The Green Revolution in agriculture: the end of a myth

Historical revisionism is out of fashion, but we are in great need of it, perhaps where we least expect it: for example to understand contemporary agriculture.
Some really interesting essays are in fact demolishing the myth of the Green Revolution, pride of the agro-industrial system, starting from the second half of the XX Century: a system that integrates industrial research, technological development, diplomacy and marketing into large production and financial complexes that, when strongly supported by politics, have first dominated world agricultural markets, depriving the world to have a say in and preparing the way for the last great phase: the biotechnological one, subjugating nature to the rules of technological and financial globalization

The myth of the Green Revolution: has saved from hunger

We in fact come from a series of authoritative studies of anglo-saxon origin that the central idea that fueled the myth of the Green Revolution is probably a faible convenue not responsive to the reality of the facts.

A recent article by Glenn Davis Stone recalls how, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Norman Borlaug, the celebrated father of the Green Revolution, had just spoken of the latter as of a victory between “two opposing forces: the scientific power of food production and the biological power of human reproduction”, thus taking up the Malthusian theme, foundational of the typical vision of economic liberalism1.

This is the starting point of a myth built around this gigantic operation at the same time economic, scientific, technological and political: even today, according to Glenn Davis Stone, agricultural scientists support, for example in the case of India, always quoted as a sample, that its agricultural economy “was practically stagnant until the beginning of the green revolution”.

The case of India: factual data

The American scholar then examines more closely just India and, in a very agile but seriously documented way, explains how in reality the mechanism that was activated was none other than the result of a political-diplomatic choice of the United States by Lyndon Johnson, on the one hand, and of India by Nehru, on the other, after the disappearance of Gandhi, the two statesmen met on a very different ground from the food self-sufficiency supported by the Mahatma to defend the independence of India, recently emerging from the grip of British colonialism:

«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.)»

Glenn Davis Stone provides a very detailed picture, which shows the substantial non-truthfulness of an India presented as reduced to hunger and saved by the Green Revolution, and says it in extremely clear terms:

«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.
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.»

The importance of agriculture to win the Cold War

The scholar, resuming themes explored for almost a decade by brilliant studies such as Nick Cullather2, finds a very logical reason for the construction of this historical myth in the geopolitical motivations of the Cold War:

«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 was jumped at the chance to point to a humanitarian triumph in Asia. (Even the name “Green Revolution” was an explicit rebuke to red revolution.)»

Not wrongly, in our opinion, the scholar adds at this point:

«Today the biotechnology industry and its allies zealously promote the legend as a flattering framing for the spread of genetically modified crops3».

 

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  1. About that vision, at least debatable, we think that Karl Polanyi has already done justice for a long time in his famous The Great Transformation []
  2. Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Death in Asia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010. []
  3. The complete text of the article. []