A few of days ago, Norman Borlaug died at the age of 95. Borlaug was widely known as the father of the green revolution, the advances in crop science that dramatically increased yields in the developing world and averted what certainly would have been numerous mass famines. The obit linked to above does a good job of explaining his importance to the world as well as giving a little time to his critics. In my primary field, development economics, there is little debate about the importance of his work and what it has meant to developing countries. In the intervening half century it is simply mind-boggling to think of how many lives these advances have saved.
Criticisms of the green revolution raise very important questions, however, and it is time that the world start addressing these problems. I think of the criticisms not as attacks on what Borlaug did, but on what has happened in the last 40 years, which is to say not much. But let me back up. The essence of the criticism of the green revolution is that the new crop strains developed by Borlaug and others are highly dependent on fertilizers and pesticides and in some cases extensive irrigation. An effect of this type of farming was the displacement of many small scale family farms who did not have access to these modern seeds and chemicals - leading to the rise of more industrial agriculture in the developing world. Sure the use of petrochemicals and digging of tube wells enabled massive increases in crop yields, the argument goes, but it also has lead us on a path of un-sustainability and has caused environmental damage on a mass scale. [A more subtile criticism, never made directly but euphemistically, is that these advances lowered the cost of babies and thus enabled the population growth of the last 40 years] So going back the my point: I think these advances were extraordinarily important, but since then, there has not been enough work done to try and move toward more sustainable practices and away from chemically intensive farming. With the specter of mass starvation gone, the incentives of the developed world to continue to make advances in this area were drastically reduced.
The new reality of increased population pressures, global warming and depleted and contaminated ground water supplies are going to likely lead to another crisis in the next decade or two and thus another green revolution will be needed, however this time the green revolution will need to be truly 'green' in the modern usage of the term.