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I just learned so much about grains
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This month’s interview with Dr. Marci R. Baranski is conducted by Alex Hazlett, who you can read more about at the end of the piece. You can read previous Culture Study interviews on antiquities smuggling, on music as torture, on the social lab of PE, and the mechanics of escape rooms.
Perhaps you haven’t given a lot of thought, throughout your life, to wheat. I didn’t until I tried to make my grandmother’s cinnamon rolls. My attempts to make them myself by calling her repeatedly from 500 miles away were aggressively fine at best.
My grandmother, a first-generation Lebanese-American woman, learned the recipe from her mother-in-law, a first-gen German-American. If you’ve ever received a hand-me-down recipe like this from an elder, you’ll know that it will often assume you know what you’re doing, and provide scant instructional details. Meaning, they’re not in an ideal format to troubleshoot. After fiddling with the timing, the rising process, and every other variable in that recipe, all that was left to consider was the flour, and I went deep.
My grandmother was ride-or-die for Robin Hood flour, a Canadian brand that, despite being an all-purpose flour, has a higher gluten content than most AP flours. It’s more similar to a bread flour, and once I switched to one of those (King Arthur) my formerly-pathetic cinnamon rolls rose to delicious heights. This entire process took years, and though my grandmother was no longer around to enjoy my success, I was able to pass this learning back to my mother, who could no longer access Robin Hood flour after changes in the company’s distribution. My struggles have been absorbed into a family story, and the rolls continue.
For much of human history, agriculture was a pretty local endeavor. Even grains like rice or wheat that grew in many places had regional variation that was directly observable in how they were prepared. Culture and geography intertwined so that people made biscuits in one region, breads in another, tortillas and couscous in still other places. But as Marci R. Baranski details in her new book, The Globalization of Wheat: A Critical History of the Green Revolution, wheat and other staple crops have become international brands and commodities like so many other products, conscripted into solving all manner of problems (and not always successfully).
Sometimes the best way to illuminate and wrestle with big questions is to get into the weeds. I first encountered the concept of the Green Revolution in an undergraduate class on the Economics of Development. I learned about these developments as an example of a Good Thing: one of the ways humanity had really applied ourselves and improved things. From that class, I took away a linear narrative of progress that omitted the conflicts and alternative perspectives that had been present at the time. In her book, Baranski restores that context to the story.
Baranski’s work asks: What happens when the metrics we set for an experiment (e.g. grow more food) don’t actually accomplish the goals (e.g. increase food security)? What role should technology play in development and how do we decide what it is? Should the goal of policy be to increase participation in free markets or to enable basic security? And to whom should the decision-makers in all of these systems be held accountable?
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alex Hazlett: How did you first get interested in this topic and your area of research?
Marcia Baranski: As a young teenager, I started reading about agricultural research and Golden Rice specifically. This idea that you could put vitamin A into a rice — at that moment, I was like, ‘Okay, let's do it. I want to be a biochemist.’ And it was really, yeah, romanticizing this idea that science could save the world. It seemed like a simple solution. So I studied biochemistry as an undergraduate, but quickly became disillusioned with that whole endeavor and how little control you have really over the outcome of the research that you're doing. At the same time, I was also doing a lot of environmental activism. So I realized I needed to follow a path that was somewhere in between those, and ended up in a PhD program called biology and society.
Before we go further into your research, can you give readers a little more introduction to the Green Revolution and Norman Bourlag?
The Green Revolution was a profound transformation of global agriculture mainly through three things: the use of chemical fertilizers, the spread of irrigation, and the adoption of high-yielding crop varieties, meaning crop varieties that could really utilize higher levels of fertilizer. The Green Revolution wasn't just these technologies, though — it was accompanied by various policy reforms and land reform. And it was very much a melding of this technological side, this enabling-policy side, and an increase in agricultural education throughout the world. The ideas were most prevalent in Latin and South America and South Asia, and wheat, rice, and maize were the focus crops.
Norman Borlaug was an American agricultural scientist, and in the 1940s, he started working with the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, which is really known as the birthplace of the Green Revolution. He was working to increase wheat production in Mexico, and this model — which we can call the Green Revolution model — was transposed….especially to rice, which was not quite as successful, but it had this similar sort of influence on all these new rice varieties adopted by farmers in Asia. Borlaug really developed these crop varieties that could be grown over a wide variety of areas, and was a strong advocate for using high levels of fertilizer. He was very adamant that this was what was needed to feed the world.
Why is the idea of wide adaptation problematic? It sounds like having a plant that could grow in a lot of different situations would be ideal.
The idea — some people call it like the Model T of rice varieties, a kind of rugged, one-size-fits-all variety — has come up throughout history in different places as the idea that's what you should be working towards. However, in almost all cases, it just doesn't work.
Agriculture is just too context-specific, meaning there's just too many different factors at play. There's too much variation between different farms or the methods that farmers are using or the inputs that they have access to. It's more of a concept, as opposed to something that plays out in reality.
Now, the reason that I had thought it was discredited was because I had read a history of rice research, where first they were working towards a really all-purpose variety. This is the 1960s, but they realized that it was only adopted by a small amount of farmers. And for rice specifically, the growing environments are so diverse that this variety was only working for farmers who were really the best farmers. So the rice research world, both internationally and in India, had to move past the idea [of wide adaptation of rice.] But in wheat, you ended up with varieties coming out of Norman Borlaug's program in Mexico, which appeared widely adapted because they could be grown over wide areas. They were being grown all throughout South America. in northern and eastern Africa, in South Asia.
Why? Wheat is more flexible. It just has a more complex genome. We don't completely understand, but we think that maybe it just has more copies of genes. And so maybe that gives it some sort of inherent flexibility. But also: without knowing it, Norman Borlaug developed wheats that weren’t sensitive to day length. Some crops have this and some crops don't. But that was a reason that these crops could be grown in all of these different areas. It wasn't that they had some sort of, you know, magical shapeshifting property. It's just that they could actually be grown at different latitudes, and not a lot of crops had done that before.
Borlaug really took this idea to more of an extreme and said, 'these crops can be grown with or without fertilizer and still have high yields’ and ‘they can be grown with or without irrigation and still have high yields.' That was true — to a much lesser extent. And that's why wide adaptation became controversial: local scientists working in local conditions were saying 'no, actually, this doesn't work for us.' But Bourlag kept saying, 'no, no, just just keep doing it. Just keep using fertilizer, and you'll get the results.' The ideas of adaptation across locations and adaptation across conditions have been really mixed together and confused, and different people are trying to pick this apart from different angles. And there's not agreement between these groups.
So we live in the world the Green Revolution created. What are the ramifications?
The narrative of the Green Revolution has really become this happy story about how, during the 1950s and '60s, the world was facing a population bomb, and the only way to defuse it was through a combination of increased agricultural production….and then also family planning and reducing birth rates. Increasing agricultural production was initially seen as just kind of a shorter term solution, but it's just really become part of how we view international development today: This treadmill of always needing higher [agricultural] yields in order to feed the population.
The scientists mostly decided to focus on crops like maize, wheat and rice, even though some of these crops weren't major crops in [the areas where research was being conducted]. In Mexico, for example, where Norman Borlaug’s research started, wheat was not a major crop. But you will notice even looking at Mexican cuisine that there has been a transition from the maize and corn tortillas to wheat tortillas, because wheat started to become more widely grown in Mexico. But the choice to focus on these crops — which are all carbohydrates, not great sources of protein or fiber — has been at the expense of other crops, which are more used in local cuisine or are more nutritious.
The narrative that the Green Revolution just led to these overflowing granaries, that's true in some cases. You filled up the granaries, but you emptied other types of crops. You shifted what farmers were growing so that they were growing things that are mostly used today in processed foods, when you’re looking at wheat and maize. So that's been one of the major consequences, that those local and indigenous crops, which are often more climate resilient, have been really neglected to the point that some people call them “forgotten” crops or orphan crops.
Was the intent for these crops to be consumed as food or to be used as commodities to make money, or both?
Historians have been arguing that actually the Green Revolution was less about increasing food production and more about transforming peasant agriculture into commercial agriculture (Note from Alex: Taxes and agriculture have long been entwined.). So you could say that was really the political aim of the Green Revolution. Now, I also think there's good evidence that many people involved in the Green Revolution did also want to increase food production. But this was also politically motivated — they thought that there would be these food shortages in places like India, that would lead to political instability, to things like the Cultural Revolution in China. So it's important to realize that we often think about these branches as really humanitarian motivated, and some of them were, but they were also part of this geopolitical movement to turn non-Western societies more Western by commercializing their agriculture.
[The Green Revolution] really focused on the farmers who were closest to becoming commercial. They weren't trying to target the smallest of the small farmers, but just hoping that these modernized techniques would then trickle down to these farmers or that they would leave agriculture. Maybe they just become laborers, or maybe they move into the city and become part of the industrial labor force.
So the technology filters down until you've gotten to all the farmers who can commercialize….but will leave out anyone below that threshold, because it's not designed to include them. How many people are left out?
I don't have the exact numbers and it's not even exactly known, but the number of smallholder farmers in the world could be around 500 million. They're producing a large percentage of food in the world. Especially coming from the U.S., we don't really have a good understanding of the extent to which the majority of the world’s rural population are smallholder farmers —and they are just not benefiting from the investments into agricultural research. So that's one of my main arguments: That agricultural research has tried to reform and has tried to say that ‘we will reach the smallholder farmers.’
But it's a lot of talk and not a lot of action. If we're still using the same kind of top-down technical technological model, how is it actually going to reach farmers this time?
A lot of the climate change adaptation discourse, for example, is focused on these technological solutions — drought-tolerant maize, or flood-tolerant rice — and the nature of technological diffusion is that the more affluent users are always the ones that adopt it first. If you're just trying to improve yields, you might be able to do it using this way and maybe just push smallholder farmers out of agriculture, but I haven't heard anyone saying that's what they want to do. Everyone is saying that they want to help smallholder farmers.
It’s time to realize that what we're doing isn't working for smallholder farmers. We need to either acknowledge that and say, maybe it is best to provide alternate sources of livelihood. But if we are going to continue to say farming is an important source of livelihood for them, an important source of food security, we do need to change our technique and stop looking at just the new shiny technology and trying to get that to them. Because most of the time it's not working.
How has the Green Revolution influenced agricultural science and what might need to change?
Agricultural science really changed from a location-specific practice where you're working on a very locally specific problem, to stepping back and becoming a very globalized field. What that process allowed is a degree of separation between scientists and the farmers. And the problematic aspect is that scientists could say, ‘well, this crop is widely adapted. I don't need to pay as close attention to the local conditions where this will be grown. I just need a crop that gets high yields.’ And this has been the dominant concept throughout agricultural research over the past few decades: just keep moving towards those higher and higher yields, even if that's not what's happening in farmer's fields.
This idea of the gap between the yields that the scientists are getting and that farmers are getting, there's actually a term for that. It's called the ‘yield gap.’ It's a term used in agricultural science and which I think is a bit of a misnomer because it doesn't matter what yield scientists are getting. It only actually matters that the yields that farmers are getting.
But you can also come at it from other angles. Maybe some camps think that people having the adequate amount of economic resources leads to food security. So maybe, actually, your goal needs to be more focused on providing adequate livelihoods for people — whether or not that's in agriculture.
The era we’re discussing (post WWII through around 1970) feels like the heyday of a fervent faith in both chemistry and trickle-down theory. Now we can say that those ideas have been somewhat discredited, or at least complicated, but that hadn’t yet happened when these plans were first being put into motion.
Yeah, actually, in the book, I think I use the term “trickle-down agriculture” – this idea that by targeting the more affluent farmers, these benefits would trickle down. Not necessarily through these crops — these varieties being adopted by my smaller farmers — but that the food prices would go down or they would have more economic employment.
We do know that food prices went down as a result of the Green Revolution, or at least we can say grain prices went down. But the impact actually on overall wellbeing and hunger are a lot more messy. So I'll just say that if you think about India specifically, it has a large proportion of the world's undernourished population. This narrative that the Green Revolution was such a success really needs to be re-examined, and my book is one of several other recent historical works that have really challenged this narrative of the Green Revolution as a purely positive force aside from the environmental impacts, which are well known.
That's maybe what's surprising [about the book] to some people, knowing that I'm an environmentalist. I'm not actually making that much of an environmental argument. I'm making more of a social justice argument and saying that, ‘Actually today, there's all this talk about helping smallholder farmers and we're using the same methods.’
Or we're trying to commercialize those farmers, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a role for commercialized, mechanized agriculture, but we’re using the same techniques and trying to get to this group of farmers that hasn't been reached by those techniques. There's a disconnect there and to me, it ends up being like a lot of talk, not enough action.
It sounds like we, global humanity, have figured out how to grow more wheat. But we have not figured out how to reduce food insecurity or equitably distribute wealth and livelihoods. During the Green Revolution, there was hope that figuring out how to grow more wheat would lead to these other outcomes, but 60 years of data shows that hasn’t happened.
Exactly. One of the ironies about my book being about wheat is that wheat, in some ways, is seen as the most successful crop in the Green Revolution. And yes, it was the most successful in that it was grown over these very wide areas. We did improve the yield, but that still hasn't significantly improved food security, especially in South Asia.
And this has become the model for agricultural development — when it should be seen as more of an outlier. If you look at the majority of campaigns and agricultural research, this is truly a revolutionary time where the adoption of these higher yielding wheat varieties and synthetic fertilizer came together and spread throughout the world. There has never been anything like that probably in the history of agriculture.
This idea that you can do this really top-down, technologically-focused, broadly adapted project just doesn't apply to so many other situations when you're looking at things like say soil conservation, or better nutrient management or livestock management management. We just haven't seen the success there.
We keep trying to use these top-down methods but we really need to start going back to the local — and not just not just romanticizing the local but strengthening local research systems and really acknowledging the diversity inherent in agriculture, and seeing that as more of a strength than a weakness.
In what specific ways did Bourlag’s research projects overlook local conditions?
Here’s where I really think Borlaug took a wrong turn. He was saying that these varieties are widely adapted with or without fertilizer, with or without irrigation — but at the same time, he was extremely adamant that all areas of the world needed to be using more chemical fertilizers. In those moments, he was not just doing this in his scientific work. He was acting as a political lobbyist. He was meeting with world leaders and high ranking agricultural scientists, and even talks about it in regards to Pakistan and India — kind of building this competition between them. So he was really a charismatic guy and had a lot of political influence. And also as a side note, he changed an entire field of agricultural science by barely publishing any scientific papers. It shows you how influential he was beyond the scientific work he was doing.
But again, Bourlag didn't really look at the local conditions. The farmers he was working with in Mexico, they were these higher socioeconomic status farmers. They had irrigation. And whenever he looked at the global project results, they were always aggregated, so he was always looking at averages, rather than, you know, what's the specific performance in these different locations? And so that's where he took the wrong turn. He was never in another location for long enough to really understand that, you know, farmers just don't have access to fertilizer or to irrigation in some of these areas. And that's still true today.
Even if all farmers did have access to them, what are the consequences of extreme dependence on chemical fertilizers?
Well there's several known consequences. You might recall, there were farmer protests in Northwest India and the Punjab a few years ago, and that was because farmers were concerned they weren't going to get a high enough price for the crops. Because the cost, the amount of inputs that they have to put into the crop, leaves them a very small profit margin. So having this continued dependence on chemical fertilizers — well, I should acknowledge that chemical fertilizers are literally responsible for like feeding half of the population in the world and that basically we could not sustain the current population without chemical fertilizers.
But it also is a dependence. For example, looking at the impact of the war on Ukraine, the rise of fertilizer prices, farmers are really struggling because of that. Then you also have the unintended consequences such as nutrient runoff, and relating to what I do in my day job, nitrous oxide emissions. So the excess fertilizer –– and about half of fertilizer that's applied to fields doesn't even make it into the crop –– it actually volatilizes into the atmosphere or it runs off into waterways. And that's just the nature of nitrogen, as it likes to shift forms. But that has resulted in, for example, the areas that Borlaug was working in Mexico have some of the highest rates of nitrous oxide emissions in the world on wheat that's being grown there. So yeah, there are definitely negative consequences of using too much fertilizer.
Can you connect the dots to climate change here?
I'm not an ecologist, so I can't say all of the impacts of the nitrogen runoff. But I will say that nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, and about 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis. So it's a really powerful. It's contributed less to global warming than methane and carbon dioxide, but still, it's quite powerful. And if we're looking at continuing this mode of agriculture, and if we're decarbonizing other parts of the economy, you're going to see agricultural emissions become a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. And at this point, we don't have an alternative to [chemical] fertilizers.
There is manure, but we just don't have the amount of manure that's needed to feed the current population. In some ways, fertilizer is magical! Scientists found a way to literally create a nutrient out of nitrogen in the air. But the alternatives which were used in the past, like mining from guano, we just don't have the amount of that from animal manure that's needed to feed the world.
But then let me also say, relating it to the book, that there are crop varieties that do better under lower levels of fertilization. We have chosen not to focus on these varieties. Agricultural research has really chosen to focus on wheat, maize and rice, and specifically varieties that are highly productive under high levels of fertilizer, rather than going an alternative route of looking at crops that can also perform well under lower levels of fertilizer.
Why do you think these technology-based, top-down approaches have persisted so long ?
We love the story of the Green Revolution. We love the story of a technological silver bullet. I see that today. Some of the big players in agricultural development today come from the tech world. There’s this idea that technology is a broadly applicable solution, but in reality, it often does not play out that way.
You can buy The Globalization of Wheat: A Critical History of the Green Revolution here.
About the Interviewer: Alex Hazlett is a journalist who reports on modern family life, technology, and science for a variety of outlets. Her work has appeared in Vox, The Cut, NBC News, and the nonprofit science publication Undark.