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The Green Revolution: Effects in Asia and implications for Africa



By Alan Broughton


September 8, 2017
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal The term Green Revolution refers to the introduction of high-yielding varieties of staple food crops, particularly wheat and rice, into Third World countries, starting in the 1960s. Initially Mexico, India and the Philippines were targeted. The stated aim was to increase food production to end hunger and prevent uprisings.


The Green Revolution did increase agricultural production, and no more successful revolutionary uprisings occurred, but it failed to reduce hunger and poverty, improve nutrition, or protect the environment. While some of these failures are now acknowledged by the proponents, the answer is that “there was no alternative”, and that for untouched areas of the world, particularly Africa, there is still no alternative. However, that alternative does exist: it is called agroecology. Science takes credit for successes but takes no responsibility for failures (Shiva 2001).


The Green Revolution was promoted by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the World Bank and the US government. The most immediate aim was to prevent revolution in the Third World. The Western world had lost China and Cuba and was in the process of losing Vietnam; there were insurgencies in Malaya and the Philippines and uncertainty about President Soekarno in Indonesia. It was decided to fight revolution with food (Cleaver 1972). “The only way to prevent a Red Revolution is to promote a Green Revolution” – Peer Maurin of Catholic Worker, and “Where hunger goes, Communism follows” – Rieff (Patel 2013). President Macapagal in the Philippines said: “We consider this institute [the International Rice Research Institute which developed the new rice varieties] as a potent weapon in the struggle against poverty and communism in Asia” (Patel 2013).


An unstated secondary aim was to increase the penetration of agribusiness into the Third World. Profits could be made by selling the new varieties of seed and the fertilisers, pesticides and equipment (tractors, pumps) that were indispensable to their success. American fertiliser companies were looking for new markets after the Second World War when nitrate was less needed for bomb making; Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder who developed the first new high-yielding crop varieties, emphasised the importance of fertilisers to Indian politicians, and both the World Bank and US Aid for International Development (USAID) strongly pushed for increased fertiliser use (Shiva 2001). Part of the strategy of US AID funding was to increase chemical fertiliser use; this is now the strategy used in Africa, where in many countries the majority of department of agriculture spending is allocated to fertiliser subsidies (African Centre for Biodiversity 2016).


Indigenous cropping systems were based on farm-produced organic inputs – “Seeds come from the farm, soil fertility comes from the farm and pest control is built into the crop mixtures. In the Green Revolution package, yields are intimately tied to purchased inputs of seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and petroleum and intensive irrigation” (Shiva 2001 p.243), all supplied from corporations.


The Green Revolution created high-yielding varieties for optimum conditions, not seeds for drought or pest resistance, not for mixed cropping, not better integration of grains and pulses, and not independent of imports (Shiva 2001).


Save Bhaskar, Indian ecological farmer and critic of the Green Revolution, said: “The new, parasitical way of farming you promoted benefited only the industrialists and traders. Farmers' costs rose massively and margins dipped. With the eroding natural fertility of their land, they were left with mounting debts and dead soils” (quoted by Todhunter 2016). The same will happen in Africa.


History of the Green Revolution


Norman Borlaug developed “miracle wheat” in 1954, by reducing stalk length so the plant could put more of its energy into grain production instead of straw. The shorter stems also reduced the propensity for lodging (inability to stand up in wind and rain, made worse by chemical fertilisers that weaken the stems) (Patel 2013). Two research institutes were established to work on high-yielding varieties, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines (IRRI), partially funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, CIMMYT) in Mexico, also supported by the Rockefeller Foundation (Shiva 2001). The two foundations cooperated in setting up two more plant breeding centres, the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (ITA) in Nigeria (Shiva 2001). Several others followed.


The Rockefeller Foundation introduced the new varieties of wheat in northern Mexico soon after their development with just the tacit support of the Mexican government (Patel 2013). Fertiliser use rose 25-fold in Mexico 1949 to 1966, concentrated in the northern wheat growing areas (Patel 2013).


After independence in India in 1947, the government initiated a programme to revitalise Indian agriculture that had been damaged by the war, partition and colonialism; this was based on traditional Indian agricultural concepts of diversity, respect for nature, self-reliance and ecology. Meanwhile, another vision was being developed in America for India, the exact opposite – conquest of nature, intensification of inputs, uniformity of crops, and dependence. The American experts successfully influenced politicians and their vision won out. The outcome was that the Indian government decided to start the Intensive Agriculture District Programme in 1960 in Indian Punjab, already the most productive region of India (Roberts c.2013), with the strong support of the Ford Foundation (Cleaver). The first dwarf wheat varieties were introduced in 1964 (Shiva 2001). Using food aid to relieve the severe food shortages caused by the 1966 drought as a bargaining tool, the US induced India to agree to fully adopt the Green Revolution package; this agreement was signed by the Indian agriculture minister and the US secretary for agriculture (Shiva 2001).


Pakistani Punjab adopted high yielding dwarf wheat varieties in the late 1960s. This was also coupled with chemical fertilisers, irrigation, pesticides and mechanisation (Aaron c.2013, Dwyer c.2013).


By the 1990s 75% of Asian rice production was of Green Revolution varieties, and half of all wheat in Africa, Latin America and Asia (Patel 2013). By 2005 63% of cropland in developing countries used “improved” varieties. It was highest in Asia at 82% and lowest in Africa at 27%. In Africa, 70% of wheat, 45% of maize, 26% of rice, 19% of cassava and 15% of sorghum were “improved” varieties by 2005 (Pingali 2012).


Effect on production


Production increased in all countries that adopted the Green Revolution (Dwyer c.2013). Overall, in developing countries yields in kilograms per hectare rose strongly between 1960 and 2000: 208% for wheat, 109% for rice, 157% for maize, 78% for potatoes and 36% for cassava (Pingali 2012). Mexican wheat yields rose from 770 lb/acre in 1952 to 2,280 in 1964 (Cleaver 1972). In Pakistan wheat production increased by 79% in the first couple of years, and nearly doubled 1959 to 1968, from 3.7 million tons to 6.8 (Dwyer c.2013). In Indian Punjab wheat production rose from 1.9 million tons in 1965 to 18.69 tons in 2011; in kilograms per hectare, wheat yield doubled between 1965-6 and 1970-1 (CED 2009).


There was nowhere near the same production increase for rice in India (Roberts c.2013), though rice yields greatly increased in the Philippines (Cleaver 1972). By 1969 43% of all rice grown in the Philippines was of new short-stemmed varieties (Cleaver 1972). Rice production in Indonesia rose 275% from 1966 to 2000 (Patel 2013).


Total food production in the developing world more than doubled between 1960 and 1985 (Patel 2013).


However, this spectacular rise is not all due to the Green Revolution. 1965 was an extremely low production year in India because of drought and flood. There is also evidence that figures were manipulated to over-state the benefits of the Green Revolution (Patel 2013). Between 1967 and 1970 production of barley, tobacco, jute, chickpeas, tea and cotton also increased in India by 20-30% without using Green Revolution varieties and associated inputs (Patel 2013).


Comparing yields is not a simple matter – traditional cropping systems included companion crops, rotation crops, livestock and straw. Comparisons of high production wheat with traditional wheat varieties is different to a comparison of farming systems, one of which is a monoculture dependent on high amounts of external inputs and the other only part of a mixed crop field (Shiva 2001). The effect of soil and environmental damage, that is, sustainability, is not taken into account (Shiva 2001).


Higher production of wheat was also brought about by an increase in the cropped area because of clearing forests and using more marginal land, an abandonment of rotations, and a reduction in pulse production. The area under wheat in Indian Punjab doubled, rice fields increased five-fold and the area under pulses halved (Shiva 2001).


Without the fertilisers and irrigation, the “high yielding varieties” performed worse than the traditional varieties, and should be more realistically be called “high responsive varieties”, writes Vandana Shiva (2001). Indian researchers and farmers had already developed high-yielding wheat varieties as far back as 1913, many of which yielded higher than the Green Revolution varieties when measured on production per water use or per fertiliser use (Shiva 2001). Traditional varieties also produced straw for livestock feed and thatching and organic matter for the soil (Shiva 2001). For wheat that produces 1,000 kg of dry matter, the high yielding varieties divide this into 700 kg for grain and 300 for straw, while the traditional varieties divided it equally 500 kg each (Shiva 2001). Some traditional varieties out-yield the new short stemmed varieties without the loss of straw (Shiva 2001). Shiva (2001) compared productivity of indigenous varieties of wheat with Green Revolution varieties: yield of indigenous variety was 3291 kg/ha of grain while the GR one came to 4690 kg/ha. When tabulated for water use, the indigenous one produced 621 kg/ha per cm of water and the GR one just 293. With respect to fertiliser use, the indigenous variety yielded 69.5 kg/ha per kg of fertiliser and the GR one 53 kg/ha per kg fertiliser. Food energy output was 10 times that of energy input for the traditional varieties of rice; the GR varieties ratio was 5:1. Therefore, in terms of energy and resources, productivity declined.


The early high production rates of the Green Revolution were not sustained. As Dwyer states: “Yet the results of the Green Revolution were always promising at the start, as years went by they rarely lived up to the hopes” (Dwyer c.2013).


Wheat yields in Punjab peaked because of high levels of soil erosion that necessitated larger amounts of fertilisers just to maintain yields, which only the large farmers had the capital to pay for (Roberts c.2013). Overall, the situation in Punjab was not as bad as in the rest of India because of its naturally more fertile soils and good rainfall (Roberts c.2013).


By 1974 Philippine rice growers were finding yields of the high-yielding varieties declining due to loss of soil fertility; to answer this problem the World Bank in 1980 recommended doubling the urea application rate to 60 kg/ha and quadrupling the phosphate rate to 30 kg/ha. This further increased the zinc and sulphur deficiencies caused by the fertilisers (AWD 1995).


The Green Revolution was heavily subsidised in order to encourage its adoption and increase food production. Price support for rice in the Philippines rose 50%. In Mexico, the government purchased wheat at 33% above the world price, and in India and Pakistan the subsidy was 100% of the world price (Patel 2013). This created over-production and increased costs for consumers, and created a disincentive for growing pulses and oilseeds, resulting in a severe shortage in India (Shiva 2001). The Indian government provided several incentives: a Minimum Support Price, a procurement policy, and subsidies on inputs, energy and credit (CED 2009).


As production increased above national needs and exporting was limited by high production in other countries, a wheat glut developed that required higher state subsidies to support the falling returns to farmers (Cleaver 1972).


The social effects of the Green Revolution


The connection between food production and hunger is not strong. The optimism that the Green Revolution would solve the hunger problem was not met (Wilber c.2013). The stated goal of making poverty and hunger rare did not materialise (Roberts c.2013).


The number of hungry people in the world fell by 16% between 1970 and 1990, from 942 million to 786 million, but all this gain was in China where social policies such as land redistribution were coupled with new techniques. If Chinese figures are taken out, the number of hungry people actually increased by 11% in that time. It was land reform in China that had the greatest impact on poverty reduction, and the same in Zimbabwe, that is, state-led reform, not market-led reform (Patel 2013). By 2011 1 billion people in the world were hungry (Patel 2013).


Between 1973 and 1983 the per capita consumption of calories in India fell from 2266 to 2221 though the rate of food poverty dropped from 63% of Indians to 48%, indicating that more people were being adequately fed but the poorest half became considerably worse off (Parikh c.2013). There was a big difference between Indian states; the wheat growing areas reduced hunger more than the rice growing areas (Parikh c.2013). Alarming, hunger increased after 1983 (Parikh). India has a substantial grain surplus that could easily feed its 320 million hungry people (Holt-Giménez et al 2006).


The Green Revolution concentrated on carbohydrate crops, particularly wheat and rice, not a full diet (Cleaver 1972). This meant that more of the available land was used to produce these crops to the detriment of fruit, vegetables and pulses. This has increased the incidence of vitamin and trace element disorders such as anaemia and blindness (Patel 2013). Rotation of grains with legumes and other crops was abandoned. The percentage of area under cereals rose from 51% to nearly 80% while pulses declined from 13% to 3.5%; rapeseed, mustard, maize and groundnut also declined (Shiva 2001).


Forty-eight percent of all the children in the world that are stunted because of malnutrition live in India, where the Green Revolution was the most successful (Patel 2013). Agribusiness now sees a new opportunity: genetically modified rice for Asia (Golden Rice) and bananas for Africa, both with increased Vitamin A content (GRAIN 2017, Breasley & Tickell 2014).


The Green Revolution rice varieties required high amounts of pesticides. A study in the Philippines found a strong correlation between rural worker death rates and pesticide use (AWD 1995). Apart from the health effects on consumers of these pesticides, they prevent the raising of fish in the rice fields, thereby reducing the protein availability to people (Shiva 2001).


Farm income disparity increased, as only the more prosperous 10% of farmers could mobilise the necessary capital (Aaron c.2013). In India, the Green Revolution benefited a few farmers but increased the gap between rich and poor (Roberts c.2013). Wealthier farmers had better access to cheap credit, labour, irrigation, extension services, and fertiliser, and farmed better quality land (Patel 2013). In West Bengal, richer farmers were better able to control the allocation of irrigation water (Germanos c.2013).


Poverty worsened in Pakistan because there was less security for tenants, rural employment declined and income inequality increased; smaller farmers sometimes sold out to larger ones (Germanos c.2013). In Indian Punjab, the high profits for growing the new wheat varieties drove up land prices as larger farmers wanted to expand, and could afford to; tenants became landless labourers (Cleaver 1972).


As the Green Revolution was introduced in the most favoured areas of India, it increased disparities between regions (Germanos c.2013). In other countries too, the new varieties were concentrated in irrigation areas, thus benefitting the most developed areas and neglecting the least developed and poorest (Cleaver 1972).


Smaller farmers avoided the high yielding varieties because they were concerned about increased risk, and the cost, particularly of fertiliser (Germanos c.2013). In order for farmers to pay for the inputs needed for the dwarf varieties they had to have cash, which meant an end to production for self-sufficiency (Cleaver c.2013).


Mechanisation and introduction of herbicides reduced the need for rural labour, causing a decrease in income and migration to the cities (Cleaver 1972). Wages actually rose 17% in Pakistani Punjab between 1956 and 1964 but the consumer price index rose 34% (Aaron c.2013). Roberts found that in India rural labour needs declined which lead to increased poverty among landless workers. Cleaver also reported that real wages in Indian Punjab declined. About 30% of India’s rural population is landless labourers, a huge proportion of the farming community that was negatively affected (CED 2009).


The Green Revolution theory that said that a reduced rural workforce would free up labour for urban industrialisation failed to materialise (Pingali 2012).


Women workers were particularly affected by the Green Revolution in the Philippines because their weeding work was taken over by herbicides, and transplanting by direct seeding (AWD 1995). Women in all Green Revolution areas received little benefit from Green Revolution (Pingali 2012).


It was deliberate policy, explicitly spelled out by David Hopper of the Rockefeller Foundation, to separate agricultural growth from social development and political participation (Shiva 2001). That is, no land reforms and no public discussion. The tremendous gains in food production wherever in the world land reform was carried out, including in Mexico in the 1930s and 1940s and India in the 1950s, were ignored. Post-war Korea and Japan are other examples. In India increase in agricultural production was greater in the years before the Green Revolution than afterwards (Shiva 2001).


In the Philippines, a land reform program was initiated, but beneficiaries had to commit to growing the Green Revolution rice varieties as a condition of obtaining land. Land reform was never carried through properly because of the power of the big landowners (AWD 1995).


Initially the Green Revolution increased prosperity in Indian Punjab; in 1971-2 the returns on wheat investment were 27%; by 1977-8 this had fallen to less than 2%. Indebtedness increased even for the wealthier farmers (Shiva 2001). After several decades of rising costs, and the necessity to dig deeper wells and buy stronger pumps because of the falling water-tables, Punjabi farmers could borrow no more from banks and had to turn to moneylenders at 24% interest (Zwerdling 2009a), or even 100-200% (CED 2009). Many farmers only survived through remittances from family members who had migrated overseas (Zwerdling 2009a). Between 1993 and 2003 100,000 Indian farmers suicided, usually by drinking pesticide (Holt-Giménez et al 2006). From 1997 to 2006 the figure was 166,300 farmer suicides, a rate of one every 30 minutes since 2003 (Bannach c.2013).


The high levels of indebtedness and suicide correspond with economic liberalisation which commenced in 1991 in India, when subsidies ended, import tarriffs were decreased and deregulated banks sought more profitable avenues in urban areas. The price of pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation equipment and fuel more than doubled while banks reduced their lending to farmers, especially the smaller farmers. Farmers then had no alternative but informal money lenders who charged much higher interest rates. Debt became unrepayable; and “suicide is the ultimate coping mechanism for shame” (Bannach c.2013).


According to Vandana Shiva (2001) the Green Revolution was responsible for the outbreak of violence in Indian Punjab in the mid-1980s. Indian Punjab in the early 1980s was the richest part of the country. The per capita GDP was 65% greater than that of the average Indian, and Punjabis had on average twice as much money in the bank as other Indians (Shiva 2001). Yet it was Punjab that suffered the greatest communal conflict and violence – at least 15,000 people lost their lives in the 1980s. Vandana Shiva ascribes this to the ecological and social damage done by the Green Revolution – diseased soils, pest-infected crops, waterlogged deserts and indebted and discontented farmers (Shiva 2001). In the 1970s the number of farms in Punjab fell by 25% (Shiva 2001). The number of people living in poverty increased. Real wages declined. Small farmers, the 49% of farmers holding less than 5 hectares, were the worst affected by loss of profitability. Farmers protested in the mid-1980s against central government policies, electricity, input and water prices, and government procurement prices. In May 1984 farmers decided to stop sales to the Food Corporation of India till Punjab, then ruled by the central government, was granted greater state autonomy. The President, Indira Gandhi, called out the army and attacked the Golden Temple, the most sacred symbol of the Sikh religion, thus turning the farmer protest into a Sikh defence protest. Indira Gandhi was assassinated later that year by her Sikh body guards, unleashing great violence between Sikhs and Hindus. Punjabis felt exploited. “Punjab is the most advanced example of the disruption of links between the soil and society” (Shiva 2001, p.191).


Effect on environment


When Albert Howard was in India before the First World War he reported that records going back 1,000 years in Punjab showed crop production year after year without a fall in fertility, as the manure inputs balanced the crops harvested, and G. Clarke told the Indian Science Congress that there was no need for any concern about possible soil deterioration in Punjab because the level of soil fertility could be maintained indefinitely (Shiva 2001). It took just 20 years for the Green Revolution to destroy this soil fertility (Shiva 2001).


“While treating nature and politics as dispensable elements in agricultural transformation, the Green Revolution created major changes in natural ecosystems and agrarian structures” (Shiva 2001, p. 47).


Just one aspect of the environment is considered by apologists for the Green Revolution: they claim it reduced the need for land clearing to produce the extra food needed for a growing population (Patel 2013). That claim is more speculation that evidenced. Grazing land and forests were converted into wheat fields in Punjab because there were initially good profits in growing high-yield varieties (Shiva 2001). Negative effects on the environment, while not initially considered, are now regarded as unavoidable collateral damage. Just as the environmental damage done by chemical agriculture in America was ignored, – turning fertile parts of the prairies into deserts in just 30 years - it was also ignored in the Green Revolution (Shiva 2001).


By the mid-1970s the gains in Pakistan faltered largely because of land degradation; the land was overused and fertility declined due to poor farming techniques; this occurred throughout South Asia and the Middle East (Dwyer c.2013). In some areas soil erosion reached 100 tonnes/hectare/year (Patel 2013).


The soil fertility declined for several reasons. There was a decline in soil organic matter because of less stubble and farmyard manure, and burn-up by excess nitrate use. High biomass producing sorghums and millets were replaced by wheat. There was no natural nitrogen fixation because pulses were taken out of rotation. Toxic residues built up in the soil (Shiva 2001). Fertilisers also increased soil acidity, causing aluminium toxicity (AWD 1995).


The new varieties were more vulnerable to pests, and were monocultural, and could not compete as well with weeds because they produced less shading, therefore they required greater insecticide and herbicide use (Cleaver 1972). Pesticide use for rice production increased seven-fold while the loss to pests remained constant at 27%, because the new varieties were more susceptible to pest attack (Patel 2013).


High yielding varieties require three times as much irrigation water, and replacement of millets and maize with rice also greatly increased water needs (Shiva 2001), with several consequences. There has been a drop in the water table in the Punjab of 30 cm per year (Patel 2013). As an example of water-table drop, farmer Sandeep Singh of Chotia Khurd village said the level was dropping be 3 feet per year; his original well 10 feet deep was deepened to 20 feet, then 40 feet, and in 2009 was at 200 feet (Zwerdling 2009b). Areas irrigated by canals (42% of the irrigated area of Punjab) face rising water tables, less than 1.5 metres deep in parts of Punjab, resulting in increased salinity, sodicity and waterlogging (Shiva 2001). Up to 24% of land in Indian Punjab suffers salinity (Patel 2013). The cost of ameliorating these problems is higher than the cost of providing the water (Shiva 2001).


The high water requirement has necessitated the construction of large irrigation dams and associated channels in India (Shiva 2001). The huge dams have also created problems of siltation, reduced water supply in some areas, floods caused by water release in high rainfall seasons to protect dam walls, reduced rainfall, conflicts over water usage, and extraction of water from hill communities (Shiva 2001). There are water conflicts between the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and between each of them and the central government of India (Shiva 2001).


Fertiliser runoff has polluted waterways and increased algal blooms (AWD 1995).


Effect on biodiversity


The Green Revolution brought a marked change in control over genetic resources, from the local farmer to the multinational corporation (Shiva 2001). The seed was transformed from a common resource that reproduced itself, in order to create a market for seeds (Shiva 2001). “Modern plant breeding is primarily an attempt to remove this biological obstacle to the market in seed” (Shiva 2001, p.242).


The biodiversity of indigenous cropping systems has been supplanted by genetic uniformity and monoculture. Ten thousand years of farmer-controlled plant breeding produced enormous numbers of crop varieties, each suited to a particular region. Thus the shift to Green Revolution varieties meant a shift from farmer control over seeds to agribusiness control. Governments need foreign exchange to import the seeds and farmers need credit to pay for them (Shiva 2001).


Corporations see as a problem that farmers do save the seeds from the self-pollinating crops of rice and wheat. It is also a problem for them that some farmers have gone back to older varieties because they have better grain quality (Shiva 2001). But Philippine growers of the new rice varieties found they could only save seeds for three cropping seasons because the seed quality declined (AWD 1995).


Before the Green Revolution at least 3,000 rice varieties were known in the Philippines; by the 1990s 80% of low-land plantings were of 5 varieties, all derived from the original IR8 high-yielding variety (AWD 1995). Bangla Desh lost 7,000 rice varieties (Holt-Giménez et al 2006).


It is a paradox, states Vandana Shiva, that modern plant breeding for high yield and uniformity is causing the extinction of the genetic resources the plant breeders rely on. She sees it as a gross injustice to use the genetic resources developed by farmers over centuries to create new varieties that are patented so they bring continued profit, none of which goes to the original plant breeders (Shiva 2001).


Loss of diversity means loss of stability (Shiva 2001). This contraction of genetic diversity means that the experience of the tungro virus infestation of the late 1960s which led to huge losses in rice production are likely to reoccur (AWD 1995). Traditional varieties were generally more aromatic, more resistant to pests and diseases, hardier and requiring minimal inputs (AWD 1995).


The new wheat varieties were much more susceptible to diseases and had to be replaced every 3-5 years by newer varieties to try to keep ahead of the diseases (Shiva 2001). The same is still happening in Australia. In India, diseases like Karnal Bunt, Leaf Light Brown rust, Loose smut, Alternaria leaf blight, glume blotch, foot-rot and Alternaria all increased to plague proportions, diseases that previously were of little concern (Shiva 2001). Rice became more vulnerable to pests like gall midge, brown leafhopper, leaf folder and whore maggot, and the diseases bacterial blight and tungro virus (Shiva 2001).


Older varieties had greater resistance to pests and diseases and this resistance was built on by rotating crops and planting many varieties; even if some varieties succumbed, others still provided food security (Shiva 2001). Albert Howard stated that Indian farmers had taught him “…how to grow healthy crops, practically free from disease, without the slightest help from mycologists, entomologists, bacteriologists, agricultural chemists, statisticians, clearing-houses of information, artificial manures, spraying machines, insecticides, fungicides, germicides, and all the other expensive paraphernalia of the modern experiment station” (quoted in Shiva 2001, p. 94).


Pest and disease vulnerability is not only due to monoculture, but also by chemical fertiliser use that reduces the ability of the plant to resist. The greater the uniformity of the crop, and the more fertiliser used, the faster pests and diseases can adapt to overcome resistance – resistance is not permanent (Shiva 2001). Pesticides too increase vulnerability to pests and diseases, by weakening the plant and destroying the natural controllers (Shiva 2001). Insect pests that were of little concern in Punjab became major problems after the introduction of the Green Revolution (Shiva 2001).


“The only miracle that seems to have been achieved by the Green Revolution is the creation of new pests and diseases, and with them ever increasing demand for pesticides (Shiva 2001, p. 98).


Agroecological alternatives in Asia


I visited a permaculture-based farm in eastern Thailand in 2015. The farmer, Mr Pitak, grows rice, using many dams for his water supply even though a channel passes close by. Those dams are deep, up to five metres, and produce fish for extra farm income. A solar pump is used to draw the water and to top up the dams from bores in the dry season when the water level falls. Mr Pitak told me that getting a dam built was often free, such was the demand for soil for filling in rice fields for urban development, and any farmer could do it. Neighbours initially said he was wasting good rice growing land by making dams, but when he showed them the fish production that took its place, and the water available for dry season crops, their opinion changed. Limes are the main fruit crop, supplemented by guavas, date palms that were already producing good fruit, tamarinds, and Indian gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica). Worm castings and EM (Effective Microbes) are produced both for on-farm fertility and sale. Mr Pitak had plans for vegetables in a shade house. The farm is highly diversified, and an excellent example to the neighbouring farmers who struggled in poverty with just one wet season rice crop that they fertilised chemically.


The MAPISAN Alliance (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for the Advancement of Science and Agriculture) in southern Negros Island in the Philippines has enabled thousands of rice farmers to get off the Green Revolution treadmill of poverty, dependence and indebtedness (AWD 1995). Starting in 1991, 108 old varieties of rice were introduced and training sessions in ecological agriculture commenced. The success has been dramatic: increased net income by reducing costs of production (no pesticides, no seed purchases, no fertiliser) with minimal yield reduction; no indebtedness; rehabilitated soil; reintroduction of fish, frogs and ducks to improve income, control pests and vary the diet; no more pesticide-induced illness; and increased confidence to deal with community and personal issues.


The Deccan Development Society is growing sorghum on marginal land in Andhra Pradesh state in India using native varieties, greatly improving the food security of thousands of people (GRAIN 2010). It is led by the poorest sector of women. So far 80 native varieties have been retrieved and gene banks set up in 60 villages.


Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agriculture Movement) in Bangla Desh has brought back and spread traditional knowledge of crop rotation, green manuring and pest management. It has now spread throughout the country, with a seedbank in each village (GRAIN 2010).


These are just a few of the examples of agroecology that pose the counter philosophy to the Green Revolution.


It may be no coincidence that the two countries of the world with the greatest number of certified organic farmers are the same two countries most affected by the Green Revolution, India with 585,000 and Mexico with 204,000. The Philippines has 166,000 certified organic farmers, the second highest in Asia after India (Willer & Lernoud 2017). No doubt there are a great many more farmers in these countries who are using ecological farming methods but have no advantage in gaining certification. For example, chemical fertilisers and pesticides are prohibited in the entire 700,000 hectare Indian state of Sikkim, and almost all of Nagaland state, with 1.6 million hectares, is organic. But few farmers in these states have organic certification (Willer & Lernoud 2017).


Proponents for African adoption


The Green Revolution corporations now have Africa in their sights, the only part of the world without agribusiness domination. Most Africans don’t use chemicals and most still save their own seeds. The same excuse as for the earlier Green Revolution is touted – Africa needs to increase food production to eliminate hunger, and only technology can do it.


Food First (Holt-Giménez et al 2006) cites reasons why a new Green Revolution will not benefit smallholders in Africa or solve the hunger problem: Green Revolutions increase inequality, degrade environments thus increasing risk, and decrease crop biodiversity; hunger is not a result of food shortage; Green Revolutions do not address market and political injustices; the private sector alone can’t solve problems of marketing, production and distribution; GM crops increase environmental vulnerability and indebtedness; small farmers are not the drivers of the Green Revolution; and there are many examples of alternatives to high input agriculture.


While preventing revolution was an important aim of the Green Revolution in Asia, this is not a priority of the New Green Revolution in Africa; however, competition with China for influence certainly is (Patel 2013).


The first Green Revolution was controlled by governments, foundations and corporations; the second Green Revolution for Asia and the new Green Revolution for Africa are controlled by corporations, even less accountable than governments, and motivated purely by profit (Shiva 2001). However, fertiliser subsidies are paid by governments (African Centre for Biodiversity 2016). Plant cross breeding is no longer the strategy for creating new varieties – it is genetic modification.


The first Green Revolution did not fully by-pass Africa as is sometimes claimed. The CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) spent 40-45% of its $350 million a year budget in Africa in the 25 years after 1980; to Food First this indicates it failed rather than that Africa was ignored (Holt-Giménez et al 2006).


The New Green Revolution is strongly promoted by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The board members are mostly from the private sector, including Monsanto. The Gates Foundation is a part owner of Monsanto (Patel 2013).


Other promotors of increased agribusiness involvement in Africa include Climate Smart Agriculture, G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, Water Efficient Maize for Africa, Grow Africa and US Aid for International Development. In all $30 billion has been committed over five years for the Green Revolution in Africa (Sparg 2017).


Bill Gates has said that the New Green Revolution must benefit and involve small farmers, and says he supports that by funding no-till cropping, rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and biological nitrogen fixation (the use of legumes); however, the biggest small farmer organisation in the world, La Vía Campesina, has no involvement (Patel 2013). One of AGRA’s main strategies is the training of agricultural dealers, the sellers of seed, pesticide and fertiliser (Patel 2013).


Monsanto and AGRA and other such organisations are still promoting greater production as the solution to hunger, the policy that failed in Asia, not better distribution of food (Patel 2013). There is still no attempt to even consider rectifying injustices and unequal power, the principal causes of hunger (Patel 2013). Climate change is addressed by concentrating on climate adaption, such as the development of drought-tolerant genetically modified monoculture crops, not climate remediation (Patel 2013). It is a strategy to profit from climate change.


African farmers save 60-70% of their own seeds and acquire 30-40% from relatives and neighbours; less than 10% come from the formal seed sector (Sparg 2017). At the beginning of the 21st century the average African farmer used 8 kg/ha of fertilisers, compared to South Asia at 101 kg/ha (Brassil c.2013). What an opportunity for the seed and fertiliser corporations to remedy this injustice to their future profits! A key aspect of the Green Revolution is the protection of “intellectual property”, that is, by Plant Breeder’s Rights, which the corporations are pressuring the African Union to adopt so they do not have to negotiate with individual countries.


Genetic modification is a priority for AGRA. South Africa is so far the only country that allows GM maize; GM cotton is grown in Burkina Faso and Sudan, but Burkina Faso is ending approval in 2017 because cotton quality is so poor (Sparg 2017). No other GM crops are permitted in Africa. There is a huge push to allow the introduction of GM pigeon peas, cowpeas, sorghum, cassava, sweet potato, banana and millet, engineered either for salt tolerance, nitrogen use efficiency, resistance to pests, or nutritional enhancement (Sparg 2017).


A quite bizarre example is the funding so far to $15 million to develop a GM banana engineered to contain higher content of carotene, “to prevent blindness” (Breasley & Tickell 2014). The research is being done by Dr James Dale at Queensland University of Technology, involving the inserting of genes from the Asupina variety of Fe’i bananas into Cavendish, the most widely traded banana in the world. Dr Dale says: “This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in doing so lift the health and wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations”. Dale himself sees this as an opening into the acceptance of other GM crops in Africa, which it undoubtedly is. Red bananas, already high in carotene, are widely grown in the world without being genetically modified or requiring royalties to be paid. If Gates and Dale were serious about nutrition they would be promoting them instead. The genes from the Fe’i banana, grown from Indonesia to Hawaii for many centuries, have effectively been stolen, according to Breasley and Tickell. A real motive could be marketing in the Western world (Breasley & Tickell 2014).


The Gates Foundation envisages “land mobility”, a euphemism for dispossession, and a smaller rural workforce (Patel 2013). “Land mobility” includes opening up land purchase by foreign interests, otherwise called land grabbing. This has skyrocketed in the past decade – almost none of it for food production for Africa, but for biofuels, export crops, carbon credits and pure speculation (Broughton 2012). A smaller workforce means movement to the slums of the bursting cities of Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Cairo. Private land ownership, not an African tradition, is strongly promoted by AGRA and similar organisations to make it easier to facilitate farm consolidation (Sparg 2017).


Breisinger et al (2009) developed a model for the impact of a Green Revolution in Ghana, predicting a big decrease in poverty, a fall in food prices because of increased productivity, increased agricultural exports, and a reduction in rural labour needs, freeing up labour for industry. This would be driven particularly by increased maize yields using “improved” seeds and fertiliser. The conclusions of the study are wide open to criticism: the big reduction in poverty is highly optimistic, seeing that it did not happen in earlier Green Revolutions, except in China where it was coupled with land reform; and the model failed to take into account indebtedness, soil damage, loss of diet diversity, current total production per hectare including companion crops, loss of genetics and the already large labour surplus in urban areas. There is no guarantee that any agricultural surplus will be exportable, or exportable at favourable prices. There is also no indication that the researchers believed that there was an alternative to hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers.


Pingali (2012) too, a Bell and Melinda Gates Foundation employee, in recommending the extension of the Green Revolution to Africa, does not address the major failings of the earlier Green Revolution, despite claiming this was important and necessary. He particularly avoids any consideration of environment and agricultural resource effects. His assurances of poor-friendliness are unrealistic. Cash crops are promoted, crops that can be exported, which are not feeding the population. Cash crops tend to bring in less and less cash each year (Shiva 2001).


Malawi is sometimes said to be the great example of Green Revolution success in Africa that other countries should follow (Brassil c.2013). In 2005 the government introduced a fertiliser and seed subsidy program especially tailored to small farmers; farmers paid just 25% of the cost of the fertiliser, though this has varied over time from 36% in 2006 to 10% in 2009 (Douillet 2013). A food deficit of 43% in 2005 turned into a food surplus of 53% in 2007 that allowed exports (Brassil c.2013). However, 2005 was a severe drought year and in subsequent years rainfall was favourable, indicating that the benefits are overstated. Malawi had been self-sufficient in maize, which provides 60% of diet calories in Malawi, until 1991 when economic liberalisation commenced (Chinsinga & Poulton 2013). There is also evidence that maize production figures were grossly exaggerated, by at least 30% (Douillet 2013); for instance, in 2007-8 the government banned the export of maize at the same time extolling the maize surplus, implying that the surplus was illusionary (Chinsinga & Poulton 2013). The increased production did not prevent the food crisis of 2012 (African Centre for Biodiversity 2016), had only a marginal effect at reducing national poverty (1.5%) while rural poverty increased, maize prices did not fall and farm wages only slightly increased (Douillet 2013). There were major costs: 70% of Malawi’s agriculture budget goes to fertiliser and seed subsidies at the expense of research and extension, and the program fosters widespread corruption and political patronage designed for electoral advantage Chinsinga & Poulton 2013). The medium-term sustainability of the subsidy cost to government and the effect on soils must also be questioned. Douillet (2013) concludes that the program was ineffective at reducing rural poverty and ensuring food security.


Africa does have severe agricultural problems but Green Revolution policies are not the answer. The number of under-nourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa has risen from 37% of the population in 1990 to 45% in 2003 (Sustainet 2006). Yields have declined due to land degradation caused by farming practices that can be changed, using agroforestry, mulch, cover cropping, compost, contour farming, intercropping, conservation tillage, biodiversity and better grazing management (Sustainet 2006).


There are some magnificent integrated farming systems still in use, for example the Chagga food forests on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro and similar examples in many places in Uganda, some of which provided inspiration to the development of Permaculture by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. However, in other places mulching is believed to attract root-eating termites so is not done, crop stubble and manure is burnt, intercropping has been abandoned, livestock are free grazed on anybody’s land, planting is sometimes done up and down the slopes, and more and more chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used. Poor infrastructure is also a barrier to rural prosperity – poor roads and transport, inadequate crop storage, no electricity, unavailable credit, poor health care, little irrigation, poorly functioning extension services and AIDS. There is also competition from imports, often subsidised, and poor access to export markets because of protection in the US and European Union (Sustainet 2006).


African resistance to the Green Revolution


Farmers have been told they are ignorant, their seeds bred and saved over thousands of years are worthless, that they must rely on agricultural technicians as their knowledge is not based on science, that they must increase production, and they must mechanise to be more efficient (GRAIN 2010). This supreme arrogance is being fought around the world. The greatest champion of farmers is La Vía Campesina which has 200 million members in affiliated organisations.


The policies which the organisation advocates to the public and governments are:


- The complete dismantling of agribusiness companies


- The replacement of industrial agriculture with small scale sustainable agriculture


- Genuine land reform


- Banning of all patents on plant and animal genetics


- Opposition to genetic manipulation


- Abolition of the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund


- No free trade agreements


- No use of cereals for agrofuel production


- Food sovereignty – the right of every country to food security and food policy control


- Respect for nature and natural resources and protection of biodiversity


- Full human rights for rural people, including rights to food, water, employment, housing, education, health care, rest and culture, and protection from violence, racism, sexism, war and inequality


- Control of middleman profit margins and the forbidding of speculation on agricultural and food prices


- Agroecology instead of agrochemicals.


It is a myth propagated by corporations that there is no alternative to chemical fertilisers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and genetic modification in order to feed people. The only truth is that there is no alternative for the increasing profitability of the corporations. There are countless examples from around the world, including Africa, of sustainably high yields without the need for chemicals, “improved seeds”, or compromise to the health of the environment and consumers. “Blindness to these alternatives is not proof of their non-existence. It is merely a reflection of the blindness” (Shiva 2001, p. 251). There is a large body of literature on agroecological systems used in Africa. Many cases from Tanzania and Kenya are detailed by Auerbach et al (2013), for example. Three others follow.


The Soil, Food and Healthy Communities project in northern Malawi has taken thousands of farmers off chemical fertilisers after 30 years of dependency, improving nutrition, boosting resilience against drought, and reducing debt (Kerr et al 2016). The farmer-led group provided training in the bringing back of legumes for both nutrition and nitrogen supply, intercropping pigeon peas, soy beans and peanuts with maize. Other previously grown crops – sorghum and finger millet, both much hardier than maize - and pig rearing, growing fruit and other trees, reintroducing rotations, and using stubble as fertiliser all were reintroduced. At the same time, the group initiated much community discussion on gender power relationships so that the legumes women grew weren’t sold by men to buy alcohol. This project addresses the issues that are ignored by the Green Revolution: active participation and control by farmers, social issues, biodiversity, and independence from input companies and credit providers. This has provided resilience against climate change, in opposition to the promotion by government of drought-hardy hybrid maize varieties.


The Chikukwa Permaculture Project started in 1991 in the Chimanimani region of eastern Zimbabwe, in an impoverished area where springs had dried up, the hills were eroding, harvests were poor, hunger was common and people had long walks for firewood and household water (Leahy 2013). Initiated by some primary school teachers, permaculture techniques were introduced. Contour banks were constructed on the slopes and planted with rows of vetiver grass to hold the soil. Springs, gullies and ridges were revegetated. Stubble was no longer burnt but used as compost or mulch. Goats were prevented from damaging trees and crops. Maize was interplanted with Sesbania and Leucaena to stabilise the soil and produce nitrogen and stock feed. Gardens and orchards were set up around houses. Small animals were brought back – chickens, pigs, rabbits, pigeons. Fish ponds were dug. The project emphasised food security, not cash cropping. After 20 years six villages were involved, totalling 7,000 people, springs ran continuously, yields increased, diets improved with the extra fruit, vegetables and meat protein, and hunger was vastly reduced. No more chemical inputs were needed.


In 2013 I was a guest of the Kigwe Farmers Association in the district of Wobulenzi in Uganda and was taken to see many of the farms of the 30 or so members (Broughton 2013). The Association has been of great benefit to the members, bringing new techniques and enterprises to the district to supplement coffee production which suffers periodic low prices. Multicropping is normal in Wobulenzi as it is throughout Uganda. Common combinations include: bananas/coffee/cassava/beans/yams, maize/beans, rice/millet, cassava/maize/beans, maize/peanuts, pineapples/maize, maize/cowpeas. Each of the small farms, all of less than two hectares, also grow fruits such as jackfruit, avocado and mango as well as bananas, of which nearly 30 varieties are known in Uganda. Calliandra is grown for livestock feed and as a living fence. There is no grazing land; goats and cows are housed or tethered on fields being rested. Partly decomposed cleanings from the cow and goat sheds are used on the fields. Chickens run free. Banana chips and cape gooseberries are dried using a community owned solar drying works: they are certified organic and Fair Trade by a Danish organisation which imports them into that country. Large fish dams have been established as another community facility, producing Tilapia, Nile perch and catfish, which are sold at the daily market in Wobulenzi. Some farmers have added rabbit hutches and pigeon houses to their farms for extra income. Some production-reducing problems still remained – banana wilt, coffee borer and lusanke, a perennial grass weed (Imperata cylindrical), but the Association now has information on management techniques.


Not only is there a huge amount of knowledge of truly sustainable productivity increasing techniques in Africa, there are a huge number of organisations promoting them. I have identified at least 60 such organisations in each of Tanzania and Uganda, organisations based in those countries. There are also a myriad of external food sovereignty organisations with that commitment, including African Biodiversity Network, PELUM, Echo Community, Sustainet, GRAIN and Food First. Even the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development concluded that ecological agriculture is the only way to feed people sustainably (UNCTAD 2013).


There were in 2015 700,000 certified organic farmers in Africa. Tanzania totalled 270,000 hectares of certified organic farmland. Ethiopia had 200,000 certified farms, followed by Uganda with 191,000 and Tanzania with 148,000. In the island nation of São Tomé and Principe, off the Atlantic coast of central Africa, 13.8% of all farmland had organic certification (Willer & Lernoud, 2017). Organic standards preclude the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and genetic modification, the most important parts of the new Green Revolution. Certification in Africa is mainly for export crops like coffee, cocoa, olives and cotton as domestic organic markets are not well established.Many more farmers use ecological methods if only because they cannot afford chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The area of certified organic land in Africa increased by 33.5% in 2015 compared to the previous year (Willer & Lernoud 2017).




The Green Revolution increased food production, though by how much is open to debate – figures start from a low base line and don’t include companion crops. Its principal aim of preventing revolution has succeeded, though there could be many other factors involved, and the effect may be temporary. It did successfully allow corporate capitalist penetration into agriculture in places where it hadn’t already penetrated.


But it did not solve the issue of hunger. Its environmental and social costs and costs to the sustainability of agriculture and biodiversity have been immense – loss of genetic diversity, falling water tables, waterlogging, pesticide contamination, acidification, salinisation, indebtedness, suicide, migration to overcrowded cities, loss of soil carbon, and dependence on inputs. The benefits have mostly accrued to the corporations that produce the pesticides, fertilisers, seed, credit and machinery. Any increase in productivity has been appropriated by these corporations and the marketers of the product.


Extending this model to Africa is being fought, not by compliant governments, but by farmers, through their organisations and by organisations that support them, including those of consumers. It is also being fought in the countries where the Green Revolution was first introduced, and in the industrialised countries where it has a longer history. The fight will go on.




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