Reflections on the Green Revolution

Reflecting on Bangladesh’s ‘green revolution’

Published on 5 June 2019

Image of David Lewis
David Lewis

Professor of Social Policy and Development, London School of Economics

My encounter with Bangladesh’s ‘green revolution’ began in 1986 in eastern Bangladesh where I undertook village level fieldwork for a PhD on agrarian change. The focus was to understand how rural households were interacting with high yielding seeds, mechanised ploughing and irrigation, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These technologies were not new but were beginning to spread in the newly liberalising economy, where longstanding public sector agricultural research and extension was now supplemented by privatised agricultural input provision.

These changes were positioned between two other significant rural stories. The first was the failure of the internationally celebrated ‘Comilla model’ of agricultural cooperatives, pioneered during the 1960s by A.H. Khan at the Academy for Rural development in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This experience highlighted the fact that ‘top-down’ arrangements for introduction of the new technology were vulnerable to elite capture, and that marginal farmers lacked access to affordable credit.

The second was the rise of Bangladesh’s extensive NGO sector during the 1980s, in part due to a recognition of these problems by local activists. Some NGOs opted to work with marginal farmers and landless in order to promote grassroots mobilisation and empowerment, while others – such as Professor M Yunus’ Grameen Bank – chose to set up alternative sources of credit for the poorest households.

Impact of technologies on farming in the villages

In a country of highly fragmented small farms and very high levels of landlessness, I was mostly interested the village level effects these technologies were having on the organisation of rural production. Were land consolidation and household differentiation taking place, as classic Marxist theorists had argued from the experience of India’s green revolution? Were new technological conditions leading to a reformulation of local agriculture into new farm service businesses, with the new technology creating new entrepreneurial opportunities for rural people and with land ownership becoming less important, a hypothesis developed by Geof Wood, my PhD adviser?

The answers turned out to be complex. There were certainly new forms of rural entrepreneurship and technology-based farm services emerging based around custom ploughing, pesticide spraying, and water provision. But as the rural non-farm economy took off, and migration opportunities increased, rural livelihoods diversified and the new technology did not drive any large-scale re-ordering of the agrarian structure. At the same time, agricultural production intensified and food production began increasing steadily, mainly due to the addition of a new winter rice crop.

What impressed me primarily was the power of local farm households to shape outcomes ‘from the bottom up’, in ways that had not been predicted by theorists or experts. For example, in one nearby village, I was surprised to find new private tractor rental services that had emerged from now-defunct government tractor cooperatives – despite the now prevailing wisdom that tractors were technologically ‘inappropriate’ to small village plots. Such findings strengthened my interest in Norman Long’s ‘actor-oriented sociology’, that highlighted the dynamic strategies of rural people as they challenged the outcomes upstream policy decisions over which they had little control.

A distinctive feature of Bangladesh’s green revolution was that improved productivity and output gains came primarily from the huge expansion of shallow tube well (STW) irrigation, which made more intensive cropping possible, in many areas allowing three rice seasons in a year. The expansion of winter rice in particular dramatically increased rice production, and new winter vegetables also added to household incomes. This runs counter to dominant GR narratives elsewhere in the subcontinent around the power of so-called ‘miracle seeds’.

How is the green revolution understood in Bangladesh today?

As Naomi Hossain has argued in her excellent book The Aid Lab, a distinctive political settlement between elites and citizens was put in place that was strongly influenced by the experience of the terrible 1974 famine, in the form of a commitment to improving food security and social protection to ensure that such a disaster could never be allowed to happen again.

The green revolution has been built into the country’s DNA, as part of a nation building narrative. Once labelled an ‘international basket case’ by one of Henry Kissinger’s aides in the 1970s, it was argued that Bangladesh that would always be dependent on Western food aid. However, the country had achieved self-sufficiency in rice production by 2000 and more recently met the World Bank’s criteria as a ‘lower middle-income country’.

But the environmental consequences quickly became apparent, such as the introduction of natural arsenic deposits into the water system through the shallow tube wells, creating to a large scale public health emergency that continues to this day. The issue of climate change now also dominates policy discussions around agriculture, with coastal erosion, increased drought, and water salinisation among the issues threatening farm livelihoods. It has been estimated that one consequence of climate change is that crop production could decline by 30 per cent (pdf) by the end of the century, and the World Food Programme has argued for the need for the promotion of a ‘diversified, resilient, and nutrition-sensitive’ agriculture sector.

A small scale NGO-driven organic agriculture movement emerged during the 1990s in response to the green revolution, but this continues to be marginal, with only an estimated 2 per cent of farmland under organic cultivation. The idea of a second green revolution based on the further application of science to agriculture through corporate biotech seems more likely as policymakers continue to liberalise. The 2018 Seed Act allows private sector research on seed technology for the first time. The privatisation process that began in the 1980s has deepened and the public sector now has a more limited role.

The experience of the green revolution in Bangladesh cannot easily be categorised or summarised. It has taken different forms (seeds, irrigation), it has meant many different things (nation building, helping to shape the NGO sector), and it has had a wide range of effects (increased food production, land degradation, privatisation). It will continue to inform patterns of change for many years to come.

This blog post is the fourth 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.

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