April 9, 2014

Green Meets Brown: The Many Colours of a Food Revolution

By Sir Gordon Conway
This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, "the Father of the Green Revolution" would be turning 100 this week. Influential figures in the fight against hunger gathered in his honour in Mexico, to celebrate his work in wheat improvement that saved more than a billion people worldwide from starvation. Amongst them, Howard G. Buffet and I presented our ideas to continue Dr. Borlaug's legacy, by adjusting its colour.

In my book The Doubly Green Revolution I dissect this great movement, looking not only at its monumental achievement of avoiding famine, but also its costs to the environment. The Green Revolution is criticised for promoting excessive use of fertilisers that can run into waterways and even lead to over-salinisation of farmland and loss of biodiversity.

That is why, building on Borlaug's work, I instead encouraged the audience at the Borlaug100 summit in Mexico to catalyse this "doubly green" revolution; a transformation of the food system that not only boosts yields, but leaves the environment unharmed or even improved.

This art of creating more food with less impact has been termed Sustainable Intensification, and should be the basis for all investments in farming, both big and small. We are rapidly running out of good-quality arable land and water, globally and in Africa. Climate change could leave another 50 million hungry by 2050. We need to intensify food production, getting 'more with less.' But this has to be sustainable, with more prudent use of inputs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing natural capital and building resilience.

As I commented in my keynote speech at the summit - Sustainable Intensification is a the slogan for the future that I think Norman Borlaug would have been proud of. But it is a tall order; a much taller order than the Green Revolution itself.

In conversation with me for the first time, the farmer and philanthropist Howard G. Buffet spoke in similar vein, but with a different colour palette. Buffet advocates for a "Brown Revolution," reminding us that protecting the environment, especially our soils, is paramount to feeding the world and reducing poverty in the 21st century.

He believes Africa needs a 'Brown Revolution,' to improve soil quality and increase agricultural productivity. Africa's soils are massively depleted, and fertilizer use remains at around one tenth of the world average. Finding the right types of fertiliser to match and enhance specific soils, and ensuring that they are used sparingly is no small feat.

Nevertheless, under the N2Africa Initiative in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G Buffett Foundation will be investing $2 million to increase the productivity of legumes (read: protein-dense crops) to improve family nutrition, soil health and farm income through nitrogen fixing.


In line with Buffet's book 40 Chances, that quantifies just how many chances we have on this earth to achieve our goals, both Howard G. Buffett and I are making the most of ours to maintain the natural resources that we all depend on for our food and the majority of us, our livelihoods. As we continue to improve upon the achievements of our predecessors, whether doubly green or brown, we seek to pave the way for the next generation of agricultural revolutions.

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