Team:Purdue/The Problem/Current Agriculture Practices


Agricultural Practices

The origin of our modern agricultural practices can be traced back to the post-World War II Green Revolution, which focused on improving crop yields by creating optimal environments for plant growth. The Green Revolution particularly focused on proliferating environmental management, pest management, and seed hybridization strategies. Products and services implemented included chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation infrastructure, and mechanized equipment to work the land. These changes resulted in vast improvements in crop yields, including a 132% increase in rice production from 1966-1999 and a 91% increase in wheat production over the same time frame (Khush GS).

As the US and the world population continues to grow, the need for agricultural production has increased with it. The Green Revolution helped increase agricultural efficiency to meet much of this need during the twentieth century, but today we are seeing the limits of its techniques, as well as its negative side effects, including the poisoning of wildlife through the spread of pesticides, algal blooms and subsequent widespread aquatic death from the spread of nitrogen fertilizers, erosion due to tilling, and depletion of the soil’s nutrients at a rate faster than they can be replenished. With the world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the majority of farmable land across the globe already in use, and the limits of chemical fertilizers and plant breeding being tested, there is a great need to develop a new technique for increasing agricultural efficiency. The current technological proposition to solve this problem is the genetic engineering of plants to make them grow larger, faster, and more plentiful.

When genetic engineering entered the agricultural scene, it was used primarily to grant plants selective resistance to herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which used glyphosate as its active ingredient, debuted in 1974 as a pure herbicide that killed anything green it was sprayed on. While this was successful for a decade, cheap competition forced Monsanto to innovate. In 1996 they debuted Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, which had genes for glyphosate resistance spliced in, making them selectively resistant to the herbicide (UC Biotech). In 1994 Roundup sales totaled 1.2 billion dollars, this marked the definitive proof of concept that swapping genes could have immense economic benefits for both Monsanto and for farmers (Estes). Whereas traditional breeding approaches focused on yield and aesthetic quality, this shift made herbicide resistance the most important characteristic of a new seed type. Some would argue this eventually led to the sacrificing of characteristics like nutrition. In support of this argument it was found that crops as a whole, have experienced a decline in 6 of 13 major nutrients in the past 50 years, the most drastic of which was a 38% reduction in riboflavin (Davis et. al). Another study concluded it would take eight oranges today to provide the same amount of vitamin A as an orange fifty years ago (Moss and Scheer).

When this level of plant breeding was first introduced, the long-reaching effects of pesticide spraying or selection for traits of size and aesthetic quality were not considered. It is only now that we are seeing negative implications of these advancements. Take for example the “superweed” evolution, in which weeds with resistance to current herbicides are growing at an unprecedented rate(10).

To supplement the problems with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the market preference has shifted away from genetically modified produce. In a study where participants bid on GMO vs non-GMO, 35-41% bid less for each individual GMO product (Huffman et. al). This trend is due to the spread of misinformation about possible side-effects of consuming GMOs. At the top of this list is that GMOs cause cancer. However, while GMOs undeniably do not cause cancer (Lim), the spread of misinformation has already swayed the market opinion and lowered the willingness-to-buy value of GMOs. The strength of anti-GMO sentiments was seen in the August 2013 uprooting of the golden rice fields in the Philippines. Golden rice, a variety of rice that had the benefit of producing beta-carotene (the precursor to Vitamin A), had been in development for years (it was on the cover of Time in 2000) but finally was going through experimental field trials last year until protest groups broke into the fields and tore up the plants (Harmon). Furthermore a cultural perspective was not taken into consideration during its initial development, wherein when scientist presented this Golden Rice to villages in Africa, people claimed they wouldn't eat it because “yellow” rice was only for cattle. Another recent event was the destruction of €1.2 million worth of GM vines in Colmar, France by more than 50 activists, who were later cleared of all charges because “the open-air crop trial was illegal because authorities did not properly assess the risk to the local environment.”, even though the trial itself was for assessment and posed no risk (Gross). In order to sustain food security for the future, we need a new paradigm in Agriculture, one that is safe for consumers, sustainable, and can earn the trust of the public in a way GMOs to date have failed.

However, it is not just raw food production that is the problem. Global malnutrition, the issue arising from people eating food but not getting sufficient amounts of nutrients, is much more widespread than global hunger, the problem of people not eating enough food. Given these two trends, agriculture today faces two main challenges: how to increase food production without increasing land area used for farming without depending on chemical fertilizers and how to increase the nutritional value of food so that what is produced still provides the proper nutrients for a balanced diet.


1. Khush GS. Green revolution: the way forward. Nature Reviews Genetics. 2001;2:815-822.

2. Donald R. Davis PhD, FACN, Melvin D. Epp PhD & Hugh D. Riordan MD (2004) Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999, Journal of the American College of Nutrition,

3. Estes, Lane. (2002). Economic Analysis of Roundup-Ready Soybeans. Biology at Davidson. Retrieved from

4. Huffman, W.E., Shogren, J.F., Rousu, M., & Tegene, A. (2003). Consumer Willingness to Pay for Genetically Modified Food Labels in a Market with Diverse Information: Evidence from Experimental Auctions, Journal of Agricultural and Resouce Economics, 28:481-502. Retrieved from,Dec2003,pp481,Huffman.pdf

5. Harmon, Amy. (24 August 2013). Golden Rice: Lifesaver? New York Times. Retrieved from

6. (31 October 2007). A Brief History of Roundup Herbicide. UC Biotech. Retrieved from

7. Lim, XiaoZhi. (9 Apr 2014). Top GMO Question Consumers want answered: Do GMOs cause Cancer? Genetic Literacy Project. Retrieved from

8. Moss, D. & Scheer, R. (27 Apr 2007). Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious? Scientific American. Retrieved from

9. Gross, Liza. 2010 Grapes: Transformed Retrieved from

10. Union of Concerned Scientist. 2013. The rise of superweeds and what to do about it .