One of the most controversial events in twentieth-century agricultural history was something called the Green Revolution—the dissemination of American industrial agricultural techniques and high-yielding crop varieties around the world.
It was the Green Revolution, its proponents argue, that enabled global agriculture to keep up with an expanding world population during the second half of the twentieth century. Their argument is that without it, millions of people would have starved to death, just like Paul Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 book The Population Bomb.1
Others consider the Green Revolution one of the worst tragedies in agricultural history, as unsustainable American farming methods replaced traditional agricultural practices founded on centuries of experience and wisdom. The Green Revolution forced many small farmers to leave their land and migrate to cities, often with little betterment in their living standards.
Both sides would probably agree that the Green Revolution “Americanized” global agriculture; they simply disagree on whether that was a good or bad thing.
So, what exactly was the Green Revolution, and why does it evoke such emotional responses?
Being a college student during the Great Depression was rough. For a forestry student named Norman Borlaug (1914–2009) at the University of Minnesota, it meant that he had to work several hours serving in a coffee shop just to get a piece of toast and a cup of coffee for breakfast. All around him, Borlaug saw people who were angry because they were poor and starving.
Two events that occurred during Borlaug’s college days would profoundly impact his life. One day, he witnessed a strike and riot outside a factory, which he associated with the dehumanizing effects of hunger in the desperate workers.
He experienced hunger more personally when his wrestling coach told him to lose weight and he went several days without eating. In a sudden, uncontrollable fit of rage, he attacked one of his teammates. “You see, it wasn’t me at all,” he said later. “It was primitive, rudimentary. I can’t explain how hungry I was. I was starving, and I found out that a hungry man is worse than a hungry beast.” The memory of that horrible moment would haunt him for the rest of his life.
While he was working on his forestry degree, Borlaug decided to attend a lecture on wheat stem rust by Dr. Elvin Charles Stakman titled “The Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy Our Cereal Crops.” Stakman was one of the most respected and influential plant pathologists in the country. He led the movement to eradicate barberry bushes because they served as an alternate host in the wheat stem rust life cycle.
This accused pathogen, Puccinia graminis, could reproduce only asexually on wheat plants; it needed barberry to reproduce sexually. By eliminating barberry, plant pathologists prevented the rust from forming new strains, giving them time to breed wheat plants that were resistant to existing strains of the disease.
Borlaug intended to work as a forester when he graduated, but there were no jobs available. Instead, he decided to get a master’s degree in plant pathology when Stakman offered him an assistantship counting rust spores in his lab. He started working toward a PhD but ended his education early to take a job for the DuPont chemical company during World War II, where he tested materials for the war effort.
The whole course of Borlaug’s life changed when a group of scientists from the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a position in their Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP). They were working with the Mexican government to breed better wheat varieties to help Mexico increase its wheat production. After some consideration, Borlaug accepted this position, and in September 1944, he left his pregnant wife and daughter in Delaware and headed to Mexico.
When Borlaug arrived in Chapingo, Mexico, he was shocked by the extreme poverty of the Mexican peasants and the infertile soil—a completely different world from the rich Iowa farmland where he had grown up. “I don’t know what we can do to help these people, but we’ve got to do something,” he wrote in a letter to his wife.
Borlaug quickly diagnosed the causes of this abject rural poverty—backward agriculture, superstition and overpopulation. In his mind, if he could replace the “antiquated agriculture” with modern production methods like those used in the United States, poverty would automatically go away.
At first, the Mexican peasants were hostile to Borlaug’s efforts to improve their agricultural practices. As evidence of their “resistance and superstition,” Borlaug told the story of how one farmer allowed him to use part of his land for growing wheat. When Borlaug brought over a steel plow to work the soil, the farmer tried to stop him, claiming that the steel would take all the “warmth” out of the soil and make it infertile. Borlaug scoffed at his ignorance and kept plowing, but the farmer turned some cattle onto the field later so that the animals could put “heat” back into his land.
If Borlaug had been up on the current debate about moldboard plowing in the United States—which became quite heated after Edward Faulkner published Plowman’s Folly2 in 1943—he might not have dismissed the farmer’s concerns so lightly. After all, evidence was accumulating that excessive plowing destroyed organic matter; perhaps Borlaug should have tried to figure out what the farmer meant by “warmth” (which could have meant organic matter) instead of just blowing him off as an ignorant peasant.
Historians have shown that the reasons Mexico’s peasant farmers were in such dire straits in the 1940s were much more complicated than just “antiquated” farming methods. Mexican agriculture had struggled since the Spanish conquest, which historian John Perkins called “an unmitigated environmental disaster for the Indian civilization of Mexico.”3
In his 1997 book Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War,3 Perkins argued that, while the Rockefeller Foundation’s project ostensibly had humanitarian motives, the Mexican government hoped to use the Foundation’s help to transition their country away from subsistence farming toward commercialized agriculture to produce commodity crops. Mexico wanted to copy the industrialized agricultural system that was gaining ground in the United States, while hopefully avoiding some of the negative consequences American farmers had experienced.
Whether or not his diagnosis of the causes of Mexican poverty was accurate, no one can deny that Borlaug worked wholeheartedly at his wheat breeding program. He threw all of his energy into his work, putting his goal of feeding Mexico’s poor even above spending time with his wife or living in a comfortable apartment in Mexico City.
Borlaug worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week laboriously hand-pollinating millions of wheat plants, an extremely delicate and time-consuming task. Impatient with the fact that it took an entire year to grow out each generation of plants, Borlaug single-handedly established a second breeding program in the irrigated and more productive Yaqui Valley in Mexico’s Sonora Province. Against the plant breeding wisdom of his day, Borlaug established a “shuttle” breeding program where he could breed two generations of wheat in a year, one in Chapingo and another in the Yaqui Valley.
By breeding alternate generations so far apart, Borlaug inadvertently selected for plants that were daylength-insensitive and thus could grow at any latitude. He bred plants to be resistant to stem rust and then selected for varieties that would give high yields when grown with irrigation and fertilizer.
As the yields of Borlaug’s wheat varieties increased, however, he ran into a problem. When he put nitrogen fertilizer on his high-yielding varieties, they formed such large heads of grain that the stalks were too weak to support them. These top-heavy stalks fell over, a phenomenon known as lodging, which made them difficult or impossible to harvest.
To Borlaug, it seemed like a waste of the plant’s resources to put so much energy into a seemingly useless stalk, and so he worked to breed wheat varieties that partitioned more of their energy into the head and less into the stalk. Thanks to a few seeds of dwarf wheat from Japan, Borlaug was able to create dwarf wheat varieties successfully, with stalks only a foot or two high instead of the four or five feet on traditional varieties. The short, sturdy stalks of the dwarf wheats were able to support much larger heads of grain, thus dramatically increasing the yield of wheat per acre.
Borlaug’s new dwarf wheats reached their full yield potential, however, only when grown with high amounts of fertilizers and reliable irrigation. Without these inputs, they were no improvement over traditional varieties and sometimes performed worse. Therefore, what Borlaug offered to the farmers of Mexico was more than just improved seeds: it was a “package” of seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and production practices that, when combined, could triple yields.
FIGHTING THE “POPULATION MONSTER”
The increases in yields when farmers adopted Borlaug’s package of seeds and inputs were so dramatic that Mexican wheat production greatly increased. And Mexico was only the beginning. Since the new dwarf wheat varieties were daylight-insensitive, they could be grown in other parts of the world, too. Borlaug and his students—a group he named the “wheat apostles”—worked tirelessly to transfer the seed-fertilizer-irrigation package to other countries, most notably India and Pakistan.
“These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution,” William Gaud told the Society for International Development in 1968. “It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” Gaud was the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at the time, having previously overseen the agency’s operations in the Near East and South Asia.
The Green Revolution—the Americanization of global agriculture—was hailed as one of the most important events of the twentieth century. Borlaug and other proponents of the Green Revolution believed that if agriculture in “Third World” countries were modernized, it would improve the livelihoods of farmers, eliminate rural poverty and—most importantly—feed an expanding world population.
Borlaug was a neo-Malthusian—he believed that if population growth was not checked soon by birth control, population would soon outstrip food supply. “The greatest threat to man in this world, the biggest cause of hunger, and the most terrible menace to peace is this multiheaded population monster,” he stated.
Despite all the honors he received for his work in helping to feed the world, Borlaug was pessimistic about the fate of humanity if population growth was not checked. “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space,” he said when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. “But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”
For the rest of his life, Borlaug regarded plant breeding as a race against the clock to feed the world’s expanding population. “Science has given mankind a brief breathing spell—a time to catch up to his problems, to lick the population explosion, to prepare for the future,” he told Leonard Bickel, who wrote the first biography of Borlaug, Facing Starvation: Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger, in 1974.4 “We can test later,” Borlaug continued. “We need food production now, today.”
Even in the beginning of the twenty-first century, Borlaug was still worried about population growth. In his 2009 biography The Man Who Fed the World, Leon Hesser quoted Borlaug as saying, “Without aggressive agricultural research programs, the world will soon be overwhelmed by the Population Monster.”5
When the dire predictions that Paul Ehrlich made in his 1968 book The Population Bomb about an impending world famine in the 1970s failed to come true, Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution were credited with preventing catastrophe. Even today, many people believe that Borlaug’s breeding program saved the lives of millions of people, and that it would be impossible to feed the world’s current population without the Green Revolution. The major biographies of Borlaug, including Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug by Noel Vietmeyer,6 portray Borlaug as a hero who saved the world from starvation. But not everyone agrees that the Green Revolution saved lives.
Criticism of the Green Revolution started in the 1970s, right when it was supposedly gaining its greatest victories. Critics argued that the new high-yielding varieties benefited only large farmers and forced small farmers off their land. Even though the new varieties increased production of staple food grains, they did not ensure that the poor could afford to purchase them.
Some of the most vocal criticism of the Green Revolution has come from India, the country where it supposedly attained its greatest success. In his 1998 book The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty and Politics in Capitalist Development, Eric Ross argued that the Green Revolution was “a new kind of assault on the Third World peasantry” and “was less about enhancing the food security of the poor in developing countries than about seeking the economic security of the United States.”7
One of the best-known critics of the Green Revolution in India is Vandana Shiva. In her 1991 book The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics, Shiva wrote that the real legacy of the Green Revolution was “diseased soils, pest-infested crops, water-logged deserts, and indebted and discontented farmers.”8
An overemphasis on wheat, Shiva argued, displaced pulses and oilseeds, thus decreasing the quality of the mainly vegetarian diet among the poor in India. The new varieties displaced traditional ones and diminished the genetic diversity of crop plants, making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Another negative impact was that a leafy vegetable called bathua, which grew in wheat fields, competed too much with the high-yielding wheat varieties and so was eradicated as a weed, depriving the poor of an excellent and freely available source of pre-vitamin A.
Though of course it is impossible to test the hypothesis, many believe that the expanding populations of the 1970s and beyond could have been fed without the Green Revolution. In a 2012 article in the Journal of Development Studies, James Sumberg and others noted that Borlaug and his colleagues, by “trashing the alternatives” to the input-intensive agriculture they promoted, “helped to limit and polarize these debates” about the possibility of feeding the world with organic or ecological farming methods.9
The reality was that by the 1980s, industrialized agriculture was barely working even in the United States. While American farmers achieved record-breaking crop yields each year, prices were too low to cover production costs. As an alternative to the high-input American agriculture that was promoted globally in the Green Revolution, a movement for low-input or sustainable agriculture began to gain ground both in the United States and abroad.
Instead of trying to transplant American methods and technologies directly into other countries, the goal of sustainable agriculture is to help each country or region develop an agricultural system compatible with its climate, economy and culture. While sustainable agriculture is not a panacea for the world’s social problems, it does have the potential to be more environmentally and economically sustainable in the long term than the one-size-fits-all Green Revolution model
1. Ehrlich PR. The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books, 1968.
2. Faulkner EH. Plowman’s Folly. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1943.
3. Perkins JH. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
4. Bickel L. Facing Starvation; Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger. New York: Dutton, 1974.
5. Hesser L. The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger. Durban House Press, Inc., 2009.
6. Vietmeyer N. Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug. Bracing Books, 2011.
7. Ross E. The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty and Politics in Capitalist Development. New York: Zed Books, 1998.
8. Shiva V. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics. London; Atlantic Highlands, NJ, USA: Zed Books; Penang Malaysia: Third World Network, 1991.
9. Sumberg J, Keeney D, Dempsey B. Public agronomy: Norman Borlaug as “brand hero” for the Green Revolution. Journal of Development Studies. 2012;48(11):1587-1600.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2021🖨️ Print post