Reflections on the Green Revolution

Personal reflections on the Green Revolutions narrative and myths

Published on 24 May 2019

Image of Robert Chambers
Robert Chambers

Research Associate

What is it worth trying to say in a few words? The ‘Green Revolutions’ (GR) colloquium provoked reminiscence and reflection. I realised how different but complementary our experiences and insights are. Mine are based on being one of the team who did field research in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in the early 1970s on the lack of GR in rice. And then on three and a half years (1981-4) based in Delhi as a project specialist with the Ford Foundation. The former informed me of my ignorance of field realities as I stumbled to find out more. The latter gave alarming insights into the misperceptions and misjudgements of many at senior levels in government and consultancy organisations who were out of touch with rural realities and how these could lead to gross errors of policy. But this is to anticipate.

Getting to grips with the Green Revolution

I set out in the field research focused on seeds and agricultural extension. I had a GR mindset myself: it was seeds which could offer a breakthrough in rice, and agricultural extension could transfer to farmers’ new more productive technology. I found agricultural extension difficult to research. But our village work hit us between the eyes with the primacy of water management.

Water mattered much more to farmers than seeds, and agricultural extension had nothing to do with irrigation. And it mattered too to labourers. When I asked a group of landless Dalits what would make a difference for them, they replied more pump sets for the farmers, which would give them more work throughout more of the year. Then we found that each of our twelve study villages had a small tank and a different surface irrigation system. Lift irrigation was also a big thing. Water management was crying out for study. So with colleagues, I had a wonderful time paddling in paddy fields, observing, asking, and learning, learning, learning with ahha! after ahha!

Then later with the Ford Foundation, I began to understand the GR in wheat in Northwest India. My interpretation was, and remains, that it took place with such a dramatic increase in production in the late 1960s because of special conditions: not just the new high-yielding varieties (HYV) with short and strong stalks so that when responding to fertiliser they would not lodge (fall over); but also and crucially, the special conditions in Northwest India – flat land, entrepreneurial farmers, good infrastructure and above all a reliable water supply from surface irrigation using the warabandi system of weekly fixed timed turns to deliver a steady stream of water. This combined with low and relatively reliable seasonal rainfall ensured good water control for farmers.

The Norman Borlaug effect

What happened though was that the success and publicity of the GR had a huge influence on agricultural research and extension in the rest of India. Scientists aspired to breed their own HYVs, and like mini-Borlaugs, gain fame and rewards. The GR mindset was: we know, farmers are ignorant, we must develop a package of practices and then transfer it to them. This had always been there but was now reinforced. Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug rode high. I do not underestimate, I hope, his contributions. But he was not aware of his own ignorance. In evidence to Congress he said ‘I have probably talked to more small farmers than any other man alive’, and I heard him in an address to an adulating audience of over a thousand Indian agricultural scientists how he was going to ‘save Africa’. Yes, he really did say this.

His GR mindset was top down, a package of practices for farmers to adopt. This had some success in North West India, but elsewhere farmers did not want a fixed package but a flexible basket of choices. Many of them faced conditions which were CDR – complex, diverse and risk-prone. They needed to be adaptable, able to respond to unpredictable conditions. But another powerfully charismatic figure, Daniel Benor, came along with his mechanistic T and V (Training and Visit, sometimes called Touch and Vanish) system of agricultural extension. This was a tragic misfit for CDR conditions. But the GR mindset fitted the imperatives of the World Bank, to make big loans fast. With large World Bank loans which put countries in debt, Benor introduced T and V in Asian countries, and when they threw it out, he did not learn but tried to foist it on countries in Africa. It did not work.

But Benor was impervious to feedback which anyway could be misleadingly positive. A prudent Tanzanian agricultural scientist commissioned to evaluate T and V, not wishing to endanger his career, told me: ‘there is what I know, and there is what is in my report.’ Then when T and V was being widely rejected or abandoned, Benor seized on Indian warabandi as another mechanistic approach and tried to spread that elsewhere in India. I was flattered to be invited to join him on a field visit. At the end of the day we had a meeting with farmers. One at the back, probably an irrigation tail-ender, stood up and said: ‘It is no good telling us how to distribute water when we are not receiving any in the first place’’. Benor waved him down ‘Sit down! Sit down!’

A lasting impact?

The GR mindset, bolstered by funding and uninhibited by insight, was pervasive. I sat through two days of a meeting in Delhi of senior engineers planning for the next 5-year plan. I could not believe what I was hearing. They proposed, and it went into the Plan, to bring 8 million hectares in India under warabandi, which would only be possible in the special geographical conditions of North West India. They simply did not understand it seemed that North West India’s conditions were not to be found elsewhere. The instructions for the 8 million hectares went out. I never found anywhere where it worked. On field visits, I often saw rusted warabandi boards, some already battered and bent. All over India, the boards will survive, epitaphs and relics to the delight of future archaeologists and the enlightenment of students of human error.

None of this inhibited attempts to transfer of the GR approach to Africa. Borlaug and Benor, what a formidable combination, supported a programme called Sasakawa Global 2000 which was introduced to over half a dozen African countries. Jimmy Carter and later Kofi Annan were involved. It may not have been entirely harmful. But in Ethiopia farmers were forced into debt for inputs they did not want, including fertilisers which damaged crops in the absence of rainfall and some were jailed for failure to repay.

So the ‘epic narrative’ covers mixed experiences. It evolved too in parallel with other streams of innovation. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), was found by Norman Uphoff of Cornell in Madagascar where it had been discovered by a Jesuit priest, Father de Laulanié, to have many advantages over traditional cultivation practices, many of which were turned on their heads. In impressively energetic missionary mode Uphoff spread it to many countries, not least India, China, Indonesia and Thailand. It led to less water use, higher production, and several other benefits. In 2002 Yuan Longping, the Father of Hybrid Rice, convened a conference in China on SRI in which scientists from 15 countries participated. SRI principles worked too for other crops like sugarcane, for which ICRISAT published a manual. Today an estimated 20 million farmers use some or all of the system, treating its synergistic practices less as a package and more as a basket of choices to be combined, experimented with and managed.
Another stream which is better known is farmer participation in research, with various manifestations and labels – Participatory Technology Development, Farmer First, Farmer Participatory Research, Integrated Pest Management, and so on.

  1. So where does this take us? What would it be useful to research, learn about, and reflect on? Or at least bear in mind as this research project goes forward? Here are three thoughts:
    Self-sustaining myth. Do narratives often have a side which normally lies in the shade, misleading myths which accompany them and do not correspond with practical realities? If they do, what generates them, and what sustains them, and what should be done? The GR myth was appallingly costly for countries put into debt to pay for T and V which they did not need and which became a demoralising liability.
  2. Charisma, ego, power and dominance. Are big people – the ‘heroes’ as they have been called, of ‘epic narratives’ – flattered and misled by the deference with which they are treated, and by the way their misbehaviours are tolerated because they are adulated as gurus? Do their charisma, ego, power and personal dominance combine to inflict on them awesome learning disabilities? Can this be researched and documented, and can future generations be warned of these dangers? Can personal critical reflexivity be part of the self-correcting compass of those with personal and professional power?
  3. The formation and transfer of mindsets. Is there indeed a green revolution mindset? If so, what are its strengths and weaknesses? How is it formed and sustained? How has it been transferred internationally? What are the practical implications?

And being reflexive myself for a moment, I realise that I enjoy sitting on a pedestal, asking unanswerable questions, and then running for cover without going deeper.

This blog post is the third in a series of five that highlights the historical moments of the Green Revolution in India, Brazil and China and draws on a colloquium held at IDS in March. This was part of the ongoing project Green Revolutions in Brazil, China and India: epic narratives of the past and today’s South-South technology transfers.

Related content