National Geographic : 2009 Jun
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: JOHN STANMEYER Reflected glory, corn fills the hopper of a combine at harvesttime near Oakville, Iowa. "You have to get up early if you want to beat Otto" was the saying in Oregon's Rogue River Valley, where I grew up. Otto was Otto Bohnert, "an awesome farmer---always experimenting," says Dick Dunn, his nephew, also a farmer. Otto was famous for his 120-bushel-an-acre wheat crop in the late 1960s---in the midst of the green revolution, the movement to increase food yields by using new technology. His yields, thanks to superior wheat varieties, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers, were double the normal in our valley. The green revolution was so successful that some experts hold that its increased rice yields made it possible for the Earth to support 700 million additional people. Today, though, growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, and the toxic consequences of pesticide use and drying aquifers are painfully obvious. Demand outstrips production; food prices soar. I wish Otto were still around to ask about the fix we're in. When I asked Dick, he said: "I think Otto thought he'd give this green revolution a shot, but he'd also be thinking there's no free lunch." In this month's story "The End of Plenty," Joel Bourne and John Stanmeyer report on the green revolution that helped feed millions---and its consequences. They discover Otto was right: There is no free lunch.