Historians rethink the Green Revolution

By Glenn Davis Stone, Washington University in St. Louis

A memorable episode of The West Wing, the dramatic series about the US presidency, features a President Nimbala of a fictive African republic.  Nimbala holds forth at a press conference about “people who make miracles in the world,” like the man “in whose hands India’s wheat crop increased from 11m to 60m tons annually.”  Know-it-all US President Jed Bartlett then chimes in with “That’s right. His name is Norman Borlaug, by the way.”  Relaxing with his staff later, Bartlett reflected on how India was once thought incapable of ever feeding itself, but…

“Then Norman Borlaug comes along. See the problem was wheat is top-heavy. It was falling over on itself and it took up too much space. The dwarf wheat… guys, it was an agricultural revolution that was credited with saving one billion lives!”

What screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s presidents were channeling was the legend of the Green Revolution.  In the standard telling, Borlaug developed short-stalked wheat with very high yield potential when heavily fertilized.  This wheat (along with dwarf rice) was adopted in several countries, but the real drama was in India, where the overpopulation and backward-looking agricultural scientists had left the country desperately dependent on shiploads of US grain.  Borlaug’s wheat came in 1967, just in time to avert catastrophic famine.  Accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace, Borlaug claimed a victory in the war between “two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction”.  Agricultural scientists still talk about how Indian agricultural growth “was practically stagnant until the onset of the Green Revolution”.

The Green Revolution has had its critics too, including social scientists (primarily concerned about how it favored the better-off farmers) and eco-activists (most notably Vandana Shiva).  But critics have barely dented the luster of the legend.

But the last few years have brought an astonishing burst of research by historians that forces us to completely rethink what happened in India in 1960s.  Most of this work is by up and coming young historians, but the door to the new body of work was opened in 2010 by Nick Cullather’s remarkable book The Hungry World.  This was followed by 6 dissertations (in different stages of being published).  I summarize this body of research in a new article in The Geographical Journal, but here I will focus on the takeaway about the all-important issue of how many lives were saved.

First, the new histories make it clear that India was not importing US wheat because of overpopulation.  After over a century as a colony, India’s agriculture and industry were both in a woeful state.  Gandhi favored developing rural self-sufficiency and agriculture, but Prime Minister Nehru instead chose heavy industry (steel, chemicals) – with US’s encouragement.  When the US offered free wheat – mainly to unload its ever-growing surplus – India accepted it to keep urban food prices low for factory workers. This undercut Indian producers and hurt domestic grain production.  The food shipments, in other words, were a cause of foodgrain dependency.  (Meanwhile, India encouraged farmers to switch from food crops to nonfood cash crops like jute which fueled a 1960s export boom.  Ironically, most of the jute went to the US, where it made seats for the tractors that over-produced grain and made the sacks that held the grain being shipped to India.)

Then came the 1965-67 drought, which led to increased wheat shipments and claims of famine by newspapers and US President Johnson.  In retrospect it is doubtful there was a famine at all; Indian officials declared the famine a sham, and reporters searched in vain for starving peasants.  Analysts would later find scant evidence of excess mortality. But events of the drought years would morph from an overblown story of starvation into a harrowing fantasy of India having passed a Malthusian point of no return.  In 1968 Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb assured readers that tens of millions would soon be starving.

But in 1968 the rains returned and so did bumper crops.  Wheat had a great year – probably as much because of good prices and thousands of new tube wells as because of miracle seeds – but so did other crops.  If you look at long term trends in not just wheat but all foodgrains, you see that even with imports undercutting Indian farmers, production was climbing faster than population before and after the drought.  The Green Revolution years didn’t lead to faster agricultural growth or more food per capita – just to a higher percentage of wheat in the diet.

Trends in the production of the major categories of food crops in India.
Trend in India’s total foodgrain production divided by population. Data are from the India Dept. of Agriculture & Co-operation.

Moreover, if there was no real famine during the rare 2-year drought before the Green Revolution, just who is supposed to have starved after the rains returned?  The new histories lead us to revise the number of lives saved from a billion to a lower number.

Like zero.

But how much impact these studies have on received wisdom is an open question.  The legend of “people who make miracles in the world” continues to be promoted by parties whose interests it serves.  It suited the US government’s interests at the time: locked in a Cold War with the Soviets and a hot war in Viet Nam, the US jumped at the chance to point to a humanitarian triumph in Asia.  (Even the name “Green Revolution” was an explicit rebuke to red revolution.)  Today the biotechnology industry and its allies zealously promote the legend as a flattering framing for the spread of genetically modified crops.  A Monsanto chief even recounted the aging Borlaug tearing up because while he lived through the Green Revolution, he would not live to see the “Gene Revolution” which might save Africa.

President Nimbala was fictional, but the push for a “Green Revolution for Africa” today is very real and understanding what really happened in India 50 years ago is vital.  We are fortunate to have the careful attention of this generation of historians.

About the author: Glenn Davis Stone is an environmental anthropologist whose research focuses on ecological, political, and cultural aspects of agriculture; on sustainability; on crop biotechnology and GMO’s; and on food studies. Glenn is Professor of Anthropology & Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

References

Baranski, Marci. (2015). The Wide Adaptation of Green Revolution Wheat.  PhD thesis, Arizona State Univ.

Cullather, Nick. (2010). The hungry world: America’s cold war battle against poverty in Asia. Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Olsson, T. C. (2017). Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ Press. (PhD thesis, Univ. of Georgia, 2013)

Patel, Raj. (2013). The Long Green Revolution. The Journal of Peasant Studies 40, 1-63.

Saha, Madhumita. (2012). State Policy, Agricultural Research and Transformation of Indian Agriculture with reference to Basic Food Crops, 1947-1975. PhD thesis, Iowa State University.

Siegel, B. R. (2018). Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ Press.  (PhD thesis, Harvard, 2014)

Stone, G. D. (2019). Commentary: New histories of the Indian Green Revolution. Geogr J. 2019;00:1–8. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12297

Subramanian, Kapil. (2015). Revisiting the Green Revolution: Irrigation and Food Production in 20th Century India. PhD thesis, Kings College London.  

2 thoughts on “Historians rethink the Green Revolution

  1. Narasimha Reddy Donthi

    True. But now the problem is politicians are talking of second green revolution. Now, they have three additional powerful forces with them – media, MNCs and GMO lobby. Hundreds of suicides, modern farming related deaths and natural resource depletion is yet to convince these politicians, who find profits in pursuing this slogan. Studies mentioned by you should help in restoring the facts.

    Reply
  2. James Morton

    Having spent much of my life working on agricultural development it good to see some perspective on the GR at last. But as the first comment suggests, the narrative is too popular and too useful. Development myths never die.

    Reply

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