progressive farming is largely a matter of following the right prescription… a standard model that anyone with some management cleverness can transplant to any farm operation.”6 In brief, the high-input, low-diversity methods characterizing modern agriculture were borne out of this philosophy.

Assessing the sustainability of current agronomic systems, then, one finds that they can be characterized as being open, or leaky. In other words, the prescription of inputs escapes the system in the form of runoff or greenhouse gases, which are often responsible for much environmental damage. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency cites that agricultural runoff, including fertilizers and pesticides, is responsible for 70 percent of the pollution in America’s waterways. This approach, then, is both environmentally and economically unsound—it makes little economic sense to lose the money invested in inputs year after year.

The alternative to a leaky system is a closed one, wherein all materials are recycled and reused. However, no farm is completely closed because the goal is to harvest the crop, or output, and then sell it off site. We can design systems that are less leaky and more self-sustaining.7 But creating a sustainable system is much more complex than simply recycling waste products—it necessitates reducing inputs and maximizing the efficiency of those inputs. To do this three management practices are essential: a soil-conservation strategy, crop rotations, and a diversification scheme.8  

Conserving soil and maintaining its health not only ensures that land will continue to be productive for years to come, but also reduces the need for inputs such as water and fertilizers. However, the rate at which conventional farming erodes the soil is one to two orders of magnitude faster than the soil can recuperate.9 The foolproof way to conserve soil is to simply take land out of production; however, this means losing short-term profits for long-term sustainability and, thus, is not always seen as a viable option. Increasingly, farmers have been espousing a no-till method of agriculture, in which they refrain from plowing to prevent soil erosion and increase water retention.10 Additionally, a more modern understanding of soil has given us new reason to consider maintaining soil health to promote diversity within the biologic communities living within the soil. Maintaining diversity within the soil is related to a better crop yield, as some bacteria and fungi within the soil act cooperatively with crops to gather nutrients.

Crop rotations entail planting a succession of different crop varieties in given field, rather than planting the same crops in the same field every year. This practice minimizes the need for certain inputs in several ways. First, because different crop varieties have different nutrient requirements, rotations prevent the soil from being depleted of the same nutrient profile season after season. But rotations also involve allowing fields to lie fallow for a time, giving the soil time to recuperate between crop varieties and potentially replenish these nutrients. As a result, farmers can reduce the need for fertilizer. Second, rotating crops with a variety of root systems, some deep and others more fibrous, prevents the pulverization of the soil and increases its ability to retain water. Additionally, crop rotations can minimize the need for pest and herbicides by interrupting the reproductive cycles of pests and weeds dependent on crops.11

As with any good investment, agricultural risk can be mitigated by a diversified portfolio. Diversity can be added at two levels. One way is to simply plant multiple varieties of crops, such as maize, tomatoes, and potatoes. A second strategy is to maintain genetic diversity within crop varieties, which is the antithesis of Green Revolution and modern agricultural dogma, which espouse using genetically modified—and therefore genetically identical—crop. Cultivating a diverse crop can prevent the total loss of a season’s yield from a chance environmental event or crop failure due to pests. Many genetically modified crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides, theoretically reducing the need to spray pesticides, but the worry that pests will evolve means to subvert this inherent defense prompts farmers to spray pesticides regardless.

Intercropping is a specific method of diversification that involves the planting of multiple crop types in the same space, and unlike crop rotations, at the same time. Not only does this allow certain plants to act cooperatively—some plants fix atmospheric nitrogen, adding fertility to the soil—but intercropping is also a common method of providing soil cover to prevent erosion.12  Many crops, planted in rows, leave long strips of ground bare and susceptible to erosion. Additionally, planting in between rows of crops can increase yield on the same amount of land.

We have many of the tools to begin implementing a more sustainable version of agriculture. First, however, we must weight the benefits of the high-input, low-diversity system given to us by the Green Revolution against the ecological harms and inefficiencies it creates. If we are going to champion productivity, we should champion productivity that is regenerative and lasting. As resources such as freshwater or even fertile soil become scarcer and as the ecological harms caused by open agricultural systems continue, the need to transition to a more sustainable version of agriculture will become increasingly apparent. That is not to say that agriculturalists are not already taking notice and redesigning agronomic systems to include an environmental ethic, but the next great agricultural movement has not yet begun. When it finally comes, the next agricultural revolution will surely be greener than the last.


  1. USDA Economic Research Service. 2010. “Irrigation & Water Use.” United States Department of Agriculture.
  2. Economic Research Service. 2012. “Pesticide Use and Markets.” United States Department of Agriculture.
  3. Economic Research Service. 2012. “Fertilizer Use and Markets.” United States Department of Agriculture.
  4. Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. 2002. “How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110(5): 445.
  5. Gaud, William S. 1968, March. Revolution: Accomplishments and Apprehensions. Speech presented at the Society for International Development, Washington, D.C.
  6. Kirschenmann, Frederick. 2010. Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher. The University Press of Kentucky.
  7. Pearson, Craig J. 2007. Regenerative, Semiclosed Systems: A Priority for Twenty-First-Century Agriculture. Bioscience. 57(5): 409-418.
  8. Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. 2002. “How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110(5): 445.
  9. Montgomery, David R. 2007. “Soil Erosion and Agricultural Sustainability.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104(33):13268 – 13272
  10. Hobbs, P.R. 2007. Conservation Agriculture: What Is It and Why Is It Important for Future Sustainable Food Production? Journal of Agricultural Science. 145: 127-137.
  11. “Sustainable Agricultural Techniques.” 2008. Union of Concerned Scientists.
  12. Lithourgidis, A.S., Dordas, C.A., Damalas, C.A., and Vlachostergios, D.N. 2011. Annual Intercrops: An Alternative Pathway for Sustainable Agriculture. Australian Journal of Crop Science. 5(4): 396-410.
Alex Styer is a third-year student at Georgetown University majoring in Environmental Biology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.