Green Revolution/Biotech/Food security/Sustainability/Entitlements


 Since the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony is coming closer and our next lecture focuses on energy/food regimes and social justice I want to reflect on the Green Revolution and some related issues. This is because Norman Borlaug the “father” of the Green Revolution, who died this September, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 (for his lecture The Green Revolution, Peace, and Humanity please refer to )

This posting is based on various different research I undertook during my prior studies. I thought I share my views with you and hope to enhance discussion.

So let’s start by clarifying what the “Green Revolution”, which was coined by William Gaud in 1968, was all about. It basic aim was to increase agricultural with the rationale to provide more bread for hungry people.” (Dahlberg, 1979:51) In addition, it was expected that landless peasants would benefit because of increased employment opportunities. (Niazi, 2004) Borlaug laboratory research, first field trials and commercial application started in Mexico during the early 1940s. However large scale implementation started during the 1960s in Asia (especially India) in response to concerns about potential famines.

Genetically improved seeds (scientists referred to them as high yielding varieties) were seen as the key to increasing productivity. Yet, they required high doses of fertilizer and water, hence they were input intensive. Critical voices such as Shiva (1991) George (1976) and Pathy (1986) point to commercial (western corporations benefited through new markets for fertilisers, pesticides and tractors) and geopolitical motivations behind it spread to Asia. In addition to the US administration of Lyndon Johnson both the Rockefeller and Ford foundation played a crucial role by financing the original research, providing training programmes to farmers; and publishing reports that recommended that developing countries adapt the Green Revolution.

”Western interests introduced the Revolution to sell inputs, but also to promote social stability through increased food production and the strengthening of a middle class peasantry in nations they saw as threatened by communism.” (George, 1976:p.128)

“Food dependency was used to set new policy conditions on India. The US President, Lyndon Johnson, put wheat supplies on a short tether. He refused to commit food aid beyond one month in advance until an agreement to adopt the Green Revolution package was signed.” (Shiva, 1991:31-32)

If one judges the outcomes of the Green Revolution only in terms of increase in productivity, for instance by the example of India, it appears to have been a success in the first instance. In less then 2 decades wheat production doubled and since it independence in 1947 experienced no famine. (Baker and Jewitt, 2007) Furthermore, “the Green Revolution in India has achieved self-sufficiency in food production.” (Singh, 2000:1) Nevertheless, this went hand in hand with raising inequalities in rural areas; greater regional disparities among the different states and environmental damage. Why was this the case?

In order to transform traditional agriculture on a large scale and at a fast pace, a top to bottom structure was adopted. The central government decided what regions would be most suitable for the implementation of the Green Revolution and lowered its import restrictions in order to promote the import and redistribution of the required inputs. Taken the earlier mentioned importance of irrigation into account, it appears reasonable that the HYV were only successful in raising output in areas that had irrigation networks in place. Therefore in the Indian case the success was restricted to the states of Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh.

Punjab was the state with the most remarkable increase in production and became most prosperous state in India. (Kurian, 2002) “From 1966 to 1974, production of wheat, the primary winter crop, increased at an annual rate in excess of 9%. Rice, which was not widely grown prior to the Green Revolution, grew at a remarkable rate of 18% during this period. Overall, agricultural production increased at a rate of 6%“. (Murgai, 2001:199) Clearly, these figures are impressive. One might be tempted to interpret them as a great success and view the introduction of the Green Revolution as positive for Punjab. However, this would be a shortcoming because it is not obvious that they are a reliable indication for labelling the Green Revolution as beneficial for society in Punjab. The figures need to be weighted against the social and environmental impacts. Therefore, it is also important to recognise the negative aspects that are associated with the Green Revolution. Moreover, it is crucial to examine if these figures were sustained or if the growth in productivity declined again.

The valid argument that the Green Revolution was by no means scale neutral was developed by Byres (1981). The fact that the farmers were required to apply an entire ‘package’ of expensive inputs in order to receive the benefits of increased production, made their farming operation capital intensive. Frequently, small scale farmers, who accounted for approximately 50% of the farming population in Punjab, could not afford these farming methods. (Shiva, 1991) Hence, “the new technology of the Green Revolution might technically be scale neutral… but it was certainly not ‘resource neutral’.” (Harriss-White and Harriss, 2007:10) As elsewhere in India, Punjab experienced a reduction of small scale farms and a further concentration in landownership. “Between 1970 and 1980, the number of small holdings in the Punjab declined by nearly a quarter due to their economic non-viability.”(Shiva, 1991) Land evictions have played an infamous role in this process. Small tenant- or sharecrop farmers were facing higher rent demands from their landlords because of an increased value of land. Since they were generally the ones, who already could not afford to acquire the expensive input ‘package’, which was required to obtain an increase in production, they frequently could not meet these demands and lost their farming land. They became either landless agricultural workers or migrated to urban areas. In some instances the evictions even involved violence and caused deaths. (George, 1976)

In theory working opportunities for landless peasants should have increased for several reasons. For example, multi cropping raises the demand for labour because of more frequent harvest. HYV require intensive fertilization. It therefore implies that extra work is needed to apply the fertilizer in the fields and for weeding. (Lipton, 1989) Although, if in the beginning this was the case, it may be argued that this proved to be a wrong assumption. Together with the Green Revolution, Punjab and other areas experienced the spread of mechanization in agriculture on a large scale. Thus, in the words of Das, “associated mechanization – tractors, weedicides, more mechanized irrigation or threshing – has eroded employment opportunities.” (2002:59)

Turning to a further central critique point of the Green Revolution, the following paragraphs analyse its ecological impact. As one shall see there exists widespread evidence that it caused major harm to the environment. The cultivation of monocultures in a large scale, as it was the case with the HYV, has several implications.

First, simultaneous with their introduction arises the loss of biodiversity that according to Shiva (1991) has been a core principle of traditional agriculture in Punjab and responsible for stability in the local ecosystem. “The Green Revolution package has reduced genetic diversity at two levels. First, it replaced mixtures and rotations of crops like wheat, maize, millets, pulses and oil seeds with monocultures of wheat and rice. Second, the introduced wheat and rice varieties came from a very narrow genetic base.” (Shiva, 1991) This feature makes them vulnerable to disease and pest epidemics and demands pest control in form of the use of chemical pesticides. One problem that is associated with pesticides is the destruction of the natural enemies of the pest and that the pests overtime can develop resistances against the pesticides. (Van den Bosch, 1978) “In the Punjab, the rice variety PR 106, which currently accounts for 80 per cent of the area under rice cultivation, was considered resistant to whitebacked planthopper and stem rot when it was introduced in 1976. It has since become susceptible to both diseases.” (Shiva, 1991) The planting of rice and wheat HYV replaced traditional food staples, such as pulses, bajra, sordhum and millets and therefore reduced food variety. It could be argued that this has diminished food security because it caused dependences on the successful harvest of the rice and wheat monocultures. Crop failures would have a disastrous outcome. (George, 1976)

The second point of concern is, that heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizer, together with the overuse of the soil by the practices of multi cropping, which was possible because of the earlier mentioned shorter growing cycles, have severe impacts on water and soil quality. For instance, they have contaminated local streams and the groundwater, increased the erosion of soil and lowered the quality of the soil. (Yapa, 1993) The negative effect on the quality of soil is also reflected in the decline of productivity. Dasgupta (2000) refers to a 1998 government report and states that “unfortunately, the growth rate in productivity of rice and wheat has registered a decline in most of the districts in Punjab and Haryana. From a state average of 8.97 per cent during 1965-74, rice productivity declined rapidly to 2 per cent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, there was only 1 per cent increase per year.“

Third, the requirement of intensive irrigation reduced the water table and caused water shortages. “Punjab and Haryana will turn into desert if the underground water sources continue to be over-exploited by the highly intensive agriculture practiced there. “(Batra, 1990) The findings of the Singh’s (2000) study on the environmental consequences of the Green Revolution in Haryana point to similar negative effects as the one in Punjab, which are described above.

From my point of view the Green Revolution illustrates well, that over the last couple of decades large scale development projects were frequently conducted in a technocratic top to bottom structure. Hence, few considerations were given to the serious effects on the grass root level. They were guided by technological determinism and a solely economic growth-centred ideology. Nevertheless, technological progress, as it was the case with the HYV, does not automatically lead to social progress. The harmful side effects of the Green Revolution may have been unanticipated but predictable if more emphasise would have been placed on the possible socio-economic and environmental consequences on the grass root level.

Regarding the promised increase in agricultural productivity it is clear that the Green Revolution achieved this promise in India, at least in the beginning. Although it may be appropriate to raise the question at which cost the achievement took place. If one applies the definition of sustainable development, which was laid out in the influential Brundtland Report as followed, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987) it could be argued that the Green Revolution came at a high cost.

Clearly, the achievement of food self sufficiency in a country that has experienced famines is not to be neglected. Yet, the Green Revolution has not been sustainable in environmental terms and this might indeed undermine the ability of the next generations to meet its need to access food. The loss of biodiversity and soil degradation represents a threat to a successful future of the Indian agriculture and food security. Therefore, and after reviewing the socio-economic effects, I come to the conclusion that overall the Green Revolution in India has caused more negative then positive effects. In addition, the attention of agricultural policy makers and researchers needs to be directed towards more appropriate local technologies and farming techniques, which are environmental sound, socially inclusive and do not cause technological dependence. Many academics and non government organizations point to their experience that food production can be increased by the further improvement of traditional farming methods, such as crop rotation and intercropping ,at the grass-root level and through the application of appropriate technologies, which have a low cost, are ecologically sustainable and do work. According to Madeley (2000:144) “yields are increased and being sustained by using technological approaches that are based on agroecological principles which emphasize diversity, synergy, recycling and integration, community participation and empowerment.”

 These examples set a good contra point against the contemporary debate over the need for a second Green Revolution. Hence the direct modification of the genetic structure of crops through biotechnology (See Borlaug (2000) article “We Need Biotech To Feed The World” that first was printed in the Wall Street Journal and which interestingly Monsanto placed on its webpage )

Biotechnology is not only questionable because of concerns about its safety and long-term effects, but even more due to giving monopoly power to multinational corporations and detrimental impacts on the already marginalized rural small-scale farmers. Altieri (2003) states that “biotechnology is a technology under corporate control, protected by patents and IPR, and thus contrary to farmers’ millenary traditions of saving and exchanging seeds.”

Nevertheless as one shall see, in order to achieve food security more than simply increasing food output is required. There have been cases were there was enough food on the local markets but the poor did not have the means to buy it. A crucial approach is Sen’s concept of entitlement. Regarding the entitlement to food it “concentrates on the ability of people to command food through the legal means available in the society, including the use of production possibilities, trade opportunities, entitlement vis-à-vis the state, and other methods of acquiring food.” (Sen, 1981:45) “What we can eat depends on what food we are able to acquire. The mere presence of food in the economy,…does not entitle a person to consume it.” (Dreze and Sen, 1989:9)

This implies that undernourished people face a crisis of entitlement. Therefore one core issue is to improve their entitlement. Options could include pro poor land reform, hence the distribution of landholdings to the landless. The socio-economic pattern of many developing countries societies, in which wealth is extremely concentrated among a small elite and based on land ownership, supports the case for pro poor land reform.

In addition a shift away from cash crops and biofuels is required. Why should developing countries focus on export orientated policies when one takes the negative experiences of growing cash crops into account and the fact that frequently their own population faces food insecurity. No progress towards food security will be made without the reversal of free trade policies. In contrast to these policies and as new approach to food security the concept of food sovereignty emerged in 1996 under the leadership of the global peasant movement Via Campesina. It may be viewed as precondition for food security. According to Menezes (2001:29) “food sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce the staple foods of its peoples, respecting their productive and cultural diversity.” In particular, the promotion and support of local producers and local markets is emphasized and receives a higher priority than trade concerns.




One Response to “Green Revolution/Biotech/Food security/Sustainability/Entitlements”

  1. rlinton Says:

    This is an excellent summary of the issues surrounding biotechnology. Another good resource is the “Genetic Engineering of Development? Myths and Possibilities” chapter in Thomas and Allen (2000).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: