Reflections on the Green Revolution

India’s Green Revolution: how I experienced three historical moments

Published on 8 May 2019

Image of Michael Lipton
Michael Lipton

Emeritus Fellow

Moment 1: Learning about the Green Revolution in a small village

I spent May-December 1965 in Kavathe village, Maharashtra. 15 per cent of cropland was irrigated, mostly by dug wells. The area is semi-arid, but the main crops, millet and sorghum, were little affected by that year’s drought. My aim was to ask why farmers did what they did, and what technical choices were on offer. I was impressed by the complexity, plot-specificity and good sense of farmer decisions on e.g. crop-mix and water use. These farmers made good use of long-familiar inputs, but this was just before the Green Revolution (GR); with little accurately controlled irrigation, and traditional seeds, large fertiliser applications did not pay. Crop yields were low, and – as in most of India – the extra croppable area was running out.

At all-India level, crop area expansion slowed sharply from the early 1960s, as did growth of proportion of cropped area irrigated. Farmers’ high risk-aversion and plot-specific needs required widely-adapted, or readily-adaptable, new inputs. These were centred on high-yield varieties (HYVs pioneered by hybrid maize, but later and more important (for India) were semi-dwarf rice and wheat, which could be heavily fertilised – to carry heavier loads of grain without falling over.

Moment 2: From the office to the farm

In 1967 I was in that rural redoubt, New Delhi, and witnessed a shortage of junior office staff. They were regularly rushing back to the village to tend the much bigger – and much more labour-requiring – inputs and outputs of the wheat-rice GR, which came first to irrigated areas in the Punjab, but later spread, also to many unirrigated areas. My initial fear, on which I wrote papers, was that the GR would concentrate on richer farmers, leaving the poor little affected.

Moment 3: Twenty years of the Green Revolution

By 1987 – when I was directing the Consumption and Nutrition Research programme at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – poverty in India, as in the rest of Asia and Latin America, had begun its rapid fall. I was beginning to understand why the GR was so good for the poor. As I had expected, it did nothing to change the class (or caste) structure of rural (or urban) India. However, it bid up demand for labour, employment and (eventually) wage-rates; it slashed the price of food; and the extra spending by small farmers and farm labourers hugely expanded demand for rural non-farm activity. Several studies confirm that these were the main routes by which the GR enriched the poor.

Another route was direct access to more food, and sometimes more income, by very poor smallholders, who proved more labour-intensive and hence more productive with GR technologies than they had done with old ones. This mattered much more in Asia, where most cropland was in smallholdings than in Latin America, where inequality was much greater.

All this was related to my IFPRI job. Normally, when poor people get less poor, they can afford more calories and a more varied diet. Hence big falls in undernutrition, especially in stunting among under-fives, accompanied the GR in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Asia. India, with huge poverty reductions largely due to the GR and its aftermath, has also cut undernutrition, but much less so: it remains strikingly high and not well understood. That is not because HYV staples displaced pulse protein: calories, not protein, are what the vast majority of India’s undernourished people lack, and anyway a lot of cheap cereals are as good for protein intake as little expensive pulses.

How was the Green Revolution understood at that time?

In India, the GR was viewed with widespread scepticism. It was seen as likely to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, with little lasting effect on agricultural yields or output. However, as prospects to farm new cropland (especially irrigable land) dwindled, the successive very poor harvests in 1965-6 and 1967-8 changed many minds, and in 1967 policy also.

As the early semi-dwarf plants spread, their dramatic impact on yield was widely reported. So, however, were the problems? TN-1 rice was “a museum of insect pests” and the early HYVs were more vulnerable to moisture stress, pests and diseases than traditional varieties. That restricted early adoption by the poor. But crop researchers listened, and varieties like the ubiquitous IR64 rice were more resistant to the main rice pests and diseases than traditional varieties, new rice, wheat, and sorghum varieties spread fast, far beyond the initially recommended areas, and hugely lifted yields.

But clear environmental limits and problems became increasingly obvious. The alternative would have been worse environmentally – static yields and output would have forced India to take the African path of spreading cropping into ever less sustainable marginal lands. However, the problems of intensification (rising water-tables; polluted drinking-water; pressure on soil micronutrients) are very serious, especially combined with impacts of climate change. As with the GR itself, public-sector crop researchers listen and respond. Private-sector researchers, bound to seek profits, are much less able to do so?

How significant was the influence of GR technology?

Hybrid maize, semi-dwarf wheat and rice, and sharply bio-improved sorghum have spread over huge areas of Asia, Latin and America, North Africa and the Middle East, and small areas in Africa. One has to ask what the alternative was. Sub-Saharan African agricultures, poverty trends, and environmental trends provide the complex, but on the whole unappealing, answer. GR technology showed not only the power, but as important the responsiveness, of properly financed public-sector plant breeding and linked multidisciplinary agricultural research, with an international sector combined with national and local experts to apply and fine-tune.

What alternative approaches were available?

“By what?” is much more interesting than “by whom?” The early challenges – GR not applicable to many areas, too risky for the poorest farmers – were justified by the requirements of some early rice and wheat GR cultivars. However, researchers responded, and largely met these challenges.

Challenges on the basis that there were better alternatives to the GR were not clearly specified nor proven, though isolated successes existed (e.g. with System of Rice Intensification). ‘Low-input agriculture’ is either water-nutrient extractive or low-output; it will not feed growing populations without environmentally destructive soil-water depletion and expansion of crops into marginal lands, as in Ethiopia and many other parts of Africa. ‘Organic farming’ is fully consistent with GR-based continuous seed improvement, but economic yield does not approach, and is unlikely to increase anything like as fast, as GR farming without organic constraints – and is more concentrated on big farms.

The GR is an approach of constant seed modification – and quality-maintenance, in face of adapting pests (notably rusts of wheat) and diseases, by a research-led seed system. Ecologists now rightly stress that this can be sustained only if soil-water depletion is decisively tacked through rules, incentives, and user groups. In 1966-2002, the GR transformed rice yields in India, China and elsewhere. However, rice yield would have risen about one-fifth more than it did, but for more frequent droughts, warmer nights and lower rainfall at the end of the growing season; climate change has evidently already harmed India’s hundreds of millions of rice producers and consumers’.

Maintenance of biodiversity, in face of farmers’ strong preference for the currently most successful variety for their environment (and of excessive use of pesticides, is a further challenge. Again, steady seed breeding for adaptation and maintenance is the only long-run alternative. Both national and international public-sector seed collections, including (perhaps especially) of wild relatives of major staple crops, are central to diversity and maintained resistance and tolerance.

To meet such present dangers, India and the world need to expand and adapt the GR seed process. Demonising or demobilising it is grossly irresponsible.

This blog post is the first in a series that highlights the historical moments of the Green Revolution in India, Brazil and China.

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