3.6 The Green Revolution

September 22, 2019

Perhaps the best illustration of the postwar
development project was the Green Revolution. Like Modernization theory, the Green Revolution
was a distinctively American program that must be seen in the broader context of the
Cold War. But it also illuminates some of the distinctive features of the post-World
War II development project more generally. Writing in the eighteenth century, English
political economist Thomas Malthus posited that hunger (and by extension famine) was
a natural product of the environment and of human nature. Malthus’ believed that human
population would grow exponentially, while food output could only grow arithmetically.
Thus at some inevitable point in the future, the human population would outstrip the ability
of the Earth to feed us. And Mathus’ basic ideas have been widely adopted,
even in contemporary analyses. Writing in 1968, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population
Bomb, argued that, “Some time between 1970 and 1985 the world will undergo vast famines—hundreds
of millions of people are going to starve to death. That is, they will starve to death
unless plague, thermonuclear war, or some other agent kills them first.”
His analysis led him to some stark conclusions. As he wrote, “The United States should announce
that it will no longer ship food to countries such as India where dispassionate analysis
indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless.”
Fortunately, history to date has proven both Elhrich and Malthus wrong, even if there remain
strong proponents of Malthusian views. Food production has continued to outpace population
growth, though the gap between the two has begun to close, particularly in recent years.
Nevertheless, there are several problems with Mathus’ Theorem. As we’ll consider later in
the course, consumption is at least as important as population in understanding environmental
degradation. But more directly, despite the widespread existence of hunger, food production
has continued to outstrip population growth over time. Hunger is thus the result primarily
of political and social factors rather than simply of production.
Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen has explored famines and hunger. Sen’s
theory on hunger, known as Entitlement Theory, argues that hunger results not from a collapse
of food production, but rather from the inability of people to secure access to the food that
is produced; or more precisely, from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.
Sen’s interest in famines was rooted in his own experiences as a child during the 1943
Bengal famine, in which an estimated 4 million people died of starvation, malnutrition, and
disease. While declines in food production were a factor in the Bengal famine, Sen observed
that there was actually more food available in 1943 than there was in 1941 in Bengal.
Yet there was no famine in 1941. What set 1943 apart, Sen argues, were the social and
economic factors: declining wages, increasing unemployment, rising food prices, and inadequate
food distribution systems. In a similar manner, the United States, Australia, and other developed
countries regularly experience drought but not famine. And more to the point, Sen argues
that while widespread malnutrition may exist, no democratic country has ever experienced
a famine. Clearly, there is something more to famine than the simple availability of
food. Yet in the 1960s, concerns over the possibility
of a food crisis in South and Southeast Asia combined with growing concerns in the United
States about the threat of communist expansion in the region to promote a “Green Revolution.”
And to be sure, anti-communism played an important role in the Green Revolution. Indeed, the
Green Revolution (and Modernization Theory more generally) were seen as central to US
efforts to prevent the spread of communism. As William Gaud, former director of the US
Agency for International Development said of the Green Revolution, “These and other
developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not
a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like
that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”
The term “Green Revolution” refers to a program of research, development, and technology transfers
that took place from roughly the 1950s to the 1970s. Led by Norman Borlaug, the “Father
of the Green Revolution,” the Green Revolution sparked a sharp increase in global food production
by introducing new, chemical-responsive, high-yielding varieties of rice, wheat, and (to a lesser
extent) corn with shortened growing seasons, while simultaneously expanding infrastructure,
the availability of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in the Global South.
The Green Revolution fundamentally restructured agricultural production in the Global South,
having both positive and negative impacts. And importantly, the Green Revolution was
primarily a state-funded endeavor. Governments in both the North and the South devoted considerable
resources to developing and promoting Green Revolution technologies.
The bulk of the Green Revolution’s impact was felt in South and Southeast Asia, as well
as Latin America. Interesting, Africa was largely excluded from the Green Revolution.
And while there have been numerous attempts to replicate and deploy Green Revolution technologies
to Africa, they have generally been unsuccessful. Most explanations of the failure of the Green
Revolution in Africa center on political factors, such as corruption, insecurity, lack of infrastructure,
and weak governmental support. But environmental factors have also played a role, with the
availability of water necessary for irrigation often lacking and a greater variety of soil
types making the development of cultivars suited for local growing conditions more difficult.
In many ways, the Green Revolution presents a perfect illustration of both Modernization
Theory and of the postwar development project more generally. The Green Revolution represented
a coordinated effort on the part of the state to establish the conditions to transition
from traditional, subsistence-based agriculture to modern agriculture. In doing so, traditional
practices (such as the use of conventional, waste-based fertilizers, reliance on rainfall
instead of irrigation, and reliance on traditional crop varieties) were replaced with “modern”
farming centering on genetically uniform crops, which exhibited quicker maturation and were
more responsive to chemical inputs. In the regions where the Green Revolution
was deployed, there was a marked increase in agricultural output. As this graph shows,
per capita food production increased sharply in Asia and South America from the 1970s onwards,
while per capita food production in Africa declined over the same period. Breaking those
figures down, we find that In Asia, Rice yields more than doubled, while
maize and wheat yields more than tripled. In Latin America, corn yields nearly tripped.
But in Africa, yields of the primary crops increased much more slowly. Maize and cassava
yields increased by about 60%, while rice, millet, and sorghum output increased at much
slower rates. Importantly, output for all five crops actually declined in per capita
terms. And while it certainly led to dramatic increases
in food production, the Green Revolution also had several unintended consequences.
In areas where it was adopted, Green Revolution technologies tended to restructure the agricultural
production in fairly broad ways. Peasant farmers in the Global South tend to be fairly risk
adverse. And the smaller your holdings, the more risk adverse you are likely to be. The
smallest farmers live a precarious life, where one failed growing season can spell ruin.
As a result, they tend to adopt new technologies at a much slower rate.
Consequently, small farmers faced growing competition from larger farmers who could
afford to take a chance on the adoption of the new technologies. This resulted in an
increasing level of rural inequality, and the dispossession of some of the smallest
farmers from their land. Land ownership patterns were thus consolidated, with farms becoming
larger, suggesting that Green Revolution technologies were not scale neutral but instead accrued
larger benefits for larger farmers. Second, intra-household dynamics were also
affected by Green Revolution technologies. Traditionally, many Indian households had
a gendered division of agricultural labor which saw men responsible for cash crops and
women responsible for household garden crops. These garden crops provided the majority of
the household’s subsistence (not to mention its micronutrient variety). But the Green
Revolution encouraged famers to put more land under the cultivation of rice and wheat, displacing
the traditional gardens maintained by women. As a result, two important changes occurred.
Women’s position within the household was undermined, as their ability to garner a small
income (from the sale of vegetables) was reduced. And more importantly, micronutrient deficiency
actually increased despite an increase in the total number of calories available. Because
household diets were increasing less diversified, micronutrient deficiency, including Vitamin-A
deficiency—a leading cause of blindness—actually increased. People had fuller bellies but a
less healthy diet. Third, the Green Revolution also had a significant
impact on the environment. Because the higher-yielding varieties associated with the Green Revolution
depended on the availability of irrigation and chemical inputs like fertilizer and pesticides,
the use of both increased. Runoffs from farmers’ fields brought nitrogen-rich soil into rivers
and lakes, creating algae blooms which fed on the nitrogen and facilitating the development
of “dead zones.” Soil nutrients declined, promoting a technology treadmill in which
more and more chemicals had to be applied to maintain overall productivity.
And perhaps most importantly, a sharp decline in the number of traditional crop varieties
under cultivation resulted in a loss of indigenous varieties. Farmers adopting the new seed varieties
abandoned traditional varieties of crops. Hundreds of traditional varieties disappeared
in the process. So, like many of the other issues of development
we’ve considered so far, the impact of the Green Revolution is decidedly mixed. It expanded
agricultural production, enabling countries like India to move from food importers to
food exporters. At the same time, it also had numerous unintended consequences, exacerbating
both economic and gender-based inequalities in the regions in which the technology was

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