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The successful development of higher-yielding hybrid strains of corn and wheat (“miracle seeds”) in the early 1960s led to the controversial Green Revolution: big businesses and governments see it as a breakthrough in agriculture and food safety, while small farmers and ecologists see it as ruining the environment, destroying agricultural productivity, obliterating indigenous cultural and agricultural practices, and creating even greater global inequalities.
William Gaud, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), coined the term Green Revolution in March 1968, and its origins help explain its contested meaning in contemporary history: government development agencies as well as transnational chemical and biotechnology corporations and multilateral organizations such as the World Bank see the Green Revolution (GR) as a miraculous breakthrough in agricultural productivity and food security, whereas small farmers, ecologists, social scientists, indigenous peoples, and community activists see it as ruining the environment, destroying agricultural productivity, obliterating indigenous cultural and agricultural practices, and creating even greater global inequalities through excessive debt burdens for the developing world that further enrich the developed world. How did the Green Revolution give rise to such polarized reactions and assessments? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Green Revolution, as an application of modern science and technology to agriculture, has never been about just the superiority of one agricultural technology or practice over others—it has been a political, economic, and social event from the start, and so one cannot be surprised that it has attracted controversy. Part of the answer also lies in how one assesses where and to whom the major benefits of this agricultural revolution went, that is, did they reach the intended recipients?
The basic elements of the Green Revolution are highly mechanized and energy-intensive production methods (e.g., the use of tractors and mechanical harvesters); a dependence on the intensive use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides; a reliance on petroleum-powered machinery and petroleum by-products; the utilization of high-yielding hybrid seeds; uniform planting of one crop species over a large acreage (monoculture); double cropping (two crop seasons per year); large-scale irrigation; and a continuous supply of patented technology and inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.). The goal was to increase the capacity of plants to use sunlight, water, and soil nutrients more efficiently, and the heart of this revolution in agriculture was the development of certain varieties of patented seeds that fit the requirements of Green Revolution technologies.
Although its antecedents date to earlier genetic research, the Green Revolution as we know it today began with research conducted in Mexico by U.S. scientists in a wheat and maize research center sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation during the 1940s and 1950s. Their goal was to develop higher-yielding hybrid strains of corn and wheat. The most important person in initiating the Green Revolution in northwestern Mexico was the plant pathologist and geneticist Norman Borlaug. His wheat strains responded well to heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer and water; the International Center for Wheat and Maize Improvement, established in 1966 by the Rockefeller Foundation in cooperation with the Mexican government, continued his work. With the help of money from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, and USAID, “miracle seed” spread outside Mexico after 1963 and had its greatest success in an area from Turkey to northern India. The Rockefeller Foundation also sponsored a rice research center, the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines in 1960. The institute created high-yield dwarf rice varieties of “miracle rice” that spread to the rice-growing areas of east and southeastern Asia. Researchers at these and private corporate research centers selectively bred high-yielding strains of staple crops, mainly wheat, maize, and rice with sturdy stalks, which were responsive to chemical fertilizers and irrigation water, resistant to pests, and compatible with mechanical harvesting.
Chemical and seed corporations and government officials in developed and developing countries championed the Green Revolution as the solution to problems of famine and malnutrition around the world. More was involved, however: Excluding Mexico, the U.S.-sponsored enterprise encircled the Communist world from Turkey to Korea. Although fears of the spread of Communism motivated U.S. politicians and businesspeople, the idea of scientifically designed crops to improve living standards was also promoted within socialist societies from the Soviet Union to China to Cuba. In many ways the Green Revolution started as an economic wing of Cold War politics.
The incubation of the Green Revolution occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, and it dramatically altered food production during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1970 around 15 percent of the Third World’s wheat- and rice-growing areas were cultivated with the new hybrid seeds. By 1983 the figure was more than 50 percent, and by 1991 it was 75 percent. Proponents argue that more than half of all economic benefits generated by GR technologies have gone to farmers and that plentiful harvests became commonplace in much of the world during the thirty-five years after 1960: Crop yields of wheat nearly tripled, those of rice nearly doubled, and those of corn more than doubled in ninety-three countries. Because of high-yield rice and wheat, scores of countries kept food production ahead of population growth. Learning from the mistakes of its first applications, newer GR technologies promised increased net returns and reduced chemical loads for farmers. The Green Revolution was most successful in India in increasing aggregate food production: During 1978 and 1979 India established a record grain output of 118 million metric tons and increased its grain yield per unit of farmland by 30 percent since 1947. India has not had a famine since 1965–1966. However, no other country that attempted the Green Revolution matched India’s success or the number of jobs in auxiliary facilities such as chemical factories and hydroelectric power stations.
Proponents such as Martina McGloughlin point out that GR technologies create more food for sale, increase foreign exchange and national income, and generate a steady income source for successful growers as well as new nonagricultural jobs. Proponents do not believe that the adoption of biotechnology crops is creating genetic uniformity or inducing vulnerability to new strains of pathogens. They assert that GR technologies are size neutral and can promote sustainable agriculture centered on small farmers in developing countries. Despite such claims, the Green Revolution has promoted monoculture worldwide because each hybrid seed crop has specific fertilizer and pesticide requirements for maximum growth: Farmers save money by buying seed, fertilizer, and pesticide in bulk and by planting and tending the same crop uniformly on their land.
The picture is not all rosy, however. Despite claims by proponents, monoculture did make crops more susceptible to infestations and damage by a single pest. When farmers turned to heavier doses of petroleum-based pesticides, the more-resistant pests survived, and their offspring returned the next year to cause even greater losses. Famous cases of such resistance are the southern corn leaf blight in 1970 and 1971 in the United States; the brown planthopper, which attacked the various strains of “miracle rice” during the 1970s and 1980s in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Solomon Islands, Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia and in Thailand, Malaysia, and Bangladesh again in 1990; and the recent potato blight in the Andes. Millions of people, mostly agricultural workers, suffer from acute pesticide poisoning, and tens of thousands die every year from it. The horrific explosion at Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, plant on 2 December 1984 killed an estimated 3,000 people and injured 200,000 more. The chemical Sevin manufactured at Bhopal was essential for India’s Green Revolution. In addition, ever-rising doses of pesticides have meant that they ended up in water supplies, animal and human tissues, and soil with often unforeseen consequences. Along the Costa Rican coast 90 percent of the coral reefs are dead due to pesticide run off from plantations that monocrop bananas for export and that have ruined 80,000 hectares of former banana plantation land with copper residues from pesticides so that the land can no longer be used to grow food for either domestic consumption or export. Costa Rica now imports basic staple grains: beans, corn, and rice.
The irrigation required by the Green Revolution has led to massive dam-building projects in China, India, Mexico and elsewhere, displaced tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, and submerged their farmland. The frequent result of massive irrigation has been the creation of soil with a high salt content that even large does of fertilizer cannot repair. Critics have documented the reduction in species diversity that followed the Green Revolution. Rice, wheat, and maize have come to dominate global agriculture: They supply 66 percent of the world’s entire seed crop. They have edged out leafy vegetables and other food crops that do not respond to nitrogen- and waterrich farming regimes. Critics note that human beings cultivated more than three thousand plant species as food sources before the Green Revolution, whereas today fifteen species (among them rice, corn, wheat, potato, cassava, the common bean, soybean, peanut, coconut, and banana) provide more than 85 percent of all human nutrition.
The energy requirements for this agriculture are high: In what Southern Illinois University professor of anthropology Ernest Schusky has dubbed the “neo- caloric revolution” GR agriculture is one-half as energy efficient as ox-and-plow agriculture and one-quarter as energy efficient as hoe agriculture. The model of GR agriculture, U.S. grain farming, is remarkably energy inefficient: It consumes eight calories of energy for every one calorie it produces. For critics thirty years of the Green Revolution have left a legacy of environmental degradation, unsustainable agricultural practices, social disruption, homeless farmers, ruined farmland, crushing international debt burdens for developing countries, and the export of needed food to meet loan payments.
A Mixed Legacy
Opponents and proponents alike admit that the benefits of the Green Revolution are unevenly spread. Wealthier farmers with dependable access to water and credit prospered, whereas those farmers who skimped on fertilizer and irrigation because of the extra costs did not do well, and their yields were no greater than before. Agrochemical industries, banks, large petrochemical companies, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, dam builders and large landowners have been major beneficiaries. The social results in the United States and elsewhere have been a reduction in the number of small family farms, the concentration of agricultural wealth in fewer hands, growing social inequality, and migration to cities. In the case of Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia, producing more food with fewer people and the exodus of people to cities helped fuel industrialization. In other countries it merely increased the urban slum-dwelling poor. Internationally, South Korea, China, India, and Mexico reduced or eliminated food dependence, and India became a net food exporter. Other nations did not fare so well: Until 1981 the developing world was a net exporter of food; after 1981 it was a net importer.
Although India is the Green Revolution success story, its Punjab region has experienced all of the revolution’s negative ecological and social consequences, and Indian children are suffering from a vitamin A deficiency that is causing blindness in forty thousand children a year. Enthusiasts of the new “Gene Revolution” report that scientists are genetically altering rice so that it contains beta-carotene, which enzymes in the intestine convert to vitamin A when needed. Critics argue that vitamin A deficiency is best seen as a symptom of broader dietary deficiencies caused by a change from diverse cropping systems to rice monoculture: Indian children have vitamin A deficiency because their diet has been reduced to rice and little else. Under a mixed agricultural regime, Indian farmers grew brathua, a traditional plant rich in vitamin A, along with their wheat, but in GR monocultures brathua is regarded as a pest and is destroyed with herbicides.
In reaction to the myriad problems caused by the Green Revolution, an alternative agriculture called “LISA” (low-input sustainable agriculture) emerged in the United States, Cuba, western Europe, and elsewhere in the late 1980s (in 1990, in the United States, it was renamed Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program [SARE]). It sought to promote ecological sustainability in farm production by replacing dependence on heavy farm machinery and chemical inputs with animal traction, crop and pasture rotations, soil conservation, organic soil amendments, biological pest control, and microbial biofertilizers and biopesticides that are not toxic to humans. A carefully watched experiment with LISA occurred in Cuba, where the end of Soviet pesticide and petroleum subsidies in 1991 led to the collapse of GR-based food production and near famine from 1991 to 1995. In 1993 the Cuban government began breaking up large state farms, changed land tenure toward cooperatives, and replaced the Soviet Green Revolution model with the LISA model on a national scale. Food production rose slowly from its low in 1995 to approach its old levels by 2005, and continues to rise. A contributing factor is the cooperative system (as of the 2008, the state owns about 65 percent of all tilled land; the cooperatives comprise 35 percent but produce 60 percent of all Cuba’s agricultural crops).
Implications and Directions
The Green Revolution has fervent admirers and detractors. Admirers who wish to mitigate its worst effects are promoting the Gene Revolution, which combines specific genes (and their desirable traits) among unrelated species to yield plants with novel traits that cannot be produced by farmers practicing traditional breeding. The result is the engineering of “transgenic” crops such as rice with beta-carotene or plants that produce pesticides to protect themselves or vaccines against malaria and cholera. Those people who promote LISA endorse agroecology, which entails grassroots efforts by small farmers and scientists to meld traditional and modern farming methods, to reduce pesticide and chemical fertilizer use, to select natural seed varieties suited to different soils and climates, to end monoculture and export orientation, and to use science to enhance natural ecological systems of agricultural production and protection. The choices that people make in the first decades of the twenty-first century will shape not only the kinds and amounts of foods that people will have available to eat but also the ecological health of the planet itself.
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