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green revolution

  A term coined in the late 1960s to refer to the so-called miracle seeds — the high yielding varieties (HYVs) — especially wheat and rice, which held out the prospect for spectacular increases in cereal production in the Third World. Associated with 1970 Nobel Prize Winner and crop geneticist Norman Borlaug, the term Green Revolution continues to have wide currency 30 years after it was minted. Nonetheless it remains somewhat controversial and indeed there is often little consensus on what Green Revolution actually denotes. The adjective Green implies, at least in our epoch, a sensitivity to sustainability (but ironically the ecological costs of the HYVs has been a purported major failing) and implicitly is opposed to Red in a way in which technical achievements — a technical fix — could banish not simply hunger but also political unrest. In order to understand the origins and genesis of the \'heroic age\' ( Jirstrom, 1996, p. 15) of the Green Revolution between 1963 and 1970, the miracle seeds must be located on the earlier landscape of the Cold War which embraces American imperialism in Vietnam, a Malthusian view of food shortages in the post-1945 period and the recognition that the Green Revolution was wrapped up with US foreign policy (cf. Malthusian model).

The meaning of Green Revolution remains a contested issue. The heart of the revolutionary thrust was quite simple: seeds plus nitrogen plus water produced increase yields per unit area. As a consequence there is a narrow and a broad interpretation of the technologies themselves:

In the narrow sense it consists primarily in the adoption of the new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice and associated technologies. In the broad sense it includes not only this but all other economic changes as well as the social and cultural changes that either contributed to the technological and ecological changes or were derived from them (Leaf, 1984, p. 23).The Green Revolution as a set of new production practices for the tropical or subtropical peasant or smallholder rested on the development of Mendellian genetics, applied plant breeding (led by the UK and the US), the ability to make inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer (the petro-chemical industry), and water development/irrigation technologies. The coordination between the biochemical, the technological and the social components embraced US philanthropic organizations, the US State Department and Third World governments. What began in the 1940s in Mexico under the auspices of the US government and the Rockefeller Foundation focused on improving wheat has grown in half a century to a massive multi-billion dollar network of international agricultural research centres (the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research, CGIAR) administered by the World Bank and dealing with virtually all the major food complexes. HYVs are now grown worldwide — for example 100 per cent of rice in China and Korea, and 70 per cent in India and Philippines is miracle rice — and there is no question that the ability of food output to exceed population growth in the Third World since 1950 has been a function of the productivity gains of the Green Revolution (Lipton, 1989). But the Green Revolution, insofar as it is an example of applied plant breeding, has of course a long history — human history is synonymous with successive Green Revolutions associated with the domestication of plants, with the European agrarian revolutions in the eighteenth century, the Chinese improved rice varieties of 1000  AD and so on — and is a process (still on-going) rather than an event (Rigg, 1989).

If the Green Revolution was facilitated by new practices associated with plant breeding, soil fertility science and hydrologic development, the genesis was stimulated by the activities of the Rockefeller Foundation in conjunction with the Office of Special Operations of the US Government in Mexico during the Second World War (Perkins, 1997). Whatever the intentions of the early plant breeders in Mexico, the combination of Malthusian thinking about food crises and the Cold War atmosphere favouring national security and the threat of peasant insurgency contributed mightily to the Green Revolution project and its subsequent backing and support by the Ford Foundation, USAID and the major Western donors. In the first phase of the Green Revolution rice and wheat were the primary crops and Mexico and India its crucibles. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was founded near Manila in 1960 and the Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico in 1963. Today there are 16 international agricultural research centres focusing on potatoes, germ plasm collection, agro-forestry and tropical agriculture.

The research programme for HYVs brought together in university-type settings transnational congeries of scientists which constituted sophisticated breeding programs. IRRI, for example, built upon rice breeding expertise and dwarf varieties from Taiwan and Japan to produce through hybridization new dwarf HYVs which were resistant to lodging, sensitive to nitrogen fertilizers and which could be double or triple cropped through a reduction in the growing period. Its first success — IR-8 — was released in 1966 and spread rapidly through south and South-East Asia. The diffusion of the seeds and mechanical packages (pumpsets, small tractors) involved a strong state intervention typically involving new subsidies, credit, extension services, irrigation development and national breeding programmes. By the mid-1980s more than half of the total rice area of the Third World was planted in HYVs (Lipton, 1989).

There has been considerable disagreement over the productivity increases attributable to HYVs. In one of the best-known and earliest reviews by UNRISD/UNDP, Griffin (1974) painted a bleak picture of the effects of HYVs between 1970 and 1974, arguing that there had been no Green Revolution in rice. A subsequent assessment by Michael Lipton (1989) in the mid-1980s showed that the output increases in wheat and maize were indeed dramatic (at least 4 per cent per year) and that those in rice were slower but no less substantial overall. Lipton pointed however to regional dilemmas — Africa was neglected on balance — and the problems of equity within countries which reflected disparities in irrigation development and water control investment. In the first phase of the Green Revolution a number of important problems emerged: first, increasing pest and weed problems; second, problems of storage and processing; and third, ecological deterioration (especially loss of germ plasm, water depletion and toxicity). All of these direct and indirect consequences initiated a still on-going debate over the consequences of HYVs (see Shiva, 1991, 1996).

At the heart of the impact question are equity, poverty and justice. In the early years, the adoption of HYV packages (and the recognition that the packages were not scale neutral) prompted much speculation about new forms of social differentiation among peasantries, of class conflict between adopters and non-adopters, of deteriorating labour conditions as HYVs were labour-displacing rather than labour-saving: of the \'green revolution turning red\'. As the Indian case shows, there was in fact no simple polarization of landholding though there has been the consolidation of a class of increasingly commercialized and organized rich peasants who benefited from the Green Revolution (these are the heart of the New Farmers Movements in India which have changed the face of local and national politics: see social movements). The impact on labour markets (new forms of migration, changing forms of labour permanency and tenancy), on landholding (cf. land tenure), and on social inequality is enormously complex in part because of the linkages between on-farm productivity increases and off-farm employment (Hazell, 1987). On balance the mechanization which has followed the HYV adoption has been labour-displacing and favoured those with concentrated capital ownership. New forms of inequality have emerged but this is often attributed by the proponents of the HYVs to population growth and state rent seeking rather than technology per se. The debate continues.

The Green Revolution has unquestionably increased food output per capita but this has not necessarily increased food availability for the poor (Sen and Dreze, 1989), and neither has it improved the lot of the poor (Lipton, 1989). The first issue turns less on output than on availability and entitlements — in short, the social component of the Green Revolution (including land reform). The second speaks to the problems of both the uneven adoption of HYVs and the biases built into the breeding programmes themselves. The miracle seeds are often not pro-poor and do not speak to circumstances of the land-poor and landless.

There is a debate over whether the Green Revolution has ended in the sense that there are no new seed breakthroughs likely in the world staple crops. The pessimists foresee a Malthusian nightmare of famine and pestilence compounded by the growth of Chinese food imports. Nonetheless the Green Revolution has entered a second phase associated with the breakthroughs of molecular science and recombinant DNA. Here the issue is increasingly the power of large transnational seed and pharmaceutical companies who develop new crops with built-in requirements for particular inputs, and the intellectual property rights which attend the concentration of power in agribusiness companies (Shiva, 1996). The current debates over farmer breeding rights, over genetically modified crops, and intellectual property rights suggests that the next Green Revolution will be as fraught as the first. (MW)

References Griffin, K. 1974: The political economy of agrarian change. London: Macmillan. Grigg, D.B. 1989: The world food problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hazell, P., ed., 1987: The Green Revolution reconsidered. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Jirstrom, M. 1996: In the wake of the Green Revolution. Lund: Lund University Press. Leaf, M. 1984: Song of hope. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Lipton, M. 1989: New seeds and poor people. London: Macmillan. Perkins, J. 1997: Geopolitics and the Green Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Rigg, B. 1989: The green revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sen, A. and Dreze, J. 1989: Hunger and public action. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Shiva, V. 1991: The violence of the Green Revolution. London: Zed Books. Shiva, V. 1996: Biopiracy. London: Zed Books.

Suggested Reading Bayliss-Smith, T. and Wanmali, S., eds, 1984: Understanding Green Revolutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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