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What are Improved Seeds? An Epistemology of the Green Revolution

Author(s): Lakshman Yapa
Source: Economic Geography, Vol. 69, No. 3, Environment and Development, Part 1 (Jul.,
1993), pp. 254-273
Published by: Clark University
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What Are Improved Seeds? An Epistemology of the

Green Revolution*
Lakshman Yapa
Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University,
University Park, PA 16802
Abstract: After four decades of planned economic development, large numbers of
people in the Third World still lack the basic means of subsistence. Broadly
speaking, the academic debate on poverty has revolved around the type of
development: free-market, planned socialist, or environmentally sustainable. It
may be argued, however, that the principal problem lies in the very process of
development, and that modern poverty is a form of development-induced
scarcity. If this is true, our view of poverty must be radically altered to include its
epistemology-that is, the intellect of "how we know poverty." This position is
clarified with an example from agriculturalmodernization, using a story about the
Green Revolution and its epistemic transformationfrom seeds of plenty to seeds
of scarcity.
Key words: improved seeds, Green Revolution, nexus of production relations,
epistemology, scarcity, poverty.

The dismal record of official development theory during the last four decades
has led some scholars to believe that
poverty could be eradicated better
through the self-conscious efforts of the
poor themselves-i.e.,
through social
movements of community empowerment.
Some of the interest in self-help and social
movements has grown out of frustration
with failed development and a desire to
"somehow do something" as a practical
way out of the impasse (Durning 1989).
These efforts need support from academics, but such help must proceed from an
understanding of why development has
failed to alleviate poverty. I argue that
poverty is not about failed development,
poor technology, lack of resources, mismanagement, or poor planning, but rather
that it represents a routine, everyday,
normal manifestation of the very process
of economic development; indeed, development has caused modern poverty.
By poverty, I mean a situation in which

a household is unable to satisfy its basic

needs for food, clothing, shelter, health
care, and functional literacy. By economic
development, I refer to efforts to improve
"standards of living" through ever-higher
levels of production and consumption of
material goods and services-that
through an accelerated growth in GNP.
The term "development" is also used to
cover all institutions, values, and economic theories that conceive, support,
and implement this process. In this paper
I have refrained from producing a precise
definition of the term "development"
because that would not do justice to its
many meanings. My plan is to deal with a
specific meaning of the term that would
emerge in a story about improved seeds
and modern agriculture. Of course, the
full exposition of the argument of modern
poverty as development-induced scarcity
would require many other analyses-of
nutrition, health care, housing, clothing,
literacy, transport, and so on.
There are three principal paradigms
within the discourse on economic development: (1) neoclassical economic theories of underdevelopment concerning
overpopulation, transfer of technology,

* I wish to thankSuzannePetersonof Deasy

GeoGraphics,PennsylvaniaState University,
for the graphic.

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and the diffusion of development; (2)

neo-Marxist theories of uneven development concerned with imperialism, dependency, and world systems; and (3) the
environmentalist conception of sustainable development. Despite profound differences in their world views, these three
paradigms share the central belief that
poverty arises from lack of development
or underdevelopment, a condition that
can be eradicated with more development. The contrary notion that development creates scarcity calls for a basic
rethinking of the "poverty problem." We
need to rethink what we mean when we
say "Bangladesh is a basket-case of poverty." We need to examine the suggestive
power that geographic boundaries may
have on where we locate the poverty
problem. I argue that the "problem"
should no longer be confined to the place
where we see the tangible, physical
evidence of poverty, but that it should
include the very intellect that helped us
conceptualize poverty in the first place.
This leaves us in a serious predicament,
because the academic tools at our command-that is, the paradigms of development and the epistemology of povertypose an obstacle to the solution by
distorting our understanding of the problem. An elaboration of this argument is
the principal subject of the paper.
I shall make the more general argument
of development-induced social scarcity by
narrating a particular story about highyielding seeds, a story that begins in the
late 1970s with my association in an effort
to promote the speedy diffusion of hybrid
maize in the State of Karnataka, India.
The new seeds (once called miracle seeds)
were, and still are, widely understood to
be a beneficent technology that dramatically increases agricultural output-a significant technological breakthrough in our
fight against hunger in the Third World;
that is the official version of the story of
the Green Revolution, inspired by the
writings of neoclassical economists. However, these same seeds reveal a considerably more complex and contradictory
character when viewed from the vantage


points of other paradigms, such as political

economy and ecology. The different paradigms, each with its own "way of knowing," direct our attention to many other
attributes of seeds besides their high
yields, and provide important new meanings to the question, "What are improved
seeds?" By moving beyond a view of
seeds as material things to one of seeds as
the material embodiment of a nexus of
interacting relations (social, ecological,
and so on), we can understand how the
new seeds have come to be a means for
the domination of people and nature, and
how this technology can both create and
destroy use values at the same time.
The story of the epistemic transformation of the Green Revolution, from seeds
of plenty to seeds of scarcity, is important
in another respect; it gives us a deeper
understanding of the nature of the paradigms themselves-their
the origins of their language, and their
strengths, limits, and limitations. Even as
paradigms inform us about the nature of
seeds, seeds inform us about the nature of
academic paradigms. A seed is an indissoluble nexus of relations, but it was
improved, bred, and studied through an
epistemology of ahistorical, subject-specific disciplines and paradigms.1 Here lies
the crux of my argument about economic
development: the fragmented nature of
the discourse prevents us from seeing the
paradox of how improved seeds can
provide high yields and create scarcity at
the same time. Observers of development
projects in the Third World may recognize that the story of improved seeds told
here is not exceptional.

Nexus of Production Relations

The principal analytical scheme used in
this paper is the nexus of production relations. Production is an economic activity
only in the narrowest sense of that word,
Epistemology is that branch of philosophy
dealing with the conditions of knowing-that
is, how do we know what we know.

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because it includes far more than technology, goods, and markets. Production is determined at once within a web of relations -technical, social, ecological, cultural,
and academic-whose understandingis distorted by subject-specific views of reductionist science (Fig. 1).2 These relations
should not be conceived as discrete, analytical categories, nor is the list meant to
be exhaustive.3 The relations are dialectical, in that they act and react upon each
other constantly to maintaina dynamic process of production: analytically, there are
no visible seams between any two of them.
In a historical sense, the relations are also
mutually constituted. An entity that appears to be technological from one angle,
or point in time, may be thought of as academic or social from another angle or different point in time, or what appears to be
academic may be better treated with language that is social or cultural, and so on.
Non-orthodoxMarxiantheory describes the
notion of the nexus of relations with the
term "overdetermination," meaning that
-every process is determined simultaneously by every other process in society
(Resnick and Wolff 1989, 1-37).
The concept of overdetermination stands
opposed to essentialism, which is the "presumption that complex realities of any sort
are ultimately reducible to simpler, or essential, realities";among the influences pro-

2I have borrowed the term "production

relations" and the dialectical mode of reasoning from Marx (1989 [1869]). However, I have
extended the meaning of the term "production
relations" beyond the "social," its original
usage. I have consciously tried to avoid the
problems of the Marxianscheme of associating
social relations with the economic base, and
matters of culture, knowledge, and ideology
with the superstructure. I explore the interactions among these relations without any
concern for which may be more determinate
or "essential."
3 Though it may be useful to explicitly
recognize a relation called political, particularly to deal with activities of the state, I have
dealt with that topic in this paper under the
heading of social relations.






Figure 1. The nexusof productionrelations

of improvedseeds.
during any outcome, some can be shown
to be nonessential to its occurrence while
others can be shown to be the essence, or
the essential causes (Graham 1990, 1992).
Peet (1992) has objected to the position of
nonessentialism by insisting that the refusal to separate the essential from nonessential leads to indecision and weakens the
base of political activism. It is difficult to
judge the validity of such objections without considering historically specific, concrete situations. My own story of improved seeds will testify that the
nonessentialist approach of the nexus of
relations has actually expanded the scope
of activism in the food politics of South
Asia. While lack of access to land remains
an important cause of hunger, the scarcity
of food in South Asia is orchestratedthrough
a bewildering array of mechanisms reaching beyond social relations of land ownership into cultural, ecological, political, and
academic realms (Fig. 1). Each node in the
nexus where scarcity is constructed also
provides a site for mounting political resistance, multiplying the scope for activism; however, the agents of such activism
and the choice of strategies may drastically
differ from one node to another.4
The phrase "technical relations of pro-

' An elaboration of the claim that the

concept of the nexus of relations expands the
arena of political activism is beyond the scope
of this paper.

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duction" refers to a concept similar to

Marx's forces of production, in which he
included raw materials, resources, labor,
and technology used in production (Marx
1989 [1869]). I prefer the term "technical
relations" to call attention to the fact that
attributes of production forces are determined in a larger context (i.e., by other
relations) in which production occurs. The
term "social relations of production" is
used in a manner identical to its use in
Marxian economics, where it refers to
ownership of the means of production, the
manner in which the means of production
are utilized, and the rules for the social
distribution of the final product (Marx
1989 [1869]). Production requires matter
and energy as input and a repository to
hold waste materials, chemicals, and heat,
setting in motion a myriad of interactions
with the biophysical environment-"the
ecological relations of production." The
phrase "cultural relations of production"
refers to the mutual interactions between
economy and culture, in particular the
interaction of production with "the ways
of life" of social groups as embodied in
shared meaning, beliefs, values, and symbols. "Academic relations of production"
are of two kinds: one is the use of science
and research in the development of
production forces, and the other is the
construction of models and language used
in social theories of production. For
example, neoclassical economics and
Marxism can be distinguished by the
categories, models, methods, language,
and habits of thought (epistemology) they
employ. Concepts such as "overpopulation, resources, progressive farmers,
"surplus value," and "exploitation" reveal
as much about the value premises of
academics as they do about the external
world they are supposed to signify.
Academic descriptions of production are
not necessarily impartial and neutral,
because values, assumptions, objectives,
models, and language of representation
are all thoroughly influenced by the entire
nexus of production relations, an argument that has important implications for
the academic discourse on poverty. I shall


develop this article by successively focusing on each relation to unpack the ways
we think about high-yielding improved
The Green Revolution provides a good
illustration of the concept of the nexus of
productionrelations.The term "Green Revolution" has been attributed to William
Gaud of the United States Agency for International Development in a speech given
to the Society for International Development in March 1968 (Spitz 1987). Gaud
alluded to the possibility of a green technical revolution in food production as counterposed to a red political revolution. In
December 1969, the Green Revolution was
presented to the U.S. Congress as a major
tool of American foreign policy that provided bright market prospects to the pesticide, fertilizer, seed, and tractor industries (Spitz 1987; Cleaver 1973).

Diffusionism and
Technical Relations
The mainstreamconventional view of underdevelopment sees a poor country as having a dual economy, consisting of a dynamic, modern sector and a static,
traditional sector. The static sector lacks
savings, investment, capital, and infrastructure, an imbalance which can be corrected
by the movement (diffusion) of capital,
know-how, and information from the dynamic sector. This two-sector model of development, prominent throughout the
1960s and 1970s, viewed poverty partly as
a technical matter arising from the lack of
capital and technical know-how. This approach enjoyed an unrivaled dominance
within mainstream geography for several
decades, as evidenced by the profusion of
studies on growth poles, central places, regional inequality, diffusion of modernization, diffusion of innovations, and so on
(Soja 1968; Gould 1969; Berry, Conkling,
and Ray 1976; Rondinelli and Ruddle 1978;
Gore 1984; Brown 1981).
A useful point of departure for this
essay is Hagerstrand's (1967) book on
spatial diffusion, where he described the

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spread of a series of innovations in an

agricultural community in southern Sweden-the adoption of grazing improvement subsidies, bovine tuberculosis control, and soil mapping on farms. He
formulated the theory that innovations
spread in a community through a network
of interpersonal contacts, where the likelihood of adoption is higher at a site in the
neighborhood of a previous adopter. Data
were drawn on personal interaction over
space to construct a mean information
field (a person's average pattern of contacts over space), which was programmed
to simulate the spread of an innovation
using Monte Carlo random number techniques.
Several geographers have applied Hagerstrand's simulation model to problems
of development. Among those applications was a study of the diffusion of hybrid
maize in the State of Karnataka,India, in
the mid-1970s initiated by Mayfield. This
included collecting a large body of data on
the spatial patterns of communication in
several villages, with the intent of constructing a "mean information field" to be
used in a Monte Carlo simulation of the
spread of hybrid maize (Mayfield and
Yapa 1974). I was invited to join the
project because of my previous experience in modeling diffusion. Using data on
interpersonal interaction, we constructed
a mean information field, following Hagerstrand, and performed computer simulations of the spread of hybrid maize over
a five-year period under varying assumptions of contact probabilities. Following
the work of rural sociologists (Rogers
1969, 294-99; Lionberger 1960), we also
incorporated the notion of psychological
resistance to adoption by assuming a
Gaussian distribution, as suggested. In all,
we did hundreds of computer runs of the
spread of hybrid maize. None of the
simulated patterns resembled the actual
ones. This led us to question the validity
of a hypothesis that had assigned such a
central role to contact probabilities in
Our doubts regarding the central role
HIagerstrandhad assigned to information

and location in space were further confirmed during later field visits to several
villages in the study area. I cannot recall
meeting a single local person who was not
aware of the new varieties of corn being
grown in that area. I took special care to
engage farmers who had not adopted
hybrid maize; I learned that several had
carefully considered the new package of
innovations and decided against it for
what appeared to be very rational reasons.
Some told me they could not afford to
adopt because they had no access to
irrigated land necessary for the cultivation
of the new varieties. Many "nonadopters"
I met did not fit the psychological profiles
constructed by rural sociologists of "laggards" and "late adopters."5 Because of
these impressions, we abandoned the
simulations and reanalyzed the adoption
data using a different approach. The
farmers were first divided into two groups
of adopters and nonadopters, and data
were organized into three sets of variables
that were known to impact adoption of
innovations: (1) access to information; (2)
behavioral variables of the type that rural
sociologists deemed important for adoption; and (3) resource variables, such as
access to irrigated land and credit. A
statistical discriminant analysis was used
to ascertain the set of factors that was best
able to separate adopters from nonadopters (Yapa and Mayfield 1978). As we had
come to suspect, the set of variables
describing farmers' access to resources
had a higher discriminant index than the
other two groups. Almost simultaneously,
similar findings emerged from the investigations at the Center for South Asian
Studies at Cambridge University, where
the reasons for nonadoption of highyielding varieties of rice in Tamil Nadu,
India, and in southern Sri Lanka had been
examined (Farmer 1977).

5A laggard was described as a person who

does not adopt an innovation or is the last to do
so. They are believed to be conservative,
generally older, not cosmopolitan, and mistrustful of new ideas (Rogers 1969, 295-98).

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The simulation of hybrid maize in

Karnataka shows an approach typical of
the kinds of studies carried out within the
diffusionist paradigm of development. An
examination of the assumptions behind
our work on hybrid maize reveals the
"essentialist nature" of this thinking. The
starting point was the introduction of
hybrid maize in the study area. No
questions were asked about the nature of
hybrid maize or who developed it in the
first place and why. Since hybrid maize
gave yields superior to those of traditional
varieties, we assumed that the adoption of
the new was rational and, conversely, that
nonadoption meant a lack of awareness or
resistance to new ideas. Despite visible
evidence to the contrary, we also proceeded with the common assumption that
potential adopters belong to a relatively
homogeneous class of farmers, a view to
which Blaut (1977, 1987) has repeatedly
The main assumption of the diffusionist
paradigm is that underdevelopment is
caused by an inadequate development of
production forces, a situation that can be
corrected by the diffusion of capital,
know-how, and technological innovations.
This was also the underlying thinking in
the promotion of high-yielding seeds of
the Green Revolution. Regional prosperity was to emerge from the expansion of
food production following the widespread
adoption of the new technical package:
seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and pumpsets for irrigation. Accelerated development of production forces was the diffusionist answer to underdevelopment.
Using the language of the nexus of
relations, it may be argued that the
diffusionist paradigm viewed technical
relations as the essential core of the
problem.6 The high-yielding seeds were

6 Strictly speaking, the diffusionists were

concerned with production forces, and not
with production forces as relations interacting
with social, ecological, cultural, and academic
realms, which is what I mean by the term
"technical relations."


simply a new technology to increase food

production. There was no serious discussion of the structure of social relations and
systems of social practices through which
innovations filter, nor of the consequences
of the adoption of an innovation (Gregory
1985, 304). This was a crucial mistake,
because interpersonal economic differences and class play important roles in
determining who adopts what in rural
areas of the Third World (Blaut 1987;
Griffin 1974; Yapa and Mayfield 1978). As
I will describe later, diffusionist thinking
also ignored ecological, cultural, and
academic relations of innovations. Some
diffusionists dealt with the topic of culture
extensively, but that was in the firm belief
that traditional values and folkways of
villagers posed obstacles to the modernization of agriculture and rural society
(Lerner 1958; Rogers 1969; Rostow 1960).

Political Economy and

Social Relations
The diffusion work in Karnataka,India,
shows the need to pay attention to
people's access to resources, or what
Marxists call the social relations of production. Griffin (1974) has made a persuasive argument to this effect with his
model of biased innovations: capitalintensive innovations in the package of
high-yielding seeds soon acquired a landlord bias in the fragmented factor markets
of India.
Inspired by such writers as Baran (1957)
and Frank (1970), the radical political
economists first pointed out the shallowness of the paradigm of spatial diffusion in
geography (de Souza and Porter 1974).
Slater (1973, 1977) argued that underdevelopment, or the arrested state of development of production forces, is a normal
manifestation of capitalist relations of
production. As a corollary to this critique,
an argument termed "the nondiffusion of
innovations" was developed, which held
that privileged access to resources determines who does, and who does not, adopt
innovations. It stated that adoption and

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nonadoption can occur simultaneously in

the same geographic space at different
levels of society (Blaut 1987; Yapa and
Mayfield 1978). Incorporating social relations of production in diffusion processes
increases our knowledge and reveals the
limits of neoclassical models of development, with their emphasis on capital and
technical inputs.
Despite the insights offered by radical
political economy, the framework has
limits when directed at other areas of the
Green Revolution in South Asia. There is
little guidance in political economy for
understanding the relational aspects of
technology: Why does technology follow a
particular path and not another? Do
certain kinds of technology favor the
emergence of centralized social relations?
What are the ecological and cultural
relations of different kinds of technologies? And why, for example, does the idea
persist that the knowledge of peasants
who have raised food for thousands of
years has no value in modern agriculture?
In other words, political economy lacks a
critical social theory of technology. One
possible reason for this may be that the
intellectual legacy of classical Marxism has
shown an uncritical enthusiasm for the
quantitative development of production
forces. The Communist Manifesto contains
several passages praising the progressive
role played by the bourgeoisie in unleashing the powers of industry, agriculture,
transport, and communication.
Even today, most radical political economists give little attention to the qualitative attributes of production forces;
hence, their continued inattention to
topics such as appropriate technology and
sustainable agriculture. This has prevented political economy from exploring
the impact of production forces on social
relations and the potential role technology
can play in changing social relations.
Bookchin (1986), Illich (1973, 1978), and
Gorz (1980) have all commented at great
length on these issues. According to Gorz
(1980, 20), "the techniques on which the
economic system is based are not neutral.
. . The inversion of tools is a fundamental

condition of the transformation of

society. . . . Socialism is no better than
capitalism if it makes use of the same
tools. The total domination of nature
inevitably entails a domination of people
by the techniques of domination." Advocates of appropriate technology claim that
low-cost, affordable technologies already
exist for capturing use values created by
nature in the area of food production,
nutrition, health, and construction (Darrow and Saxenian 1986). Regrettably, this
literature has been virtually ignored in
both radical and mainstream geography
The radical critique of Green Revolution agriculture focused on the role of
capitalist farming in the exacerbation of
class and regional income inequalities
through the uneven adoption of highyielding seeds (Griffin 1974; Yapa and
Mayfield 1978; Hewitt de Alcantara 1976;
Pearse 1980). Political economy provides
a new answer to the question, "What are
seeds?": it is a technology that produces
higher yields, but it confers these benefits
unequally to different classes. Missing
from that critique, however, were other
important analyses. For example, what
are the potential technological choices
available to a society at any given time;
why are certain paths chosen over others;
and what are the cultural and ecological
implications of this high-input model of
agriculture (Glaeser 1987).

Sustainability and
Ecological Relations
For the most part, production involves
the transformation of material into use
values through the application of information, energy, and labor. Production uses
the ecosystem not only as a source of
energy and matter but also as a repository
of waste products, thus continually defining a myriad of interactions within the
biophysical environment. These are ecological relations of production.
The current concern with ecology is
driven largely by issues of environmental

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degradation that have led to the destruction of the physical conditions of production (Brown, Flavin, and Postel 1991; O'
Connor 1988), a concern that may be
described as a reactive stance. But an
equally important, "proactive" reason for
studying ecology is to create knowledge
that allows people to directly harness use
values created in nature.7 Examples of
such techniques include biological control
of crop diseases and biological sources of
crop nutrients. Exploration of these ideas
serves the added purpose of illuminating
how development has created social scarcity.
Destruction of the
Conditions of Production
My first appreciation of the ecological
problems arising from the cultivation of
high-yielding new seeds came during field
visits to the Devanahalli district of Karnataka. There I learned of an outbreak of
corn stem-borer, which some farmers said
was new to the area. Soon the technology
of hybridization itself was implicated in
the problem. The vulnerability of the new
hybrids to a variety of pests and diseases,
an area of concern which came to be
known as the "second generation problem," was not clearly recognized at first. It
was soon understood that genetically
uniform varieties of rice, wheat, and corn
grown in monocultural stands were vulnerable to pests and pathogens, a fact that
was dramatically demonstrated in 1970
when some 15 percent of the U.S. corn
crop was lost to a leaf blight. A genetic
factor (Type T cytoplasm) built into hybrid
corn to eliminate the labor-intensive tasks
of manual detassling was believed to be
the cause of corn's vulnerability to this
blight (Kloppenburg 1988, 121-23). In the
early 1980s, there were reports from
South and Southeast Asia that rice pad-

7The term "proactive" to describe this

aspect of ecology was suggested to me by
Margaret FitzSimmons at the University of
California at Los Angeles.


dies were being damaged by the brown

leafhopper, previously a pest of only
minor importance, because of the greater
resistance of the traditional varieties (Bull
1982, 13). Crop diseases caused by intensive monocropping of genetically uniform
varieties have been aggravated by pesticide use (Conway and Barbier 1990, 21;
Shiva 1991, 99).
The developments in South Asia were
part of a general worldwide modernization of agriculture. A mode of chemical
agriculture accompanied the new hybrid
seeds. Pesticide use was about 2,300
million kilograms around 1985, with the
Third World consuming about 15 percent,
a share that is continuing to grow rapidly
(Bull 1982, 6). The indiscriminate and
widespread use of pesticides destroys the
pests' natural enemies, with the pests
themselves genetically evolving into more
pesticide-resistant forms, which in turn
necessitates the use of new and more
powerful pesticides (Van den Bosch 1978).
The increasing dependence on pesticides
has been described as the "pesticide
treadmill." Likewise, the long-term use of
chemical fertilizer, accompanied by a
reduced use of organic matter, has adversely affected soil quality and increased
soil erosion (National Research Council
1989). To counteract the consequent
decline in yields, farmers are forced to
apply more fertilizer, in what Merril
(1976) has called the "vicious cycle of
chemical agriculture." Shiva (1991, 104)
reports the following image from Punjab,
"the bread basket of India": "Twenty
years of Green Revolution agriculture,
have succeeded in destroying the fertility
of Punjab soils which had been maintained over generations of centuries and
could have been indefinitely maintained if
international experts and their Indian
followers had not mistakenly believed that
. . . chemicals could replace the organic
fertility of the soil."
In South Asia, there is also widespread
evidence that fertilizer and pesticide
runoff have contaminated groundwater
and streams. The fish and crab populations that lived in rice paddies, an

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important source of protein for the poor,

have rapidly declined, or have become
unsafe to eat (Bull 1982, 63-64). Poor
farmers working knee-deep in the rice
paddy mud do not wear protective clothing, gloves, or boots. Moreover, in regions
without indoor plumbing or water purification plants, farmers wash themselves in
water from the fields, streams, and
irrigation channels, which now carry
unsafe levels of chemical contaminants. In
the context of South Asian farming the
very use of the word "environment" can
be misleading, because, physically speaking, the farmers are an inseparable and
integral part of "the environment"; it is
quite harmful to describe the condition of
contaminated water as an "externality."
One might well ask in what sense
contaminated water becomes an "externality" when farmers have to drink, wash,
bathe, and work in it. Thus what we have
in hybrid seeds is not simply a technique
of increasing food production, but also the
emergence of a mode of production that is
destroying the productive base of subsistence.
The Social Construction of Scarcity
A common assumption of development
theory is that people and places are poor
because they lack resources; however, a
reasonable case can be made that, in
many instances, modern technologies
have contributed to scarcity by destroying
existing sources of supply and creating
demands for new ones.8 Ecological relations of improved seeds provide an
excellent example of this argument because they have served to replace the
sustainable "reproductive capacity" of
local agriculture with the "productive
capacity" of nonrenewable industrial inputs (Shiva 1991).
8 In
making this point, I do not in any way
wish to be misunderstood as making a Julian
Simon-type of argument about unlimited
resources and the planet's "vast growth potential" (Simon and Kahn 1984).

Over thousands of years farmers participated in the selection and improvement

of seeds for food, fodder, and fibre.
However, during the last 50 years a large
industry has grown up around the sale of
improved seed; in the mid-1980s, it was a
worldwide market of nearly $45 billion
(Doyle 1986, 33). The capacity of seeds to
naturally reproduce themselves had acted
as a barrier to the entry of capital into
developing improved seed, but techniques such as hybridization helped capital cross this threshold. Some have
suggested that the very choice of this
technique depended on its potential to
transform seeds into a commodity (Levins
and Lewontin 1985; Kloppenburg 1988).
It is useful to recall the now familiar story
of hybrid corn: corn reproduces itself
through both self- and cross-pollination. A
variety of corn can be selected for
particular traits, and by inbreeding it
(self-pollination) over several generations
a pure inbred line can be developed. The
yield of such an inbred line is poor,
however. Several decades ago, American
crop breeders discovered that a highyielding hybrid corn can be obtained by
crossing two pure inbred lines, due to a
phenomenon known as heterosis or hybrid vigor. The commercially available
hybrid seeds are produced by doublecrossing two previous hybrids. Corn
raised from hybrid seeds cannot be saved
and used as seed for future planting
because their yields are erratic and poor.
This means that farmers have to purchase
seed from seed companies every year.
This is an example of the social construction of scarcity, a design built into the
very development of hybrids. Of the
techniques available for the general improvement of crop yield, hybridization
was chosen partly for its capacity to
suppress the key function of reproduction,
thus creating a social scarcity that would
be magnified later in the context of poor
farmers in the Third World.
Another aspect of scarcity is that
improved seeds do not increase yields by
themselves. To quote from Shiva's essay
on Punjab (1991, 46): "The strategy of the

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Green Revolution . . . put new demands

on scarce renewable resources and generated new demands for non-renewable
resources. The Green Revolution technology requires heavy investments in fertilizers, pesticides, seed, water and energy."
Increasingly an important source of
fertilizer nitrogen is that obtained from
industrial fixation. In most fertilizer
plants, hydrogen is obtained from methane in natural gas. Ammonia production is
thus expensive in terms of energy-rich
fossil fuels. The world production of
nitrogen fertilizer rose from about 6.5
million metric tons in 1955 to 67.5 million
metric tons in 1984 (Cox and Atkins 1979,
313-14; Food and Agriculture Organization 1984). In 1984 developing countries
accounted for more than 40 percent of the
world's consumption of nitrogen fertilizer
(Food and Agriculture Organization 1984).
The widespread use of chemical nitrogen
also contributed indirectly to increasing
scarcity by reducing the supply of naturally available organic nitrogen. It had the
effect of underdeveloping knowledge of
biological sources of nitrogen related to
crop rotation, multiple cropping, incorporation of nitrogen rich legumes in agricultural production, use of agricultural and
plant remains, and application of animal
manure (King 1973 [1911]; Howard 1973
[1940]). Azolla, a fern grown in association
with rice paddy, is an important source of
natural nitrogen (Office of Technology
Assessment 1985). Other strategies for
reducing the use of chemical nitrogen
include the growing of plants that require
less nitrogen or have a higher capacity for
fixing nitrogen in root nodules.
The widespread and growing use of
chemical pesticides is another example of
the social construction of resource scarcity. Pesticides cause the large-scale destruction of nontarget populations, the
genetic evolution of pesticide-resistant
organisms, the contamination of water and
agricultural produce, the reduction of soil
organisms that maintain the quality of
humus in the soil; moreover, they pose
health risks to agricultural workers. Apart
from what are very serious environmental


hazards, chemicals are also expensive,

their use has increased the dependence of
Third World farmers on international
capital, and their continued use over time
has increased the demand for these
products. The pesticide industry-that is,
its research, development, and marketing-has had the effect of underdeveloping the emergence of alternative techniques, which include: biological control
through prey-predator relationships; cultural methods, such as crop rotation,
multiple cropping, and companion planting, that alter the environment by making
it less suitable for pests; and crop
breeding programs that develop diseaseresistant plants. Indeed, of all the techniques mentioned above those that have
had the most support are the chemical
ones, because they create the most
exchange value. Many of the alternative
techniques mentioned, particularly the
biological methods, work with natural
cycles in the ecosystem by taking advantage of biological processes. They represent little cost to the user, but their
development can be expensive because
more sophisticated biocontrol requires
much skill and funds. Even though more
than 20,000 serious pest are known,
natural enemies are known for less than
10 percent. Entomologist Paul Debach
(quoted in Nebel 1981, 428-29) believes
that this research is underfunded because
biological methods do not generate profits
the way synthetic chemicals do.
Concept of End-use Rationality
Another useful way to conceptualize
the social origin of scarcity is to consider
the end-use to which a technology is put
(Lovins 1977). The concept of end-use
rationality involves the careful matching
of resources and technology to particular
uses so as to minimize waste of material
and energy. To illustrate this idea, consider the energy required to produce
nitrogen fertilizer: a pound of factoryproduced fertilizer requires about 19,700
British thermal units of energy, while a
pound of biological nitrogen obtained by

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plowing in a legume would use about

2,700 British thermal units (Commoner
1977, 156). According to these figures, the
expenditure of the extra 17,000 Btus
represents a saving unavailable with factory-produced nitrogen (creation of scarcity).
End-use logic has application in every
area of technology: food, nutrition, agriculture, manufacturing, health care, housing construction, transport, and education. In fact, the adoption of this principle
in the context of underdevelopment and
poverty gives new meaning to the terms
resources," "technology," and "capital."
End-use analysis begins with the needed
use value and looks for the most direct
way of satisfying it by using the minimum
amounts of energy, material, and transport. This is called matching sources to
end-uses. Thus the terms "resources,"
"technology," and "capital" have no universal meaning in the absence of a
concrete end-use analysis of a given
region. Indeed, the physical geography of
a region, its ecology, people's knowledge
of plants and animals, are all part of the
resource base."
To return to the epistemic question:
What are improved seeds? Ecological
relations offer another level of meaning.
Political economy had taught us that seeds
have technical attributes that bias their
adoption by social class and region. These
same technical attributes also define
modern agriculture's relation to nature by
degrading the long-term capacity of the
land to provide people's sustenance.
Moreover, through the destruction of
actual and potential use values created in
nature, the same technical attributes
"re-present" themselves to people, but
this time as social scarcity.

Tradition and Cultural Relations

Modern Encounter with Tradition
Cultural relations of production refer to
the mutual interactions between culture
and economy. The anthropologist Rhodes

(1984, 43) described the term "culture" in

the following way:



. . . all

anthropological studies is the notion of

"culture." A dynamic blueprint or design
for living, culture is learned behavior
handed down through generations so that
each new cohort of babies in a society does
not have to start again from scratch. To
some degree, what agricultural scientists
call tradition is the anthropologist's culture.

Rhodes's remarks about agriculturalscientists' conception of culture as tradition is

crucial to understanding the cultural
relations of the Green Revolution. Improved seeds arrived in the villages of
India carrying the authority of science and
modernity. The new seeds -sponsored
international aid agencies, developed by
crop-breeding science, backed by multinational agribusiness capital, approved by
the Government of India, and promoted
by an army of trained extension workers presented a formidable power that confronted peasant farmers living in their
"traditional culture of poverty."
Chambers (1983, 76) described this
unequal encounter of modernity and
tradition in an essay entitled "Whose
From rich-country professionals and urbanbased professionals in the third world
countries right down to the lowliest extension workers it is a common assumption that
the modern scientific knowledge of the
centre is sophisticated, advanced and valid,
and conversely, that whatever rural people
may know will be unsystematic, imprecise,
superficial and often plain wrong. Development then entails disseminating this modern, scientific and sophisticated knowledge
to inform and uplift the rural masses.
Knowledge flows in one direction only downwards - from those who are strong,
educated and enlightened, towards those
who are weak, ignorant and in darkness.
To the centuries-long colonial view of
peasant agriculture as primitive was added
the "modernization" literature of the 1960s
and 1970s, which set out to transform "backward" traditional culture, the principal obstacle to adoption of innovations and the

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diffusionof development (Rogers 1969; Dalton 1971; Rostow 1960; Lerner 1958; Lewis
1962). It is important to recognize that,
despite the extensive empirical work done
to support it, the concept of traditionalculture as backward has not been established
as a matter of empirical fact. It is an elaborate academic representation of "the
other," an intellectual construction which
actually reflects the values of sociologists
immersed in the dominant world view of
capitalist culture. There is no objective referent in the external world called "backward traditional culture" that is independent of the intellect that constructed it (Said
1979). This conception of traditional culture tells us as much about the nature of
development sociology (the self as it does
about peasant culture (the other).
Indigenous Knowledge
I have used the term "traditional" to
mean a community where the conduct of
activity and the transfer of knowledge is
based on experiences transmitted from one
generation to another (Wilken 1987). The
process of knowledge transfer in traditional cultures is informal and oral. This is
perhaps one reason why traditional societies are perceived as being non-innovative; another reason is that innovations are
often subtle and low cost. Several prominent students of "traditional"agriculture
have written persuasively about the complexity and longevity of mixed farming that
incorporatedanimals, manure, and crop rotation-for example, F. H. King (1973
[1911]) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Sir Albert Howard (1973 [1940]).
Among geographers the most preeminent
student of traditionalagriculture was Sauer
(1963 [1938], 1952), who was quite emphatic in his condemnation of the Rockefeller Foundation proposal in the early
1940s to modernize Mexican agriculture
Jennings 1988, 50-55).
In his "uniformitarian"critique of diffusionism, Blaut (1987) offered an excellent
discussion of how and why we have in the
past perceived traditional cultures to be
non-innovative. Blaut noted that the


spread of European colonialism and culture was seen as scientifically correct and
morally justifiable because the landscapes
and cultures into which these things were
inserted were seen, in one sense or
another, as empty. Support for Blaut's
argument comes from the recent literature on traditional agricultural technology
(Altieri and Anderson 1986). Based on
surveys of traditional farming conducted
at several sites in southern Mexico and
Middle America, Wilken (1987) described
traditional resource management techniques in energy supply, soil classification, and the management of soil, water,
slope, and space. An important point
made by Wilken is that traditional tools
and techniques are not easily duplicated,
because most traditional technology requires understanding local conditions and
ways of managing local energy and materials. Harrison (1987) reports from Africa
on a wide array of indigenous, traditional
techniques for soil conservation, water
use, and agro-forestry that have been
successful in local areas but often are
unknown to people in neighboring valleys. Harrison calls for the diffusion of a
new green revolution in Africa that
carefully incorporates the better traditional practices, reiterating an argument
made earlier by Richards (1985), who
writes about indigenous agriculture in
West Africa. Other writing that has
argued the importance of paying attention
to indigenous knowledge systems includes: Brokensha, Warren, and Werner
(1980); Chambers, Pacey, and Thrupp
(1989); Chambers (1983); Altieri (1987);
and Geertz (1963).
The modernization literature on diffuision in the Third World profoundly misrepresented and misinterpreted traditionalsocieties as backwardand non-innovative.This
cultural bias, abetted in part by academics,
affected public policy and the course of diffusionof agriculturalinnovations.This is now
formally recognized as a mistake, and effortsare being made to systematicallyrecord
knowledge of traditional cropping techniques, control of crop and animal diseases,
use of organic fertilizers, soil conservation,

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and so on in a program conducted by The

Center for Indigenous Knowledge of Agriculture and RuralDevelopment (CIKARD),
established in 1987 at the Iowa State University. Warren (1990, 1), the director of
CIKARD, defines indigenous knowledge as
Indigenousknowledge(1K)is local knowledge-knowledge that is unique to a given
culture or society. It contrasts with the
internationalknowledge system generated
by universities, research institutions and
privatefirms.IK is the basis for local-level
in agriculture,healthcare,
food preparation,education, natural resources management,and a host of other
activitiesin ruralcommunities.Suchknowledge is passed down from generationto
generation,in many societies by word of
mouth.Indigenousknowledgehas valuenot
only for the culturein whichit evolves,but
also for scientists and plannersstrivingto
improveconditionsin rurallocalities.
Andean Potato Farmers
A good example of the wider implications of modernization of traditional agriculture comes from the Andean Highlands of Peru. Archaeologists believe that
potatoes were first cultivated in the
central Andes, and that their domestication may have begun almost 10,000 years
ago (Brush, Carney, and Huaman 1981,
71). It is not surprising that the Andes are
reported to contain the richest gene pool
for potatoes, estimated by geneticists at
2,000-3,000 varieties. The Andean farmers possess highly developed systems for


that have


them to observe, select, and propagate

many varieties over large, diverse areas.
There are also well-developed trading
networks for exchange and sale of seed
potatoes. Often in a single locality as
many as 50-70 varieties may be found,
and an average farmer can name about 35
of these types.9

9 A few of the locally named varieties may

not be distinct (Brush, Carney, and Huaman
1981, 77).

The different varieties are adapted to

the conditions of traditional agriculture,
such as low soil fertility and low yields,
and show a general correlation to the
vertical zonation of Andean mountain
ecology.'0 The Andean potato culture has
been studied intensively in the Mantaro
Valley in the central highlands of Peru,
about 200 kilometers east of Lima. Here
potatoes are grown at elevations between
3,000 and 4,200 meters (approximately
9,900 to 13,900 feet). Commercial production based on "improved varieties" is
carried on in the lower valleys, where
growing conditions are optimal at elevations below 3,600 meters due to lack of
frost. The region of subsistence-oriented
potato farming of traditional varieties,
which uses little or no external inputs of
chemicals and energy, lies above 3,600
meters. This region can be subdivided
into two zones: between 3,600 and 3,900
meters is the zone of easy-to-cook nonbitter potatoes, and above 3,900 meters is
the zone of the bitter, frost-resistant
varieties, which are converted into several
dehydrated products through an ingenious process of freeze-drying (Heiser
1990, 136). According to Horton (1987,
134), farmers plant several plots (the
average is four) in different ecological
niches in order to minimize the risk of
total crop failure. Small farmers in the
higher areas have achieved a stable food
supply by using their knowledge of plants
and place to grow native varieties resistant to frost and hail, without using
chemical fertilizers and pesticides (Horton
1987, 134-35).
Since 1950, systematic efforts have
been made to modernize the potato
culture of the Andean Highlands. By the
mid-1980s in Mantaro Valley over 65
percent of the land planted to potato was


Zimmerer (1991) has argued that, although there is a general correlation between
the type of variety and elevation, there is no
evidence for the belief in a fine-tuned adaptation of cultivars to specific environments such
as elevational micro-environments.

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under improved varieties, a figure that

may be higher than in the rest of the
Andes because of the high degree of
commercialization in this valley (Brush
1986, 155). During the last few years, with
the increased adoption of improved varieties, there has been an expansion in the
demand for external inputs, including
seeds. According to Brush (1986, 156):
"Improved varieties do not remain viable
as seed potatoes for more than a few
seasons. Farmers observe that they degenerate and ultimately fail as seed. This
can be overcome by purchasing new seed,
but this is a costly requirement for
subsistence farmers."
The modernization of the Andean potato culture appears to parallel what we
have seen in Asia, where there has been a
break in the connection in knowledge of
local ecology and of the practice of
matching native varieties to particular
places to minimize losses from frost,
drought, and disease (Brush 1986; Shiva
1991). In the long run, a more serious
consequence of agricultural modernization may turn out to be the loss of genetic
diversity in species. Genetic erosion has
not only narrowed the base of advanced
agriculture, but it has begun to destroy
the very source from which improved
varieties "renew their vigor.""1 Shiva
(1991) has argued that in Punjab the
successes of the Green Revolution have
reduced genetic diversity at two levels:
first, there has been a reduction in the
number of crops grown from discontinuance of mixed farming; and second, within
each species (wheat and rice) there has
been a narrowing of the number of
varieties grown.
Hardly two decades have gone by since
development sociology portrayed traditional culture as an obstacle to economic
development. But the very success of the
Green Revolution in the Third World
appears to be turning that thesis on its
" Brush (1986) has also reported trends in
loss of genetic diversity in Southeast Asian


head. Brush has made this point (1989,

26): "Besides concern with the adoption of
improved technology, social scientists
should be more actively engaged in
learning why certain farmers and farming
systems retain traditional varieties. Under
a conservation mandate, resistance to
change can be accepted as a virtue that
can be actively promoted rather than
rejected or passively accepted."
Having looked at culture as a relation of
production, we return to the theme of this
paper: What are improved seeds? The
characteristics of seeds are not only
technical, social, and ecological, but also,
at once, cultural. To say that improved
seed is a technique for increasing food
production is only part of the story. It has
also been a bearer of the hegemonic
culture of science, capital, and authority
that subjugates tradition and the keepers
of that knowledge. The diffusion of
improved seeds is also the diffusion of a
new culture, one that devalues the
production of subsistence and erodes the
principle of local reproduction by creating
a need for external inputs.

Hegemony and
Academic Relations
The expression "academic relations of
production" is used here to refer to the
work of agricultural scientists who conceived and bred improved seeds and the
work of social scientists who conceived
the social theory that facilitated the
diffusion of that technology. The story of
improved seeds provides an excellent
example of the claim made by critical
social theorists that science and technology are in fact "social processes" directed
by the power relations of the underlying
society, serving to strengthen and reproduce those power relations (Aronowitz
1988; Foucault 1980).
I argued earlier that improved seeds
was not just a technology to better feed
people by increasing food production, but
that it was also an instrument designed to
serve the economic interests of particular

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classes of people. Such claims are usually

dismissed as being a naive subscription to
conspiracy theory, which has no room in
an academe, otherwise dedicated to the
pursuit of honest, independent scholarship. One resolution of such a debate lies
in a reading of critical social theory which
shows how ideas, assumptions, models,
methods, and language function to serve
the needs of a particular world view, and
how this can happen without that intellect
being centrally directed by particular
agents (Aronowitz 1988; see also Monthly
Review, July-August 1986). In his critique
of "value-free




268) expressed this in the following way:

The simplestandperhapsthe oldestversion
of the ideal of neutralityis that science may
be used for good or for evil. The problem
with this view, though,is thatit ignoresthe
fact that science has both socialoriginsand
social consequences. Who, one can ask,
does science serve, and how? Who has
gained from "miraclewheat"and who has
lost? . . . Whose economieshave benefitted
from the neoclassicaltheory of the firm,
whose have suffered? Science, in other
words,does not alwaysserve the collective
we or the generic man but particular
men-often those who controlthe meansof
its productionand application.Science is
not differentfrom other aspects of culture
in this sense.
The Marxisttheoretician Gramsci'sconcept of hegemony provides a useful tool to
examine the role of intellectuals in constructing the social consensus. Drawing
on the work of Gramsci, Williams (1983,
145), in his book Keywords, described the
concept of hegemony in the following
It is not limitedto mattersof directpolitical
controlbut seeksto describea moregeneral
predominancewhich includes,as one of its
key features,a particularway of seeing the
worldand humannatureand relationships.
... it is seen to dependfor its hold not only
on this expressionin the interests of the
ruling class but also on its acceptanceas
"normal reality" or "commonsense"by
those in practicesubordinateto it.
Gramsci (1971, 6-23) has argued that

one of the main functions of intellectuals

is to preserve the hegemony of their class
over society as a whole by producing a
justifying ideology. In the Third World
today, economic development has become
a hegemonic idea for building national
consensus. It is promoted not only as a
political goal of the nation-state, but also
as an expression of scientific rationality
and technological progress. The hegemony of developmentalism is well exemplified in the realm of agricultural modernization, where the objectives of the
state merge with the sense of urgency
surrounding issues of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. A few years ago, the
powerful director of a Washington-based
aid agency visited a university to talk
about the progress of the Green Revolution in India. It was, as I remember, a
year of serious food shortages in northern
India. At the end of the talk a few polite
voices of dissent raised questions about
the negative social and ecological consequences of the Green Revolution. Quickly
moving to don the mantle of a savior, our
speaker adroitly reminded us of the
serious food situation in India, and graciously pleaded for patience. "This new
system is not perfect," he said, "but
please won't you give us a few years to
straighten out the bugs in the system." No
doubt a reasonable request, but nevertheless, it is enlightening to examine the
social dynamic of this academic exchange.
There was a real problem of food shortages at the time. He, the speaker, was
active in the solution of that problem. By
pleading for patience from his critics, he
placed himself in charge, inside the circle
of action, and placed his critics outside
that circle in the region of sideline
criticism. He only asked for patience from
his critics; he had no use for the sense of
the criticism, and marginalized the knowledge of critics by placing it outside the
realm of the solution.
We began our story of academic relations of improved seeds with the production of seeds themselves. We saw earlier
how two basic functions of seeds, reproduction and provision of food, were

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separated from each other by transforming seeds into a commodity that had to be
purchased at each planting. Kloppenburg
(1988) has argued that the potential of
turning seeds into a commodity was a
driving force in the choice of hybridization as the technique for improving seeds.
Wheat and corn improvement research
conducted by Norman Borlaug is often
cited as the beginning of the Green
Revolution in Mexico. The Mexican story
goes further back, however, to the 1930s,
when the Ministry of Agriculture in
Mexico during the progressive years of
Lazaro Cardenas (1935-40) initiated a
program of scientific research to improve
corn, the main staple of the peasantry.
The years of Cardenas saw sweeping land
reforms, the expropriation of Standard
Oil, and the threat of take-over of other
U.S. investments in Mexico. With the
installation of Avila Camacho as next
president, the program for the improvement of peasant crops was disbanded.
During the 1940s, with help from the
Rockefeller Foundation, a new program of
agricultural research was started, focusing
on hybrid varieties of irrigated wheat for
large-scale commercial growers of northwest Mexico. The idea was to reverse the
agrarian radicalism of Cardenas and replace it with a model of scientific,
industrial agriculture to produce food
surpluses for urban areas using industrial
inputs. This program later came to be
known as the Green Revolution; it did
much for agribusiness of pumps, machines, fertilizer, and pesticides and little
for the nutrition and welfare of Mexican
peasants (Hewitt de Alcantara 1973-74).
Drawing on Rockefeller archives, Jennings (1988) has reported that Carl Sauer,
who was a strong critic of the model of
industrial agriculture, believed that the
agricultural and nutritional practices of
Mexican peasantry were quite sound, but
that they needed support and strengthening. Sauer's advice went unheeded at the
foundation. Borlaug's work also marginalized the research on rain-fed corn that
was being done by Mexican scientists in
the Institute of Agricultural Investiga-


tions. Hewitt de Alcantara (1973-74, 32)

has suggested that Avila Camacho and his
advisors specifically reached for a proindustrial program as a substitute for the
agrarian programs of Cardenas: "Genetic
research produced high-yielding seeds
intended for use in irrigated areas, with
ample access to credit for chemical inputs
and with a population literate enough to
master a complex set of farming techniques. In other words science responded
to the tasks set for it by politics -an
inevitable characteristic of applied research in any form. The new technology
was designed to raise agricultural output
spectacularly in relatively well-endowed
commercial farming areas -not to contribute to the well-being of the mass of
malnourished rural inhabitants, but to
feed the cities."
The social theory of the Green Revolution came out of the work of modernization theorists. The promotion of highyielding varieties spawned a whole new
vocabulary that included terms and expressions such as "progressive farmers,"
"backward farmers," "betting on the
fittest," and so on. Capitalist farmers with
access to large areas of irrigated land who
could purchase the expensive inputs were
culturally and linguistically transformed
into "progressive farmers." Poor farmers
who could not afford to respond and
intelligent farmers who actively rejected
the new seeds for ecological reasons were
transformed into "backward farmers," or
into "laggards" through the language of
the sociology of innovation diffusion. In
India, the strategy of "betting on the
fittest" was a social rationalization of
agrarianpolicies that had nothing to offer
the marginal farmers, the landless laborers, or those who cultivated coarse grains
in areas of rain-fed agriculture (Frankel
And so we return to the question: What
are improved seeds? The conception of
seeds as academic relations shows that
what had earlier been called technological, social, ecological, and cultural is in
fact constructed through academic processes of research and social theory.

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Therefore, it is through academic "deconstruction" that we can begin to understand how improved seeds are actually
constituted. Seeds as technology for increasing food production is simply one
manifestation of what they are. More to
the point is that seeds represent a nexus
of mutually determining relations. Frequently asked questions such as "Wasn't
the Green Revolution a success?" or
"How productive are improved seeds?"
make sense only within a particular
epistemology; the same inquiry makes
little or no sense when viewed in the
wider context of seeds as nexus of

Economic Development of
Social Scarcity
Production is commonly defined as the
creation of use values. But under certain
circumstances production not only creates
use values but also destroys them-"the
two faces of production." Scarcity is a
relation that grows out of this twin
characteristic of production and appears
in numerous aspects of development. My
focus here has been on the concrete
manifestation of this phenomenon in
agricultural modernization within the
nexus of relations of improved seeds. It
may be useful to recapitulate the argument briefly: The social construction of
scarcity began with the genetic transformation of seeds into a nonreproducing
commodity. The improved seeds were
developed to respond to industrial inputs
such as fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation,
and fuel. The creation of such demand
creates scarcity by creating the need for
these products. The continued use of
inorganic fertilizer over a long period
leads to the deterioration of soil structure
and increased erosion, thus requiring
larger quantities of fertilizer to simply
maintain yields. The long-term use of
chemical pesticides increases the demand
not only for larger applications, but also
for other, more powerful pesticides. The
need for irrigation water to grow im-

proved seeds creates a demand for the

installation of infrastructure-dams, canals, and wells-and a demand for pumps,
spare parts, and fuel. Since these inputs
are purchased in the market, obviously
some classes of society will experience
scarcity more severely than others. In
very arid areas irrigation creates an added
burden through salinization, leading to
the loss of cultivable land. Good land can
also be lost to waterlogging caused by
irrigation-induced raising of water tables.
In agricultural modernization we have
seen the loss of knowledge of sustainable
practices due to the devaluation of traditional indigenous knowledge. The newer
varieties of corn, wheat, and rice yield
lower quantities of biomass for organic
residue and animal fodder, depriving the
soils of important sources of natural
organic nutrients. The long-run maintenance of the quality of improved seeds
involves a continuous process of research
in crop breeding, involving use of germ
plasm from wild ancestors of the plants or
from traditionally grown varieties. The
rapid diffusion of improved varieties
causes the disappearance of traditional
varieties, thus necessitating the maintenance of germ plasm in a worldwide
system of gene banks. Among the problems with that strategy are incomplete
collections, isolation from evolutionary
processes, and high costs of administering
the system.
Agricultural modernization of improved
seeds was a model of "scientific agriculture." At one end of this model were the
crop breeding centers and gene banks,
and at the other were the large agricultural universities and extension services-a system of science and technology
that uses large amounts of scarce financial
resources and creates extreme dependency. Furthermore, this model was
instrumental in conferring more power to
expert scientists, consultants, bankers,
and agents of agribusiness, a shift that was
justified in the name of increased food
production to meet the urgent needs of
the growing hungry masses. The real food
needs of poor people served the ideologi-

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cal needs of the promoters of the model of

improved seeds quite well by helping to
marginalize the critics of scientific agriculture.

This paper was partly an exercise in
understanding how problems are identified and solutions are proposed. Since
poverty is a serious problem, development was widely seen as the solution.
Since hunger and malnutrition are problems, the Green Revolution of improved
seeds was adopted as the solution. But
such solutions are in fact part of the
problem, because poverty is a form of
scarcity induced by the very process of
economic development. That argument
was illustrated by narrating a story of
improved seeds. Clearly many other
analyses and examples are needed to
demonstrate the connection between development and scarcity. In this paper I
explored that connection by posing the
question "What are seeds?" or "How do
we know seeds?" Improved seeds are
most commonly described as a technology
to increase yields, a reductionist description that ignores the nexus of relations of
the seeds. We saw that the technologycentered epistemology of the Green Revolution had acted in a manner that
concealed how production can also destroy use values, creating social scarcity.
The problem of poverty must, therefore,
be expanded to include not only concrete
places and people that experience scarcity, but also the epistemology of how we
know that scarcity and poverty.
Frustrated by failed development
projects, groups of poor people in many
parts of the Third World are changing their
life circumstances through their own praxis
of organized social movements. However,
a social theory for the transformation of
relationsof productionthrough social movements and community empowerment does
not yet exist. An important component of
such a social theory is a knowledge of the
epistemic genesis of poverty.

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