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Student number: 1355795

Module: 7SSG5107 Environment, Livelihoods and Development in the South

Essay title: The Green Revolution’s success: For whom and where?
Due date: 15 Nov 2013
Student number: 1355795
Word count: 996

The Green Revolution is generally associated with the rapid spread of high-
yielding varieties (HYV) of food crops and the introduction of intensive use of
chemical fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation to Third World agriculture from the
1940s to the 1960s (Dixon, 1990). Its socio-economic impact remains a contentious
subject in the academia. Some claimed that the quantum leap in food production
spurred by the Green Revolution outstripped the pace of population growth and
spared millions from starvation (Paarlberg, 2010). However, critics rebutted that the
capital-intensive technologies have not end hunger but widen inequality among
agrarian communities in the developing world (Shiva, 1991). This essay aims to
critically assess how different scales of analysis have shaped perception of the
Green Revolution’s impact.

Global food production and hunger

If the Green Revolution’s impact were measured solely based on global food
production, then it would have been a success as it contributed to the doubling of
yield of major food crops in developing countries between 1958 and 1978 (Lipton
with Longhurst, 1989). Its effect was especially prominent in South Asia and
Southeast Asia where the HYV seeds were widely adopted (Paarlberg, 2010). The
new seeds bred by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in
Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines were
once known as the “miracle seeds” (Yapa, 1993, p.255). It should be noted though
that non-IRRI rice seeds developed through national initiatives such as in China,
North Vietnam, Brazil and Suriname also contributed to the significant growth in
global food production (Pearse, 1980). Jerven (2012, cited by Patel, 2013) pointed
out that agricultural productivity made without Green Revolution programmes in the
same period were often ignored. Yet if China were excluded from the equation, the

Student number: 1355795

number of people starving worldwide would rise over 11% (Rosset, 2000 cited by
Patel, 2013).
If the Green Revolution’s success were to be judged based on its efforts to end
hunger, then it has been a failure. Globally, it is estimated 842 million people are still
chronically undernourished between 2011 and 2013 (von Grebmer et al, 2013).
Fifteen out of 19 countries with “alarming” and “extremely alarming” levels of hunger
found in the 2013 Global Hunger Index are from Africa, where the Green Revolution
technologies were also introduced but failed to take off. Even India and Pakistan,
which adopted Green Revolution technologies eagerly in the 1960s and have since
became food exporters, are listed among countries with “alarming” and “serious”
levels of hunger. It is commonly assumed based on simplistic Malthusian logic that
having surplus food production would put an end to famine but throughout history,
the poor have starved to death despite the availability of abundant food (Sen, 1982
cited by Lathem, 2009).

Impact on peasants
Did the Green Revolution benefit smallholders? Patel (2013) highlighted that
corn, not wheat, was planted by majority of the Mexican peasants in the 1940s while
in India, corn was chosen as the first commodity crop to be researched despite being
a minority crop. The original ventures of Green Revolution clearly were not targeted
at majority of the peasantry. Patel (2013) added that wheat and rice were only
included in India’s Green Revolution programme eight to nine years later in 1964 and
1965. Meanwhile, Pearse (1980, p.37) reported that the “great wheat boom” in
Mexico has displaced small farmers and concentrated wealth in the hands of less
than 200 millionaires. While it is true that small cultivators worldwide adopted HYV
seeds subsequently, the resource-intensive nature of Green Revolution technologies
meant that richer farmers with more land, access to irrigation and credit to purchase
fertilisers were the first adopters and beneficiaries (Patel, 2013). Therefore, it is
unsurprising that Freebairn (1995), after examining over 300 studies published
between 1970 and 1989 on the Green Revolution, found that inequality has
increased at the farmer-level and among different regions.
Some Green Revolution scientists responded to critics and shifted their
research focus to breed more “poor farmer-friendly” crops in the later decades (Raju,
2002). Nevertheless, the success of Green Revolution technologies among farmers

Student number: 1355795

still hinged upon the availability of state subsidies and infrastructure development
(Patel, 2013). For instance, the Mexican government bought locally produced wheat
at 33% above world market rate, the Indian and Pakistan governments paid their
domestic wheat growers 100% more while the Philippines raised rice subsidies by
50% within a year in 1966 (Paddock, 1970 cited by Patel, 2013). Additionally, Mexico
spent 90% of its agricultural budget on big irrigation projects between 1941 and 1952
(Alcantara, 1973 cited by Patel, 2013). India also expanded its irrigation network
aggressively in Punjab, Haryana and Western Utter Pradesh (Jewitt, 2002).
One of the key reasons Green Revolution technologies could not flourish in
Africa was because its governments were restricted from providing agricultural
support to farmers (Thurow and Kilman, 2009). African farmers are forced to
compete on the world market with their relatively affluent counterparts in the US,
Europe and Asia. Without institutional support, the “miracle seeds” could hardly work
its wonders even for relatively well-off farmers in Africa. Thurow and Kilman (2009)
wrote that Ethiopian farmers who switched to HYV seeds in the 1990s reaped
bountiful harvests yet reported losses due to glut in the local market.

The Green Revolution has been perceived as a success for driving up global
food production and driving down food prices for the masses. But if we were to
analyse its impact further at the regional and village level, one finds that its
development record has been rather uneven. It was touted as a success in Asia, less
so in Latin Africa and it has definitely failed to make a mark in Africa. In countries
where Green Revolution has been hailed as a success, their governments provided
generous subsidies and infrastructure support to farmers. At the village level,
wealthier farmers tend to be the first benefactors and smallholders were often late
adopters. Clearly, institutional support is needed to drive agricultural innovations and
level the playing ground for poor farmers.

Student number: 1355795

Alcantara, C.H.D. (1973) The ‘Green Revolution’ as history: The Mexican
experience. Development and Change, 4(2), 25-44.

Das, R.J. (2002) The Green Revolution and poverty: A theoretical and empirical
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quantitative study of research reports. World Development, 23(2), 265-279.

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displacement of traditional agriculture? A reassessment from Ranchi District,
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Jerven, M. (2012) The political economy of agricultural statistics: Evidence from

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Paarlberg, R. (2010) Food politics: What everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford
University Press.

Paddock, W.C. (1970) How green is the Green Revolution? Bioscience, 20(16), 897-

Student number: 1355795

Patel, R. (2013) The long Green Revolution. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40(1),

Pearse, A. (1980) Seeds of plenty, seeds of want: Social and economic implications
of the Green Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosset, P. (2000) Lessons from the Green Revolution [Online]. Available from [Accessed 14 November

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Shiva, V. (1991) The violence of the Green Revolution: Third World agriculture,
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Thurow, R. and Kilman, S. (2009) Enough: Why the world’s poorest starve in an age
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