O Tanenbaum: Ready For An Evergreen Revolution


When President Obama called for an “Evergreen Revolution” last month, he was thinking about agriculture rather than Christmas. If he wants a holiday theme song for his idea, however, he could do a lot worse than “O Tanenbaum,” the popular carol: “Your branches green delight us / They are green when summer days are bright / They are green when winter snow is white.”


An evergreen is a plant that keeps its leaves in all seasons. The Evergreen Revolution is a call for all-season agriculture: the development of crops that can grow in stressful conditions for our collective food security.

Obama talked about the Evergreen Revolution in his address to India’s parliament on November 8. “Together, we can strengthen agriculture,” he said. “As farmers and rural areas face the effects of climate change and drought, we’ll work together to spark a second, more sustainable Evergreen Revolution.”

The term doesn’t originate with Obama–he’s just the latest person to use it. The Indian scientist M. S. Swaminathan (first World Food Prize winner) started to popularize the notion of an Evergreen Revolution more than a decade ago. A precise definition is elusive–it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. In general, however, the Evergreen Revolution evokes a movement to improve agricultural productivity without rendering environmental harm.

It also harks back to its predecessor, the Green Revolution, pioneered by Norman Borlaug. This was the effort a generation ago to help farmers in poor nations adopt better seeds, fertilizer, and irrigation. Its success is a root cause of the world’s current population boom. Without the Green Revolution, we wouldn’t have enough food to feed our planet of over 6 billion people- and growing.

The Green Revolution was a global phenomenon, but India is often considered its epicenter. “Cooperation between Indian and American researchers and scientists sparked the Green Revolution,” said Obama in New Delhi. Then he suggested that a similar partnership could ignite the Evergreen Revolution. “Today, India is a leader in using technology to empower farmers,” he said. “And the United States is a leader in agricultural productivity and research.”

The Green Revolution pursued several strategies–and so will the Evergreen Revolution. At its center, however, must be an unflinching commitment to biotechnology. Although GM crops aren’t a cure-all for the world’s food challenges, they’re an essential part of any serious plan to boost productivity in an environmentally sustainable way.

India’s Swaminathan has called for the careful acceptance of biotechnology: “You can use biotechnology for bioterrorism, or you can use it for biohappiness. I feel we must try to use all the technologies in this world for biohappiness, which means people have a good life, better health, better food, as a result of the technology.”

Unfortunately, there was a "missed opportunity" to apply those principles in India earlier this year. Researchers have developed a form of GM brinjal (eggplant) that resists pests. Although a scientific panel said the crop was safe for human consumption, the government surrendered to political pressure from anti-biotech activists and refused to approve the plant. Instead, it called for more study. Swaminathan supported the delay, saying that public attitudes need to change.

He’s right about that: Public attitudes do need to change. In India and elsewhere, there’s too much unfounded fear of biotechnology. Correcting this problem, however, will require leadership from the likes of Swaminathan. He needs to speak out.

So do farmers. More than anybody else, we understand how biotech crops can improve a nation’s quality of life. This is why millions of small-scale farmers in developing countries have chosen to grow GM crops. As soon as they have access to these tools, they want to make use of them. Over the last decade and a half, farmers, world-wide, have planted and harvested more than 2.5 billion acres of genetically enhanced crops.

If the Evergreen Revolution is to succeed, it will have to ensure that widespread access to biotechnology is one of its bedrock principles.

Another Christmas carol–a modern one–captures the driving spirit behind this vital movement: “Feed the world / Let them know it’s Christmastime.”

Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology www.truthabouttrade.org

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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