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Green revolution and sustainable agriculture

Posted By Vikas On September 7, 2009 @ 6:14 pm In Agriculture,Farmers,environment | 7 Comments

(0n 12th of Sept 2009, Norman Borlaug, father of green revolution died)

Revolution is defined as “drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving”.
The term “Green Revolution” was first used in 1968 by former USAID director William Gaud, who noted the spread of the new technologies and said: “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.”[1]
In reality green revolution started in 1945 with transformational thinking and practice in agriculture. One significant factor in this revolution was the Mexican government’s initiative to establish an agricultural research station to develop high yielding varieties of wheat that could be used to feed the rapidly growing population of the country. Later Mexican agriculture research centre became an informal international research institution in 1959, and in 1963 it formally became CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center). American agronomist, Norman Ernest Borlaug played major role in at CIMMYT. He took up an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he developed semi-dwarf high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. For his contribution, he won the Nobel Peace Prize (1970), the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal and also an awardee of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s highest civilian honour to non-citizens of exemplary accomplishment.
The Green Revolution contributed significatnly in technology transfer from developed world to poor countries. These technologies included improved crop varieties, irrigation methods and management, chemical fertilizers (mainly nitrogen and phosphate), chemical pesticides, management practices etc. The story of wheat was main success story but later it was replicated for rice in Asia. International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) established in Philippines with the help of Ford and Rockefeller Foundations played major role in high yielding rice varietal research.
World Cereal production more than doubled between the years 1961 – 1985 mainly due to increase in production in developing nations which was mainly contributed by higher yield of of rice, maize, and wheat during that period. The production increases can be attributed roughly equally to irrigation, fertilizer, and seed development, at least in the case of Asian rice. So the introduction of high-yielding varieties of seeds and the increased use of fertilizers and irrigation are the main factors of Green Revolution.
The high yielding varieties needed high amount of water in frequent interval of irrigation and high dose of chemical fertiliser. While agricultural output increased as a result of the Green Revolution, the energy input to produce a crop has increased faster [2]. Therefore, the per unit of crops produced to energy input has decreased over time. Use of petroleum related agriculture chemicals (fertiliser and pesticide) and high energy need for irrigation made agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuel. So some of the fear of the Peak Oil theory also haunts agriculture [3].  It has also been blamed for vulnerability to insect pest because most HYV strains have been developed in controlled laboratory conditions were not very resistant to local insects and pests. Sometime it looks like a fixed design scheme to control the whole agriculture supply chian system and loaded in favour of capitalisation of agriculture.  The seeds needed to be purchased, along with sufficient quantities of fertilisers and pesticides.

Many negative effects of green revolution have started emmerging, some of them are:

Soil fertility: High dependency on chemical fertilizer and long term use has destroyed the natural fertility of soil by changing the soil ecology.
Water Quantity and quality: These high yield varieties are extremely water intensive and after wide spread and mono cropping practices has resulted in depleting groundwater in many parts of world.
Careless use of agriculture chemicals have also polluted our rivers and groundwater.
Decreasing Biodiversity: The green revolution has also affected both agricultural biodiversity and wild biodiversity. Practice of mono cropping has reduced agricultural biodiversity, as it relied on just a few high-yield varieties of each crop. It has been reported that there were over 127 varieties of rice alone being cultivated in the India during the pre-green revolution period which steadily dropped and had reduced to 18 within the first two decades of the Green Revolution period.

Socioeconomic impacts: There is a big discussion about socio-economic impact of green revolution in developing countries. It has increased the food security of countries like India, Mexico, China and saved valuable foreign currencies. Governments of those countries were able to divert their resources to other development work and some of which are paying dividends in recent upsurge in industrial and service sectors of those countries. However the transition from traditional agriculture which were more sustainable to Green Revolution agriculture (dependent on outer inputs: a less sustainable/unsustainable model ) led to some emerging socioeconomic problems. Smaller farmers often went into debt, which in many cases results in a loss of their farmland and even suicide. It has also increased the class disparity as wealthier farmers had better access to resources (credit and land) and benefited more from green revolution. It also increased the regional disparity as some regions were able to adopt Green Revolution agriculture more readily than others (for political or geographical reasons) as the case of Punjab, Haryana Vs. Bihar. Even though, Bihar has better soil and water resources, Bihari farmers didn’t reap the benefit of green revolution. The increased level of mechanization on larger farms blamed for high unemployment in villages and mass migration to cities.

Many of these concerns can be blamed on poor implementaion but still one can question the sustainability of green revolution. Pro-green revolutionists have started talking about second green revolution by use of genetically engineered seeds, better farm technology etc. However few are in mood to analyse the 50 years of green revolution and learn from some of its failing.


1. Speech by William S. Gaud to the Society for International Development. 1968
http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/borlaug-green.html (accessed on 7th Sept 2009)

2. Energy Bulletin (Published Apr 1 2005 by Powerswitch (UK), Archived Apr 1 2005)
http://www.energybulletin.net/node/5045 (Accessed on 7th Sept 2009)

3. Rising food prices curb aid to global poor
http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0724/p01s01-wogi.html (Accessed on 7th Sept 2009)

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7 Comments To "Green revolution and sustainable agriculture"

#1 Comment By Dennis Ramdahin On September 8, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

Vikas, great article. It seems appropriate to factor the spike in global population
as placing a demand for food. It is amazing how the unsustainable effects of high
yield impacted the ecology and environment. How come data during the development
of high yield varieties didnt forcast this?

The dependence of agriculture on petroleum based fertilizers is also a big factor as you laid out here, and is typically overlooked. the runoffs from these are attributed to
huge environmental impacts to water bodies. For example, eutriphication has become
a big problem for the Chesapeak Bay, estern US.

These are why environmental pratitioners exist today – to clean up the mess
that stemmed from previous mistakes, and to advise more sustainable approaches.
Let’s hope that the next wave of policy-makers will be educated along these lines a
and will think more sustainably.

#2 Comment By Vikas On September 8, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

Food security was the main motivational factor of green revolution. While research in west/developed countries was more toward economic gain and so they turned agriculture into a large scale organised industry. Most of the technology transferred to developing world during green revolution were either exact replica or little modification of industrial agriculture from west. However problems and context in the developing world were very different.
Some interesting fact, some of the developed countries have enough resources and potential to feed whole world population and they are even trying to monopolise international agriculture trade by subsidising their farmers. This is very contentitious issue in current WTO trade talk. Now think when world is facing food shortage why some developing countries are opposing subsidies to farmers in developed world. How it is hurting Indian farmers when 90% Indian farm produce is consumed internally? The subsidies prices of globally traded agriculture commodities steal from poor peasants of third world countries. A study carried out by the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) shows that due to decreasing farm prices, Indian peasants are losing $26 billion annually (data from 2001). Global wheat prices had dropped from $216 a ton in 1995 to $133 a ton in 2001; cotton prices from $98.2 a ton in 1995 to $49.1 a ton in 2001…
So there is socio-political angle to whole story.

#3 Pingback By Climate change politics and poor farmers « Associación Prabhat On October 21, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

[...] to 4.38 billion tonnes in 2007. However we paid enormous environmental price (read my other blog on Green revolution and sustainable agriculture). A second green revolution has to be based on a sustainable agrculture which can increase food [...]

#4 Pingback By Cause of declining nutritional quality in India: is it biased Green Revolution? « Associación Prabhat On November 17, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

[...] decades contain the makings of a new revolution (read more about Green revolution in my blog “Green revolution and sustainable agriculture”).  The story of wheat was main success story of Green revolution but later it was replicated [...]

#5 Comment By Nilesh On November 19, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

Excellent article Vikas. I just dropped incidently on this blog. You should promote this blog site better.
Few points about green revolution which I understood and always oppose it.Green revolution as such started as agricultural research but let hijacked by agri MNCs from US.
Whole bang of green revolution was market gimmick by MNCs. First phase of green revolution marketing opened the door for chemical and fertilisers uses on massive scale and now they have started second round of marketing where they are promoting use of genetically modified seeds. So basically they are trying to capture whole agriculture input marketing.
The fact that this ‘revolution’ will be based on bio-technology products owned by private corporations had disturbed Indian farmers’ bodies, who have described it as a joint US-India effort to promote the interests of bio-technology-driven MNCs.
The US already has a significant presence in India’s agricultural and food sectors, accounting for more than half of the $1 billion organised seed market. Of course, four-fifths of India’s farmers do not purchase seeds. They still follow the traditional system of save, exchange and barter. It is this section that the MNCs would like to target.
American agri-companies have intensified lobbying with Indian political parties is not surprising, for two reasons. First, the Indian government has yet to greenlight the commercialisation of Bt brinjal — crucial for the future of these ‘Bt brand’ companies — even after a thumbs up from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

Recently US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Indian Agricultural Research Institute and reiterate her country’s commitment to bringing about policy changes in the Indian farm sector that US agri-business would like to see. Cliton’s technology advisor, Nina Federoff, is a strong votary of genetically modified crops, to the extent of being regarded as a spokesperson for US seed multinationals like Monsanto, Dow and DuPont.

In fact, Federoff triumphantly pointed out to a group of US agri-scientists last year that although Europe and Japan were cautious about GM foods, Africa and India were clamouring for them!

Look how Clinton is marketing for US agri-business interest, she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in ‘everyone’s interest’ (how it can be ‘everyone’s interest’?). A contention rejected by Indian agri-policy analysts who say it would primarily benefit owners of biotechnology research — the MNCs who produce genetically modified seeds and will have exclusive marketing rigt (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds).

The conversion of Indian farmers from traditional varieties and public hybrids to commercial hybrids and GM seeds could create a market larger than China. The Seed Bill, 2004, and the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill are the thin end of the wedge.

The NBRA Bill, if it becomes an Act, would demolish a raft of existing bio-safety regulations, which would enable easier access to the Indian markets.

The Seed Bill has been criticised for diluting many provisions of the existing Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, PPVFR, which safeguards the right of Indian farmers to freely save, exchange and barter seeds. (Ref: Rediff.com)

#6 Comment By Terry Linke On July 6, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

I can relate, although as a 11th generation farmer in the USA, I had to give it up and make a living elsewhere. Large scale farming caused it, but big farming is more efficient so it has less carbon output, and efficient farming means more healthy CO2 eating plants per acre of land. Either way it is a great spin that makes great sense. [2] help make it all more efficient.

#7 Comment By microwave On July 9, 2010 @ 7:59 am

This post is impressive! I? gonna put this in the bookmarks before I lose the link I don? believe I?l ever find my way back here again otherwise

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