Rethinking the Green Revolution


How to Improve the Social Benefits of Agricultural Research
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In “How to Improve the Social Benefits of Agricultural Research” (Issues, Spring 2020), Marci Baranski and Mary Ollenburger provide a timely and insightful analysis of the Green Revolution and its modern-day successors, such as agricultural research for development programs in Africa, that have excluded large numbers of smallholder farmers in their efforts to spearhead agricultural transformations. Inclusive innovative approaches, they argue, will benefit both people and research.

Their timing couldn’t be more appropriate, as they provide insights into four issues that hasten the call for smallholder-driven research.

First, the disruptions triggered by COVID-19 reveal that global food production and distribution networks designed through decades of agricultural research and technology development are contributing to major immediate vulnerability. Swift, damaging impacts offer dramatic new proof of acute hunger and food and nutritional insecurity among poor smallholders and other precarious populations.

Second, the disruptions are likely over the long term to worsen preexisting inequalities in the global food systems. Numbering as many as 2.2 billion globally, smallholders produce on farm sizes below national averages. Although highly heterogeneous worldwide, most of them are hardscrabble farmers, often representing diverse ethnic groups.

Smallholders must be viewed through a lens that is “un-Romantic, nonteleological, and anti-fetishistic,” as colleagues and I recently wrote in response to the widespread tendency to assume entwined beliefs of imminent smallholder demise and stereotypical traditionalism. Yet often precarious conditions do not detract from smallholder food-growing and resilience. In Peru, for example, smallholders furnish an estimated 80% of the country’s food and a large majority of the agricultural biodiversity that underpins critical food-system resilience. By comparison, proponents of urban agriculture, myself included, readily acknowledge this sector is likely to expand to a maximum of 5% to 10% of food production in most countries.

Though often rooted in the practices of smallholders, the sustainability innovations of agroecology and agrobiodiversity do not automatically or necessarily deliver social benefits to poor farmers.

Third is the convincing portrayal of the global forces that exclude smallholders from agricultural research. Authoritarian geopolitics, such as those of the Cold War, have tended to drive agricultural research toward excluding smallholders or including them nominally, as occurred in the Green Revolution driven by the United States in India, the Philippines, Mexico, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Recent resurgence of authoritarian geopolitics therefore redoubles this article’s relevance.

Fourth, the article’s timing coincides with the increase of agricultural research in agroecology and agrobiodiversity. This research has generated important advances regarding environmental and social scientific aspects of sustainable farm resource management. Though often rooted in the practices of smallholders, the sustainability innovations of agroecology and agrobiodiversity do not automatically or necessarily deliver social benefits to poor farmers.

New analysis of the Green Revolution and its successors, together with the clarion call for thorough inclusion of smallholder-driven research, is deeply resonant with the present needs of people and societies worldwide as well as those of science, technology, and policy.

Department of Geography and Programs in Rural Sociology and Ecology
Penn State

Marci Baranski and Mary Ollenburger argue that although the Green Revolution ought to be celebrated for what it did to feed the world’s growing population, its agents often ignored the complex issues of the regions they hoped to “improve,” increasing inequalities and failing to live up to the real promises of poverty alleviation. The authors are correct to point out that top-down initiatives tend to be problematic, but bottom-up, community approaches are no panacea.

Scholars of development have long pointed out that universalizing approaches to modernization and agricultural development have consistently failed to achieve their goals, often refreshing colonial tropes and deepening inequalities. James C. Scott’s “high modernist” framework provides a backbone to much of this discourse. Though Scott defined high modernism as a unique category of authoritarian and technocratic practices, the condescending move to simplify the supposed messiness of rural lives has had a central role in many of the development and modernizing attempts of the twentieth century, including the Green Revolution’s linear model.

But this literature often goes awry when trying to find the corrective to this universalizing method of development in its particularistic opposite. In fact, although historians and activists focused on contemporary community-engagement are quick to point out the issues when “modernization comes to town,” examples of development practices centered around communitarianism have also failed, sometimes catastrophically.

The historian Daniel Immerwahr, in his book Thinking Small, argues that attempts to pursue development through communitarian strategies held up utopian conceptions of “community” and often exacerbated existing inequalities. For example, the mid-twentieth-century panchayati raj system in India—developed through collaboration between the United States and Jawaharlal Nehru’s government—sought to develop rural India through a decentralized organization of village councils, but ultimately led to what the Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal called “more, not less, inequality.”

Baranski and Ollenburger are correct to suggest that community participation must be a part of contemporary agricultural research for development, but it cannot be the only driver of positive change. To learn from both the successes and failures of the Green Revolution, it will be necessary to acknowledge the difficulties of both the linear model and the communitarian approach.

Research Analyst, Food & Agriculture
The Breakthrough Institute

Marci Baranski and Mary Ollenburger provide a good read for anyone concerned about the future of agriculture. Modern agriculture, which began in the mid-twentieth century, is the result of rapid advances in science and technology, investments in infrastructure, and policy support for agriculture. Commonly linked with the Green Revolution that began in the global South and South East, modern agriculture is credited for successfully supplying a large volume of food to the global market.

The linear model of innovation, as the authors argue, continues to dominate this century’s vision of agriculture development. This is despite the fact that its success has come with the heavy cost of widespread degradation of land, water, and ecosystems, along with forcing many smallholder farmers off the land and into urban slums and shantytowns.

Characterized by the use of new crop strains and greater input of synthetic fertilizer, water, and pesticides, the Green Revolution was mutually reinforced by a complex of science and technology policies that included but were not limited to extension services, input subsidies, marketing of agricultural products, and farmers’ newfound enthusiasm for innovations. The authors make the case that the Green Revolution was not uniformly successful across geographic regions, and did not eradicate hunger in countries where it was introduced and practiced the most.

They also correctly point out that agricultural innovations must not only focus of improving the “existing farming practices” but also should compete with other “investment opportunities” to become an attractive feature of society.

In fact, by converting fields of traditional crops into monoculture expanses of rice and wheat, the Green Revolution shrunk the genetic base on which the food supply of millions of smallholder farmers relied. Agrobiodiversity is the central tenet of smallholder agriculturalists across the world. It contributes to ecological stability, system resiliency, and overall productivity. The focus of the linear model, especially its emphasis on enhancing production of a few cereal crops, is ill-suited to tackling problems of food security and poverty alleviation.

For all its innovativeness and achievement, as the authors correctly argue, the ability of the linear model to respond to emerging challenges requires a new gestalt of concepts that demand different science and technology policies. The focus must be on ensuring that smallholder farmers can produce more food and other agricultural commodities sustainably under conditions of declining arable land, limited irrigation water, dwindling resources, and reduced labor supply, along with the stresses of climate change.

To expand on the points made by Baranski and Ollenburger, I would like to offer three considerations based on my own experience.

First, it is important to defend the gains in agriculture that have been made. This may involve integrating practices of both modern and traditional agricultural systems in science and technology policies. It also involves the promotion of policies that emphasize the sustainability of available natural resources and holistic approaches to agricultural development, as opposed to the commodity approach of the Green Revolution.

Second, we must extend our technological prowess in agriculture for the benefit of smallholder farmers around the world, whose varied and risk-prone crop-growing environment makes them not only vulnerable to the vagaries of climate but also less likely to invest in modern technology. The focus should be on providing smallholder farmers with location-specific technology, services, and policies to achieve the dual goals of enhanced food security and poverty alleviation.

Finally, science and technology should make new gains, especially for the rainfed (nonirrigated) and dryland agricultural systems that constitute more than 60% of the farm area in the developing world.

Overall, policies are needed that emphasize the knowledge base of farmers, promote genetic diversity of crops, and give farmers a basket of options to choose from.

Associate Professor
School for the Future of Innovation in Society
Arizona State University

Cite this Article

“Rethinking the Green Revolution.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 4 (Summer 2020).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Summer 2020