The Green Revolution: GMO’s, Fertilizers, Pesticides And What’s It Mean To Me?

Was the Green Revolution of the 60’s which saved Bangladeshis from starvation what started a Cholera epidemic that spread all over SW Asia? Why should you care? Does what’s happened in Bangladesh have lessons for us in the US?

Bangladesh, a tiny country located to the east of India along the Indian Ocean and wading at the end of the Ganges River delta, is the poster child of third world challenges; endemic poverty, political corruption, overpopulation and vulnerability to climate change.

In the 1960’s with the support of world aid agencies and governments Bangladesh undertook what became known as the Green Revolution. Priority was given to do everything possible to produce more food and end decades of chronic starvation. The Great Bengal Famine of 1943, for instance, claimed 3 million lives there.

A Not So Green Revolution

They introduced new, modified crops, poured on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, implemented irrigation, produced new agricultural land via deforestation and almost immediately grain (mainly rice and wheat) yields exploded and Bangladesh amazingly achieved relative self-sufficiency in food production. The success encouraged the use of more hybrid crops and greater amounts of fertilizers and pesticides and like a drug addict an ugly spiral ensued.

With no regard for conserving soil fertility, over the next 30 years the increasing amounts of fertilizer caused the soil to lose its life, thus pushing production downward despite the ever-higher doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The current status of Bangladesh is a mixed picture with no easy analysis and growing questions of concern to all of us seeking to manipulate nature even for the best of reasons.

A Mixed Bag

Today Bangladesh is the 4th largest rice producer in the world and number one in the number of children suffering from malnutrition.

It’s listed as a developing nation now among the “Next Eleven” countries predicted to become one of the world’s largest economies in the 21st century (Others are Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea, Philippines, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico) and nearly half the children under five are stunted from malnutrition and 76 percent of urban families live below the acceptable caloric intake level.

Bangladesh’s intense chemical path to sustainability seems to have lessons for us. Pursuing profit and yield while completely ignoring ecological and social concerns has left them with depleted topsoil, groundwater contamination, fewer family farms, increasing costs of production, food degradation, ecological imbalances (mono-culture) and environmental pollution. Once described as the richest soil in the world, after four decades of “modern” agriculture, Bangladesh’s soil is now among the worst in the world.

Deadly Unintended Consequences

Dr. Gary Schoolnik, a Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine is an acknowledged expert in the infectious disease field. His research has connected deforestation and irrigation induced runoff, nitrate rich chemical fertilizers and pesticides from the “green revolution” of 1960’s with a lethal unintended consequence, Cholera. Cholera strain 0139 Bengal, to be exact, and its regional outbreak that started in1992 spread through vast regions of Asia and lasted until 2005.

It turns out the extra runoff from deforestation and the extra nutrients in the runoff from chemical fertilizers coupled with the monsoon rains that fill the Ganges Delta and regularly produce an algae bloom that’s the perfect food for Cholera bacteria to thrive and mutate, according to Dr. Schoolnik, led to the new 0139 Bengal strain that hit Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan at the turn of the century, and even caused travel related Cholera cases in England and the US.

To understand Cholera literally requires a strong stomach. It’s a bacterial infection in the stomach that produces extreme, watery diarrhea and vomiting that leads to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and 130,000 deaths worldwide each year among the 5 million people it effects. Imagine, if you’ve ever had a laxative cleanse for a colonoscopy and experiencing that kind of elimination continuing for days and out of both ends!

Help for Cholera Victims

The treatment for Cholera is oral or intravenous fluid rehydration. The cutting edge method for intravenous rehydration is the FosmoMed Maji (Swahili word for water) IV solution bags, which, because they can be shipped without solution, are less costly to ship and much easier to carry to places in the world where demand is greatest.

That they can be filled with contaminated water and still produce clean saline or sugar water means Maji bags could become the best solution for treating Cholera and saving lives in disaster areas and other places without access to clean water.

How can we handle the fact that an economic decision by a Bangladeshi rice farmer can spread a regional cholera epidemic? The debate is fully engaged specifically around genetically modified foods (GMO’s) with consumers, biotech companies, governmental regulators, non-governmental organizations and scientists asking; what are the risks? Should GMO food be labeled for consumers? Do they threaten the environment?

There is broad scientific consensus GMO foods are not dangerous, yet, the unintended consequences of Bangladesh and their Green Revolution and other fears move many to ask for more research before we head down the road of becoming dependent on genetically modified food. They fear the concentration of influence on the entire food supply that could be exercised by companies that make and sell GMO’s. And they call for at the very least mandatory GMO food labeling. Let us know where you stand on this issue?

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By Mark Holmer, a biotech researcher and industry writer. I am passionate about health care reform and social issues.