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Background

The Green Revolution, a series of technological advances applied to agriculture starting in the late 1960’s, had far-reaching impacts on agricultural systems in many parts of the developing world. Led by Norman Borlaug and international research centers, particularly the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) of Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines, this movement saw incredible advances in agricultural productivity, notably in Asia (where 20 years after the start of the Green Revolution (GR) over eighty percent of area was planted with improved varieties) and also in Latin America, and likely diverted a massive hunger crisis from food shortages predicted with rising populations. Other parts of the developing world did not benefit from the GR, mainly because it was tailored toward intensive agricultural systems in which large amounts of labor and purchased inputs are applied to the land (as opposed to extensive agriculture systems found in land-rich areas of the world such as parts of Africa, where low land pressure allows for production systems in which less is produced per area). In this vein, the GR relied heavily on the availability of inputs such as water and fertilizer. Additionally, there were environmental and human ramifications that limited the positive effects brought about by increased yields even in the countries where the GR was applied.

The GR is related to the Modernization theory of development, a dominant mode of thought throughout much of the twentieth century. This theory considered traditional societies to be backward and lacking the knowledge to develop, and thus sought to impose technological advances to bring such societies forward into modern times. The development of such agricultural technologies is one way that Western scientists sought to make agricultural systems in the developing world more modern. While this theory later gave way to other strains of thought that valued customary knowledge and practices and human development, the impacts of modernization theory on agricultural systems are still being dealt with in the developing world, most notably in the consequences of the GR.

Advances in Productivity

The period of the late 1960s to the present witnessed a remarkable tripling in the production of cereal crops with only a 30% increase in land use due to the introduction of high-yielding seed varieties accompanied by other changes in agricultural systems. The high-yielding seed varieties of the GR were a major benefit for farmers with the proper conditions for such seeds. According to Evenson and Gollin’s assessment of the Green Revolution in Science Magazine, the yield increases diverted massive famines that were predicted with rising populations, especially in Asia, and allowed for increased caloric intake and nutritional improvement. Though many of today’s improved “hybrid” seeds that must be purchased each season are inaccessible to farmers due to cost or access constraints, the primary crops targeted by the GR, wheat and rice, are self-pollinating, permitting farmers adopting new varieties to purchase seed only one time, as Fischer explains in her paper “Why new crop technology is not scale-neutral—A critique of the expectations for a crop-based African Green Revolution” in Research Policy Journal. This demonstrates that agricultural development was, and is, an acute need, though the approach and methods play a key role in both adoption and effectiveness. 

Environmental Impact 

High yielding seed varieties adopted during the GR reduced land pressure by improving yields per hectare, yet these new seeds were also accompanied by explicit government policies, most notably subsidies, encouraging the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Because of this, farmland under GR practices has been seriously damaged: over time this land’s productive capacity is decreasing due to lack of available water, degraded soils, and crop damage from pest resistance. Dr. Pingali, Cornell University Professor and expert in agriculture and nutrition in India, has noted in “Green Revolution: Impacts, limits, and the path ahead” that surrounding areas have also been affected due to chemical runoff, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and a reduction in available water for both food production and other human needs. A Los Angeles Times article about the GR in India recounts how the Indian government’s policies during this time included providing the means for an electric irrigation system along with high yielding seeds—in just a few short years, farmers began to see dramatic reductions in availability of groundwater and because of this, the Punjab is now seeing the water table dropping at a rate of about 3 feet per year. Soon, such alarming changes to natural environments may drive farmers back to native seed varieties better adapted to their specific climates and available resources.

Small Holder and Marginal Farmers

While the GR’s intent was to improve the human condition through increased food availability, negligence in considering the impact of new technologies, their means of being disseminated and lack of attention to equality in who benefited, exacerbated inequality and gender disparities in developing countries. As noted by Raju Das, Professor at York University, in the article “The green revolution and poverty: a theoretical and empirical examination of the relation between technology and society,”:

“the Green Revolution’s focus on agricultural productivity did not integrate the human development factor: for example, how to develop rural communities, improve farmer capacity, and ensure sustainability.”

This “top down” nature of extension, in which new technologies were disseminated with little regard for individual farmer specific or contextual needs and focused almost entirely on men, resulted in increased inequality between both large farmers and small holder farmers/ landless laborers and between men and women. According to the United Nations, about half of the agricultural workforce worldwide is made up of women, yet because of negligence in technology transfer, women are significantly less productive than men, decreasing productivity in a large segment of the productive population.

The technologies themselves were not designed for marginal farmers: Dr. Das notes that GR varieties were bred to give “high yields on well-fertilised soils with a regulated water supply,” conditions that excluded small landholders or those living on marginal lands. Indeed, according to Dr. Pingali, high yielding wheat demonstrated yield gains of 40% in irrigated areas with some application of fertilizer while in dry areas “gains were often no more than 10%.” Because of this, farming-extensive areas (such as most of the African continent), did not receive any benefit from GR technologies, nor did farmers in remote areas of India, a major GR beneficiary. Without the means or access to purchase fertilizer or irrigate farmland, dramatic yield increases were not possible. This deepened inequality between and within countries, leading to the development of modern “factory farms” alongside traditional small farming communities.

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Recommendations

As outlined here, the long-term impact of the GR in developing countries was far from sustainable and equitable. Agricultural development requires a more inclusive and multifaceted approach. The two suggestions below encompass two key ideas for change:

  • With increasing human populations and pressures on the natural environment that are being accelerated by climate change, development practices must consider long-term consequences and seek to minimize harmful side effects. Agro-ecological approaches that minimize chemical inputs and ensure sustainability in crop production and rural communities should be emphasized. The new direction in agricultural research towards “orphan crops”– food crops that were previously neglected in research but that have high nutritional and cultural importance—such as millet, tef, and certain tubers, is one way to overcome this inattention. Traditional knowledge of agricultural systems and innovative practices should be given greater attention to allow for development that is suited to the resources available and that is best adapted to individual microclimates.
  • More inclusive extension work that focuses on small land holders and marginal farmers who are often neglected, especially that which is tailored to women farmers, will help ensure more equitable agricultural systems and a greater number of people sharing in the gains from productivity increases. Extension should also be less top-down in nature more receptive to the needs and wants of farmers, serving as a two-way network for farmers to share research, training and policy priorities.
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