In the narrowest sense, the Green Revolution was the adoption and spread of a very specific agricultural technology that allowed farmers to substantially increase food production per unit of land and per unit of labor. Successful implementation depended on a series of supporting institutional and infrastructural arrangements, however, and the Green Revolution in a larger sense is this entire package. Finally, this package also embodies a very general view of society, and the Green Revolution in the largest sense includes this as well. Although Green Revolution technologies have been adopted on large-scale corporate farms in developed countries, their primary purpose was to serve the needs and interests of small-scale independent farmers in underdeveloped countries. In this sense, the Green Revolution was not only a technological or agricultural revolution but a full-scale social revolution, a true democratic alternative to the centralizing “Red Revolution” promoted during the same period by the Soviet Union.
The Green Revolution has assured that for the present and the immediate future, total world food production exceeds world food needs. Many countries formerly facing famine are now self-sufficient. At the same time, however, it has permanently changed the way the world’s farmers relate to their social and technological contexts.
Producing the Core Technology
The core of the Green Revolution is a series of cultivars, mainly grain crops, called “High Yielding Varieties,” or HYVs. HYVs differ from normal crop varieties in that they will not maintain their desirable characteristics by normal on-farm reproduction. The seeds are created under in highly controlled off-farm environments. Farmers then buy them and plant them for the usable crop. The farmers may be able to gather seeds from this crop and repeat the cycle a few times, but the quality of the crop declines and after a few cycles it is necessary to return to the off-farm seed source. High Yielding Varieties are capable of giving substantially higher yields of desired crop materials than conventional varieties because they are designed to be much more responsive to increased inputs than conventional varieties. These inputs are primarily fertilizer and water, but may also include insecticides.
The development of HYV food crops began in Mexico in 1943, when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Government of Mexico established a cooperative research program to improve the yields of wheat and maize. Mexico was an original center in which maize had been developed, but its yields in the 1940s were among the lowest in the world. Wheat was its second most important food crop, but it was a net importer.
The first director of the Mexican research program was Dr. George Harrar, a plant pathologist from the University of Washington. In 1944 Dr. Norman Borlaug joined him. In 1961, Dr. Harrar became president of the Rockefeller Foundation itself. Their strategy was genetically based but holistic. Borlaug’s aim was to produce the most “efficient” plant possible for the production of food. One important aspect of this concept of efficiency was the ability of the plant to respond positively to very high doses of fertilizer.
The method was to view the Mexican crop populations genetically and think in terms of ways to alter the balance of genes for more desirable characteristics. To do this, the program built up an extensive “gene bank” from crop varieties around the world. For wheat, one of their most important achievements was to cross wheat from Japan with genes for short stature with Mexican and Colombian wheats to obtain the first dwarf HYV wheats, released in 1961. By 1965, these were the most important wheats in Mexico, giving yields up to 400% of those of 1950 (Randhava 1986, 365).
The second major thrust of the research was to examine the growing conditions for the various genetic strains and make institutional and infrastructural recommendations. HYV recommendations generally included provision for irrigation, improved credit and agrochemicals.
The Mexican program succeeded. From 1945 to 1965, maize production increased four times and wheat production increased six times. Cotton, another crop that the program focused on, increased from 107,500 metric tonnes to 605,000 tonnes and became Mexico’s major export commodity.
The research strategy and methods of the Mexican program were replicated on an international scale in 1960 when the Rockefeller and Ford foundations jointly established the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) located next to the College of Agriculture of the University of the Philippines, near Manilla (Chandler 1982, 2). Dr. Robert Chandler, its first director, was responsible for its organization. This has become the pattern for a large and still growing number of similar international institutions concerned with other crops.
The Rockefeller Foundation officially closed the original cooperative research program in Mexico in 1962, but at the request of the Mexican government they kept on certain of the senior scientists. In 1963 these were brought under a new agreement, with limited support, under the name of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (El Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo, or CIMMYT). In 1966 this was succeeded by another agreement with the Mexican government that granted it “full international status” and expanded it into a full-scale international institute organized like IRRI, with greatly increased support from both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. CIMMYT now has 17 branches in other countries around the world. In 1967 the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) was founded on the same pattern in Cali, Colombia, and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria (Chandler 1982, 155-156).
Finally, in 1971 the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Organization, and several governmental bodies agreed to establish what is now the capstone organization coordinating the funding for these and other Green Revolution research institutions, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. This now brings together many additional private foundations as well as agriculture departments of sixty governments. It supports fourteen major research agencies dedicated to increasing food and other crop production around the world in addition to the original four. The Green Revolution is now formally institutionalized at the highest levels world wide.
Adoption and Spread
Although the Mexican wheat and maize revolutions were well underway by 1950, the Green Revolution world-wide is generally considered to have occurred between about 1965 and 1978. Before the technologies could spread, national governments had to see the need and develop the means to adapt them to local conditions.
Before the end of World War II, agricultural policy in most of the world was an aspect of the trading and economic policies of colonial empires. The interests of the colonial powers were mainly focused on the crops they needed to import, and the agricultural development of their colonies were mainly aimed at finding ways to get local farmers to produce them. Farmers who grew such crops were seen as “progressive” and favored by government action, while those who grew for their own and local consumption were regarded as “traditional” and discouraged.
In the aftermath of World War II, the former colonies became independent nations. At the same time, however, world political debate and economic relations came to be dominated by the Cold War. The long colonial period had seen increasing economic disparities between the colonial powers and the colonized populations, and in addition many of the colonial areas were also theaters of combat. The consequence was that these newly independent nations faced enormous problems with very little built-in capacity to deal with them and faced a sharply polarized outside world from which to seek help.
In the most prominent arguments of the Cold War, Western and Communist authorities differed little in their development recommendations. Unlike the agricultural scientists quietly building the basis of the Green Revolution, Western “development economists” and communist ideologists alike saw the key to rising per capita income only in industrialization and they both argued for drawing resources out of agriculture—particularly “traditional” agriculture—in order to attain it. When these policies were implemented alongside policies to improve public health and sanitation, the effect was a rapid increase in population that was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in agricultural output. The result, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was a crisis in food production. The greatest famine of the century occurred in China in 1959-61, although few in the outside world had more than a vague sense of it at the time. Estimates of direct and indirect mortality now run between six and thirty million people. The world did know that by 1965 there were serious food shortages right around the developing world, including Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Korea. Had it not been for wheat sales from Argentina and Australia and subsidized imports from the United States financed through PL 480, famine would have been widespread. In 1968 the trend and its probable consequences were summed in Paul Ehrlich’s much cited book “The Population Bomb.” It was at this point that governments recognized the need for radical improvements in agriculture and turned to the experience with HYVs to meet it. The problem was how to do so. There where two main answers. One was to build a counterpart to the American Land Grant Universities, which was the ultimate source of most of the science and scientist that had created them. The other was to create partial substitutes for such institutions by expanding the role of the agriculture departments that had generally been established in the colonial periods, and adding or strengthening their extension services.
In the mid-1960’s, the United States Agency for International Development, together with the Ford Foundation, brought together a consortium of American universities to work out ways to transfer the land grant model to developing countries, and set up initial programs in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Almost simultaneously, the World Bank established a large scale program to streamline and expand extension activities with the idea of “Training and Visitation” in these same countries and also in countries that did not adopt agricultural universities but rather stayed with tighter governmental control. Finally, most governments of underdeveloped countries loosened economic controls to allow more provision of the needed inputs and machinery through private business.
Since 1960, HYV crops have been adopted in every major agricultural country and world cereal production has outpaced population growth. However, even though this is unquestionably a result of the Green Revolution, it has not been a result solely of the use of the HYVs. The main trends are indicated by figure 1. This shows cereal production and yield in each year as a ratio to cereal production and yield in 1960 along with the absolute average production per person per day. The decline in per person consumption after about 1990 probably does not indicate a reduction in total food but rather a shift in quality with more calories from non-cereal sources.
Source: data is from FAO stats, June 2002.
Where HYVs were introduced without proper supporting inputs they commonly gave no increase at all. Where they were introduced with proper inputs in a technical sense but not in a social sense, they substantially underperformed. A particularly well-analyzed example of the latter situation was the introduction of HYV rice on Bali in the early 1970s. The introduction was managed by the Indonesian central government in a way that disenfranchised traditional organizations for water management and farmer level-cooperative planning that had been associated with certain local “water temples.” Government agricultural experts dictated the varieties to grow and the ways to grow them. This included the requirement that the farmers abandon their practice of allowing a contiguous block of about a third of their total fields to lie follow for one season to kill pests. The consequence was that even though yields went up, as J. Stephen Lansing describes it, “by the mid-1980’s, Balinese farmers had become locked into a struggle to stay one step ahead of the next rice pest by planting the latest resistant variety of Green Revolution Rice. Despite the cash profits from the new rice, many farmers were pressing for a return to irrigation scheduling by the water temples to bring down the pest populations” (Lansing 1991: 115). Other serious problems concerned irrigation system maintenance and water sharing. Risk and farmer discontent was rising and disaster appeared imminent. Control was returned to the temples a few years later, however, and in 1997 an Asian Development Bank reassessment concluded that pests were again under control (while retaining the HYV rice) and that the other problems should also be addressed through farmer involvement.
By contrast, where HYVs were introduced with responsive organizational support and farmers retained organizational autonomy, higher yields from the HYV crops were often accompanied by similar increases in other crops. The Indian state of Punjab established a particularly effective agricultural university on the American Land Grant model to provide agricultural extension and research support to the farmers and to assist the state government in planning and policy formation. The state also initiated an excellent system of farmer-controlled credit cooperatives (Leaf 1998,109-131), but no one tried to control farmers’ decisions on what to grow. The result was that while they adopted HYVs they also greatly intensified fodder production, and by 1988 the Green Revolution had been followed by a “White Revolution,” with important nutritional and economic gains.
The contrast between cases like Bali and cases like Mexico and Punjab state has moved development agencies worldwide to a greater appreciation of the need to respect local organizations and local knowledge. Before the Green Revolution, the idea that peasant farmers following traditional practices would be important partners in economic modernization was almost unthinkable. Now it is unthinkable to attempt it without them.
Present and Future.
The original developers of the Green Revolution technologies were limited by the requirement that the organisms in their gene pool had to be capable of interbreeding. Advances in molecular biology have led to the development of techniques for transferring specific genes from a medium into a living cell by means of bacterial and viral vectors and, most recently by the use of a “gene gun.” Such methods have made it possible to insert into plant chromosomes genes from bacteria, insects, and animals, creating what are now called Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are now objects of substantial public anxiety, in part because of their inherent danger but also in part because the technology has come to be adopted and promoted by large agribusinesses in the context of secretive and sometimes threatening business practices. While practices adverse to the public interest must be controlled, the technology cannot be rejected. The increased use of fertilizer, agrochemicals, and fuels required by the Green Revolution is adding substantially to world environmental pollution. GMO crops have already been developed that address these problems by requiring substantially less fertilizer and agrochemicals, and much more is possible. The aim of research in the institutions that grew up with the Green Revolution is no longer only increased yields but increased yields and environmental sustainability. This will not be attained by setting aside the fundamental Green Revolution idea of meeting the needs of farmers and consumers with “efficient” cultivars and responsible organizational support, but rather by applying it in new ways.
Murray J. Leaf
Asian Development Bank (1997) Reevaluation of the Bali Irrigation Sector Project (Loan No. 522-INO) IN INDONESIA, December 1997. http://peo.asiandevbank.org/Documents/Reevaluation_Study/RE-27.doc. 1 June 2002.
Chandler, Robert F. (1982) An Adventure in Applied Science:
A History of the International Rice Research Institute. IRRI. Published online at: http://www.irri.org/ChandlerBook/Adventure.htm. Accessed 30 May 2002.
CGIAR (2002) Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research: Who We Are. http://www.cgiar.org/who/wwa_ctrchronology.html. 1 June 2002.
De la Riva, Gustavo, and Joel González-Cabrera, Roberto Vázquez Padrón, Camilo Ayra Pardo. (1998) “The Agrobacterium tumefaciens gene transfer to plant cell.” Electronic Journal of Biology, 1:3:1-14. reprint. Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, Chile. www.ejb.org/content/vol1/issue3/abstract/1/ 30 May 2002.
Lansing, John Stephen. (1991) Priests and programmers : technologies of power in the engineered landscape of Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Leaf, Murray J. (1998) Pragmatism and Development: The Prospect for Pluralist Transformation in the Third World. Westport and London: Bergin and Garvey.
Randhawa, M. S. (1980-86) A History of Agriculture in India, Four Volumes. New Delhi: Indian Council of Agricultural Research.