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Green Revolution: Boon or Bane

As long as you are wedded to the growth-stricken mainstream economics, you will never say, down with green revolution! Instead, you might actually take that condemnation as a vapid sloganeering of the degrowth activists and researchers misguided by so many ecofeminist authors blossoming all over the world—such as Carol Adams in the USA or Vandana Shiva in India or Wangari Muta Maathai in Kenya. But it is high time you said it, and said it as loudly as possible. I do say it. I had said it much to the dislike of some farmers protesting at the Singhu Border. And here I tell you why, perhaps to your liking.

Once upon a time in the distant past, say, some 10,000 years ago, our omnivorous hunter-gatherer-scavenger progenitors laid down roots—literally and figuratively—by farming plants and animals. The story of agricultural evolution and revolution since then has been well-said by Bittman (2021). Industrial agriculture, the large-scale, intensive production of crops and animals, and, more recently, genetic modification was birthed in the US and later exported to the developing world as an American gift in the name of ‘green revolution’ in order to relieve hunger and increase wealth, especially for farmers.

Now, in light of this long, very long historical story cut short here, you could welcome industrial agriculture and its developing country ‘avatar’ in the name of green revolution as a saviour of humankind like modern science is a boon in medicine, transport and communications. You could choose to praise it as a ‘miracle’ that has generated new hope for the future. You could be enamoured by commercial farms where smart seeds (bioengineered to resist insect attacks) and smart machines (GPS-guided planters and harvesters) help produce more corn on less land, cutting nitrogen use by a third (Paarlberg, 2021). You could be swayed by hagiographic accounts of green revolution which cite ‘high‐yielding’ and ‘fast-growing’ dwarf wheat and rice spreading through Asia, particularly India, saving lives, modernising agriculture, and ‘freeing’ labour for better off-farm employment. Many conventional economists are on song like this. Or, you could denounce, following Bittman, that agriculture has, over the course of human history, gotten away with murder—killing of land and people—through monoculture and engineered edible substances more akin to poison; and that agriculture has become ‘suicidal agriculture’—damaging our health as also our environment, with the worst crimes yet to come! You would be weighed down by the evidence that the products of genetic engineering in agriculture have done little but advance industrial methods and compound existing problems—especially by increasing the sale of chemicals and propping up monocropping—while creating new ones.

I am drawn to Bittman’s analysis for the following reasons strengthened by the way Wise and Sundaram (2021) have taken stock of the situation in this regard. First, China had resolved remarkably well, like nowhere else, the hunger problem without green revolution. “There, saner land reform, distribution of domestic hybrid seeds, investment in irrigation, and more generous price subsidies paid directly to rural peasants brought about an internal agricultural revolution that owed little or nothing to the West…China allowed individual families to produce their own food and sell it on a semi-open but controlled market, while social policy protected food security and local production. The goal was not only to increase yield but to reduce poverty and enhance well-being. And it worked…”

Secondly, industrial agriculture destroyed the small-time farmers in the USA itself. Green revolution type agriculture in Mexico as a member of NAFTA was a miserable failure. Mexico’s environmental-friendly and life-enhancing small-scale farming was decimated. Thirdly, “The truth is that the Green Revolution was never about feeding the world. That was, and remains, the public relations spin. Rather, it was a front for selling American agricultural machinery, chemicals, and seeds—sales that were aimed mostly at farmers or investors who had the substantial capital needed for land and equipment…the vast majority of the world’s food comes from small-time farmers, who have far fewer resources at their disposal than their wealthier counterparts. If the energy, scientific studies, and government subsidies that stimulated industrial agriculture had instead gone into improving peasant agriculture, reducing poverty, and making land use more fair, the progress would have been profound and far more tangible than the Green Revolution’s…hype.”

Fourthly, there is no evidence to show that input-intensive agriculture can raise productivity, net incomes and food security. The continuing Indian farmer protests, despite the COVID-19 resurgence, highlight the problematic legacy of its Green Revolution in frustrating progress to sustainable food security. Fifthly, there are many recent historical studies which challenge key claims of green revolution’s supposed success, including allegedly widespread yield improvements and even the number of lives actually saved by increased food production. Environmental degradation and other public health threats due to the toxic chemicals used are now widely recognized. Moreover, water management, which is integral to green revolution, has become increasingly challenging and unreliable due to global warming and other factors. Sixthly, green revolution in Africa since 2006 has been promoted with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation but yields have barely risen, while rural poverty remains endemic, and would have increased more if not for out-migration. There are no significant productivity and income boosts from the promoted commercial seeds and agrochemicals, and the number of undernourished has increased a lot.

Lastly, Vandana Shiva’s essay in the early 1990s accounted for the hidden and hitherto unknown and interrelated political, social and ecological costs of green revolution in Punjab even as it created scarcity and conflict rather than abundance and harmony. Africa’s green revolution has indeed reproduced many of India’s problems. As in India, overall staple crop productivity has not grown significantly faster despite costly investments in green revolution technologies. These poor productivity growth rates have remained well below population growth rates. Moderate success in one priority crop (e.g., wheat in Punjab, India, or maize in Africa) has typically been at the expense of sustained productivity growth for other crops. Crop and dietary diversity has been reduced, adversely affecting cultivation sustainability, nutrition, health and wellbeing. Subsidies and other incentives have meant more land devoted to priority crops, not just intensification, with adverse land use and nutrition impacts. Soil health and fertility have suffered from ‘nutrient-mining’ due to priority crop monocropping, requiring more inorganic fertilizer purchases. Higher input costs often exceed additional earnings from modest yield increases using new seeds and agrochemicals, increasing farmer debt. To conclude, the opportunity costs of choosing green revolution as a well-financed technofile dogma have been humongously high not only in terms of not copycatting and benefiting from the Chinese experience as mentioned above but also by way of not benefiting from agroecology initiatives that have already more than amply demonstrated in many countries impressive results in productivity increases, declining costs and rising incomes along with environmental regeneration and upliftment.

The agroecology initiatives are really the new hope not only for the small-time poor farmers who produce much of the world’s food but also for the food consumers who want to optimise their health with nutritious diets. Health-conscious people know pretty well that junk food has resulted in a public-health crisis, and that snack and cola companies are “conditioning and enabling our behaviour”. And the critics of green revolution know very well that the chief beneficiaries of green revolution are a handful of multinational corporations and technofile-financiers with the support of public policies.

Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhDDepartment of Economics, SRCC


Mark Bittman. 2021. Animal, Vegetable, Junk. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Robert Paarlberg. 2021. Resetting the Table: Straight Talking about the Food We Grow and Eat. Knopf. Timothy Wise and Jomo Kwame Sundaram. 2021. Myths Underlie Africa’s Green Revolution. IPS News. April 20. News and Views from the Global South. Vandana Shiva. 2016. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. University Press of Kentucky.
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