The term “Green Revolution” refers to the introduction of high-yielding varieties of staple food crops, particularly wheat and rice, into Third World countries, starting in the 1960s.
Initially Mexico, India and the Philippines were targeted. The stated aim was to raise food production to end hunger and prevent revolution.
An unstated secondary aim was to raise the penetration of agribusiness into the Third World. Profits could be made by selling the new varieties of seed and the fertilisers, pesticides and equipment that were indispensable to their success.
The Green Revolution did raise agricultural production, but it failed to lower hunger and poverty, improve nutrition, or protect the environment. Some of these failures are now acknowledged by its proponents, but the answer is that “there was no alternative”, and that for largely untouched areas of the world, particularly Africa, there still is no alternative.
After India gained independence in 1947, the government initiated a program to revitalise Indian agriculture that had been damaged by war, partition and colonialism; this was based on traditional Indian agricultural concepts of diversity, respect for nature, self-reliance and ecology.
However, another vision was being developed in the United States for India that was the exact opposite — based on conquest of nature, intensification of inputs, uniformity of crops and dependence. The US experts successfully influenced politicians and their vision won out.
Production increased in all countries that adopted the Green Revolution, but comparing yields is not a simple matter, as traditional cropping systems included companion crops, rotation crops, livestock and straw. In India, the rise in agricultural production was greater in the years before the Green Revolution than afterwards. Yields of non-Green Revolution crops such as barley, chickpeas and cotton also grew without new varieties and fertilisers.
Without fertilisers and irrigation, the “high yielding varieties” performed worse than the traditional varieties, many of which yielded higher than the Green Revolution varieties when measured on production per water use or per fertiliser use. Traditional varieties also produced straw for livestock feed, and thatching and organic matter for the soil.
Wheat yields in Punjab peaked in the 1970s because of soil erosion and soil loss of organic matter. Larger amounts of fertilisers were needed just to maintain yields, which only large farmers had the capital to buy.
By 1974, Philippines rice growers were finding yields of the high-yielding varieties declining due to loss of soil fertility. The degradation of soil and environmental damage was never taken into account.
The Green Revolution was heavily subsidised, by up to 100% of the world price, to encourage its adoption and raise food production.
Claims the Green Revolution would solve world hunger were not met. The number of hungry people in the world fell by 16% between 1970 and 1990, from 942 million to 786 million, but these gains were tied to China, where social policies such as land redistribution were coupled with new techniques.
Excluding Chinese figures, the number of hungry people actually increased by 11% in that time. Between 1973 and 1983, the per capita consumption of calories in India fell from 2266 to 2221. Just under half of all children in the world stunted due to malnutrition live in India, where the Green Revolution was the most successful.
In India, the Green Revolution benefited a few farmers but increased the gap between rich and poor. Wealthier farmers had better access to cheap credit, labour and irrigation, and farmed better quality land.
By 1980, indebtedness grew even for the wealthier farmers. Smaller farmers were unable to borrow more from banks and turned to moneylenders at huge interest rates. Between 1993 and 2003, 100,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, usually by drinking pesticide. Since then, the farmer suicide rate has averaged one every 30 minutes.
Soil fertility declined because of a decline in soil organic matter. There was less stubble and farmyard manure, and high biomass producing sorghums and millets were replaced by wheat. There was no natural nitrogen fixation because pulses were taken out of rotation. Fertilisers also increased soil acidity, causing aluminium toxicity.
The new varieties were more vulnerable to pests, diseases and weeds, therefore required greater insecticide and herbicide use. Pesticide use for rice production increased seven-fold.
High yielding varieties require three times more water. In Punjab, where water comes from bores, there has been a drop in the water table of 30cm per year. In areas irrigated by canals, water tables have risen, resulting in greater salinity, sodicity and waterlogging.
The biodiversity of indigenous cropping systems has been supplanted by genetic uniformity and monoculture. Ten thousand years of farmer-controlled plant breeding produced enormous numbers of crop varieties.
Before the Green Revolution, at least 3000 rice varieties were known in the Philippines. By the 1990s, most plantings were of five varieties, all derived from the original IR8 high-yielding variety. Bangladesh lost 7000 rice varieties.
Loss of diversity means loss of stability. Traditional varieties were generally more aromatic, more resistant to pests and diseases, hardier and required minimal inputs.
The new wheat varieties were much more susceptible to diseases. They had to be replaced every three-to-five years by newer varieties to try to keep ahead of diseases that previously were of little concern.
It may be no coincidence that the two countries of the world with the greatest number of certified organic farmers are the same two countries most affected by the Green Revolution, India with 585,000 and Mexico with 204,000. The Philippines has 166,000 certified organic farmers.
There are likely many more farmers in these countries who use ecological farming methods, but have not gained official “organic” certification.
The Green Revolution corporations now have Africa in their sights, the only part of the world largely outside agribusiness domination. Most Africans don’t use chemicals when farming and most still save their own seeds.
The same excuse as for the earlier Green Revolution is touted — Africa needs to raise food production to eliminate hunger.
The New Green Revolution is strongly promoted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The board members are mostly from the private sector, including Monsanto. The Gates Foundation is a part owner of Monsanto.
Genetic modification is a priority for AGRA. South Africa is so far the only country that allows genetically modified maize, but the pressure is mounting to change that.
A bizarre example of genetic modification research is the US$15 million funding to develop a GM banana engineered to contain higher content of carotene “to prevent blindness”. The research is being done by Dr James Dale at Queensland University of Technology, involving the inserting of genes from the Asupina variety of Fe’i bananas into Cavendish.
The red Fe’I bananas are already high in carotene, and widely grown in the world without being genetically modified or requiring royalties to be paid. If Gates and Dale were serious about nutrition they would be promoting them instead.
Africa has severe agricultural problems, but Green Revolution policies are not the answer. Yields have declined due to land degradation caused by farming practices that can be changed, using agroforestry, mulch, cover cropping, compost, contour farming, intercropping, conservation tillage, biodiversity and better grazing management.
There are some magnificent integrated farming systems still in use. Examples include the Chagga food forests on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro and similar experiences in Uganda, some of which provided inspiration to the development of permaculture by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s.
It is a myth propagated by corporations that there is no alternative to chemical fertilisers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and genetic modification in order to feed people. There are countless examples from around the world of sustainably high yields without the need for chemicals, “improved seeds”, or that compromise to the health of the environment and consumers.
There is a large body of literature on agroecological systems used in Africa. Even the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development concluded that ecological agriculture is the only way to feed people sustainably.
The Green Revolution allowed corporate capitalist penetration into agriculture in places where it had not already penetrated. But it did not solve the issue of hunger. Its environmental and social costs have been immense.
The benefits have mostly accrued to the corporations that produce the inputs. Any increase in productivity has been appropriated by these corporations.
The push to extend this model to Africa is being resisted, not by compliant governments, but by farmers and organisations that support them. It is also being fought in the countries where the Green Revolution was first introduced, and in the industrialised countries where it has a longer history.
[A longer version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Alan Broughton is a member of the Socialist Alliance and involved with the Organic Agriculture Association. He is a co-author of the recently released Sustainable Agriculture Versus Corporate Greed.]