The Green Revolution: Representations of Hunger and Agriculture in India

The Green Revolution: Representations of Hunger and Agriculture in India
In the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation funded research in Mexico in the development of new “high-yielding varieties” of wheat that could produce more grain given certain conditions. This project caught the attention of the U.S. government and other funders, who pushed to expand similar agricultural development programs in “underdeveloped” countries around the world. In the 1960s, one of these projects, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, went to India and Pakistan to promote the “high-yielding varieties” (HVCs) as part of a technological package that would help modernize agriculture on the sub-continent. These various efforts to introduce new, energy intensive, agricultural practices in the Third World during the 1960s came to be known as the “Green Revolution.”

The official, spoken aim behind the Green Revolution was simple: increase agricultural production to feed the hungry and to help economic development in poor countries. It was, and continues to be, depicted as an altruistic effort, working under the heroic yet neutral banner of “science and progress.” However, upon closer analysis of the programs themselves, and examination of the results of the Green Revolution, it becomes apparent that there was much more at play than the noble and scientific aims made explicit by the “Revolution’s” proponents.  The Green Revolution was in fact based on particular assumptions and representations of India and the Third World, as well as particular ideologies and definitions of “development,” “poverty,” and “hunger.” It was not just a heroic, apolitical, philanthropic project to feed the hungry and improve the living conditions of the poor. Instead, It was a strategic project that served the political and economic interests of those powerful actors who promoted it.

The first set of assumptions and beliefs underlying the Green Revolution provide the imperative or the necessity for the “Revolution” to take place, because the Third World needs to be poor and hungry before it can be fed and developed. At the core of these assumptions is a bias against regionally-based, small-scale agriculture (and in fact agriculture in general). Regionally-based and small scale systems of food production are the way that agricultural societies have been feeding their populations for thousands of years. This type of production is characterized by a dependence on much human labor but few external inputs or energy sources. The industrial revolution changed the way that food was produced in much of Europe and the U.S. As external sources of carbon-based energy could be harnessed and used in more and more ways, through the use of machinery and chemicals, less and less human labor was necessary to produce food. (This change is erroneously thought of as increased efficiency. In fact, industrialized agriculture is far less efficient because it uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than it produces in the form of food calories. The change is just that fewer humans are necessary in the actual work on the land.)

The industrialization of agriculture in much of the U.S. and Europe allowed for, or forced, many people who once worked in agriculture to seek new jobs in the booming industrial sectors. An abundant supply of workers meant that wages and production costs dropped, stimulating the growth of industry even more. This positive feedback allowed for the increased growth of industry and the increased industrialization of agriculture. Industrial growth (and colonialism) fueled the economies of these nations and provided the foundation for what they are today. The affluent nations that took this path of development are now considered the “First World” nations, or the “Developed” countries, or perhaps more tellingly, the “Industrialized Nations.” They are contrasted with such countries as India, Pakistan and Mexico, collectively called “The Third World,” or “Developing” and “Underdeveloped” nations.

The bias against small-scale or “traditional” agriculture in the development field stems from the fact that the world’s most affluent countries got to where they are today by abandoning such agriculture. Almost everyone’s family used to farm in the U.S., but today, only about 2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. From the particular histories of such Western countries it is assumed that all countries must follow a similar path in order to feed their starving populations, and develop their economies. This perception is evident in political and economic policy as well as public discourse. Small scale agriculture is seen as unproductive, backwards and often unsustainable.

Agricultural work in general is often denigrated, undervalued, and associated with poverty. Indeed, small scale and subsistence agriculture and rural life have come to epitomize poverty and “Third Worldliness.” The ability for industrialized, energy-intensive agriculture to produce more food than small scale agriculture is questionable, and when so-called “externalities” are taken into the equation, small scale agriculture in India and else where is a much more efficient way of producing food (Muller and Patel: 2004).

In an article examining the technological changes that the Green Revolution brought to India, Govindan Parayil exemplifies the ingrained biases against small scale or “traditional agriculture”(1992). After off-handedly remarking that Indian agriculture had not changed at all in centuries while European agricultural technology had advanced dramatically, Parayil laments the fact that the British colonial administration had not done much to improve India’s backwards agriculture while they were there.

Thus, at the time of independence in 1947, India was a vastly poor nation with almost 90 percent of its population living in nearly 600,000 villages dependent on agriculture. Indian Agriculture remained essentially the same as it had been hundreds of years earlier, No perceptible technological change was noticeable in agricultural practices (741).
If only the British had left behind some of their advanced agricultural knowledge and techniques! Parayil hardly mentions the impoverishing effects of the British administration such as the ridiculously exorbitant taxes on grain production that precipitated the Bengal famine of 1942-43, in which around 3 million people died. Might colonialism have something to do with the state of agriculture poverty in India?

In Parayil’s paragraph it is easy to see how taken for granted is the equation of agriculture with poverty. In the rest of the essay, Parayil does not provide any other data to show how India was a “vastly poor nation” after independence. The fact that the majority of the population was dependent on small scale agriculture is assumed to be quite sufficient proof of this poverty. At the same time, Indian farmers are given no agency, small-scale agriculture is depicted as a living fossil that can only change with outside( Western scientific) influence. Parayil goes on to say that the only way for India to get out of the food crises of the 1960s was to allow the introduction of modern technology from the West, in other words the Green Revolution.

The idea behind the Green Revolution was that the new technologies, developed by agronomists, trained in the U.S. or Europe, could be spread to India and other countries to increase their agricultural productivity. These techniques, resources, practices and other components came together in what are often called “technological packages.”. One of the most touted components of these packages, evidenced by their name, were the “miracle seeds,” or “high-yielding varieties” (HYVs). Agricultural engineers and plant breeders had been working for some time developing semi-dwarf varieties of rice and wheat that could produce large amounts of grain in the right conditions. These varieties are called high-yielding varieties, because their production responds well to the energy and input-intensive agriculture that was being practiced in industrialized countries. Agronomists had already noted that the increased use of fertilizers, irrigation and other industrial intensification only slightly increased the productivity of most traditional rice and wheat varieties. If Indian and other Third World Farmers were to plant these “miracle seeds” instead of their traditional varieties, then they could benefit from all the other great advancements of modern agriculture! They could increase production by homogenizing their fields, applying new irrigation techniques allowing them to cultivate year round, and applying synthetic fertilizers that would compensate for the loss of the soils existing fertility.

Greater agricultural production, made possible by the technology packages, would mean more income for poor farmers and more food for the hungry of India. At the same time, fewer people would have to work in agriculture because the new techniques of large scale industrialized production made many human jobs obsolete. Those Indian farmers who did not jump on the boat of agricultural modernization would not be able to compete with their more motivated compatriots and the agribusinesses. These backwards farmers would be forced to work on someone else’s farm, or move to urban areas in search of work. This consolidation in the countryside would make agriculture more “efficient” and the migration to urban areas would provide cheap labor for other industries. (It starts to sound familiar, like the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the U.S. It must be the road to development.)

It seems that there must be some other, less noble, motives behind the Green Revolution. We know that the “Revolution” was supposed to be for the poor and starving of the world, but whose interests was it really in? Backing the efforts of this project was in the economic, political and moral interests of the Western, scientific, corporate, and governmental communities. They maintain the position of altruism and caring because their only explicit goal is to end world hunger and poverty(how nice?). At the same time this puts the countries engineering and distributing these technologies in a strong negotiating position.

The Green Revolution was by no means the apolitical philanthropic project it was purported to be. It is important to remember that the Green Revolution took place during the Cold War era.  Decisions about which governments would get this type of agricultural technology packages and development assistance and which governments would not was a powerful way for the U.S. to promote its ideologies abroad. The Green Revolution also grew out of the paranoia about the growth of peasant/agrarian-based people’s movements in South Asia. Many proponents of the Green Revolution saw it as a way to control the conditions in which such uprisings might gain strength. Technology is neutral right? So promoting the increase in food production could release some of the pressure building as a result of long histories of colonial extraction, landlessness, political corruption and general inequities. By focusing on production, attention is effectively taken away from the underlying roots of poverty and hunger, the somewhat touchier subject of the national and international structures that institutionalize inequitable access to power and resources.

We can also see whose interests are truly being served by the Green Revolution when we look at the economic implications. The introduction and promotion of new agricultural technologies into a country such as India does not just mean that all of a sudden all the farmers will have free access to the seeds, agrochemicals, and other supplies necessary to start cultivating in new, “more productive” ways. It is important to keep I mind that there are millions upon millions of farmers in India. It is therefore one of the biggest potential markets for agricultural products in the world. The Green Revolution started off with funds and government sponsorship that would make these inputs fairly easily available to some farmers, through support packages and credits. The inevitable result however, is that at some point, all of these farmers are going to need to be buying seeds, buying fertilizers, buying machinery and buying pesticides from the agribusinesses that produce them. These giant businesses happen to be located in the U.S. for the most part. Millions of Indian farmers have gone into cycles of debt, never being able to get the harvests they were supposed to with the expensive inputs they got loans for.

By looking at the political and economic implications of the Green Revolution we can see that the “Revolution” was definitely not the best help for many of the people it was intended to serve. Many proponents of the so-called Revolution are quick to point out that more wheat and rice were produced in India than ever before. At the same time however, more wheat and rice yields does not automatically equate into well nourished people. There were declines in the production of other, nutritionally vital crops, and not all the grain produced got to those who needed. Grain wastage in stockpiles, export and other distribution problems prove that the production of more food is not the cure all that it was extolled to be.  We can also see that the ideals of neutrality, humanity, and progress that the Green Revolution preached were based on a questionable foundation of assumptions and representations of India, the “Third World,” small scale agriculture, and the meaning of “development” and “poverty.” Equally apparent is the fact that supposedly philanthropic mission of the Green Revolution served the interests of powerful corporations and governments.

On the website of the Rockefeller Foundation, the main supporter of the Green Revolution, there is an ironic quote from John D. Rockefeller saying “The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.” If this approach was truly taken to the issues of hunger and poverty in India and other countries, the result would not be programs like the Green Revolution. The result would be a much more unsettling and dangerous critique of the very system of inequity  that the foundation’s endowment is invested in.

“The three-quarters of all farmers who cultivate one third of the total land mass, remain marginalized by the government. Small farmers produce 41 percent of the total grain and over half of India’s total fruits and vegetables. They are more productive than the Green Revolution farms even though they cultivate rain-fed lands using only human labor and animal traction.” (Muller and Patel) FOOd First

The philosophy behind the Green Revolution is one that sees technology as the answer to all social and natural problems. ….The inability of  India was a result of backwards agricultural practices that could not produce enough food for the growing population

The main assumption that this entire philosophy rests on is the assumption that lack of production is the reason for hunger and other manifestations of poverty in India and other developing countries. If agricultural  production could just be increased than hunger would no longer be a problem and the country could develop along the path of the industrialized affluent nations. The other broader assumption is that the underdevelopment of the Third World is evidenced by the dependence of a large percentage of the population on agriculture. Because Western industrial development has led affluent countries to the point where only a tiny percentage of their populations work the land it is assumed that this small percentage is a sign of their developed economies.

Is it valid to assume that the only way for a country to develop  is to reduce the number of people working the land by modernizing agriculture? (In other words to increase large scale production and eliminate small-scale and subsistence agriculture) Vandana Shiva argues that this is a biased model, proposed by the affluent industrialized nations of the world.

Shiva argues that there are two myths that underlie much of the policy and popular belief around agricultural and economic development in India. The first is that small farms are signs of poverty and economic stagnation. The second, connected myth is that small farms are not productive. “Farming is not a past that can disappear, farming is the future of humanity” (2006).

Diversity and Adaptation: Pastoral Nomads

Since the origins of pastoralism, different pastoral groups have used different strategies to survive. The economies, subsistence systems, and cultural identities of pastoralists are adaptive strategies that exist because of there ability to provide a livelihood for the people who practice them. Taking a cultural ecological perspective we will consider the culture of pastoralists as a survival strategy. These strategies are adaptive, and have “evolved” in response to the ecology of the region where the pastoralists live. They are also responsive to the economic and political context in which the pastoralists find themselves. However, as ecologies, economies, and political climates change, pastoral strategies that were once successful may cease to be so.

Some pastoralists have developed survival strategies that combine multiple subsistence systems, multiple economic strategies, or multiple cultural identities. Many pastoral groups are diversified in more than one of these ways. Other pastoralists have evolved strategies that focus almost exclusively on one sector of production or one economic pursuit. These pastoral groups are the opposite of diversified, they have specialized economic or ecological niches.

Some pastoral societies have been much more successful than others at adapting to changing circumstances. This has been especially obvious in the last century with the combined effects of government policies, conflicts, introduced diseases, and naturally occurring droughts. These rapid changes and crises have hit some pastoral people much harder than others, causing large-scale sedentarization, loss of herds, loss of independence, and death.

Looking at this differential success we must ask: why have some pastoralists been better at adapting to rapid changes in the ecology, economy, and politics of the modern world? Have those pastoral groups with diversified survival strategies fared better in some way than more specialized pastoralists?

Examining those pastoral groups that have been most successful in coping with change and disaster we can see that indeed, diversification is a key factor in adapting to change and recovering from crises. This diversity can be manifested in any aspect of a group’s cultural survival strategy:  in their religious or ethnic identity, in the makeup of the herds, or in the environments exploited. Those pastoral people that are diversified in one or more of these ways have multiple options with which to approach change, and they have multiple sources of livelihood in case of disaster in one area.

Here, we can use a metaphor that is helpful in understanding the differences between a specialized pastoral group and a more diversified one. We can equate a pastoral cultural survival strategy with a toolbox, and specific cultural traits we will equate with different tools. A pastoral people, such as the Bedouin camel-specialists, only have a few tools in their relatively small tool box. In comparison, the Baluchi shepherds of Southern Iran, and the Ariaal herders of Kenya, have large toolboxes with many different tools; both of these pastoral groups have diversified survival strategies.

The exclusive, camel pastoralism of the Bedouin only evolved in parts of Arabia and North Africa. In The Nomadic Alternative, Barfield explains the specialization of this cultural survival strategy. “By making themselves at home in an environment where no other nomads could survive, they were able to exploit not only a unique ecological niche, but in time a unique political and economic position[…](1993:60)” All of the Bedouin’s tools revolved around the camel and included: raiding, military power, control of trade routes, and political negotiations or extortion of sedentary centers. These tools were specific to the ecological, political and economic particularities of the region at the time. Barfield notes the modern results of this specialization, “Bedouin camel raising has been on the decline for at least seventy years. This is a product both of the profound economic changes in the region and a changing balance of political power which has given sedentary states much more control over formerly autonomous tribes (1993:87).” Barfield attributes the decline of the Bedouin’s economy to its specialization.

Even a diversified cultural identity can give pastoralists an adaptive advantage. The Ariaal people of Marsabit district in Kenya are a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Ariaal are a bridge culture between a Nilotic culture, the Samburu, and a Cushitic culture, the Rendille. The Samburu are related culturally to the Maa speaking cattle keepers such as the Maasai. They herd their cattle in the wetter highlands and plains in Samburu district. The Rendille belong to the Cushitic speaking cultures such as the Gabra and Somali (Fratkin 2004).

In his ethnographic study, Ariaal Pastoralists of Kenya, Elliot Fratkin describes the origins of the Ariaal as a mixed culture. “During the last decade of the nineteenth century, poor Samburu migrated toward Rendille and formed mixed Samburu/Rendille communities of impoverished herders attempting to build up small stock, camels and cattle near the mountain bases. These groups were alternatively called Masagera (meaning roughly “those Rendille who follow the Maasai” in Samburu), Turia (Samburu for “mixture”), or Ariaal ( 2004:48).

The Ariaal have also combined the subsistence strategies that are at the cultural core of the Rendille and Samburu groups. They practice the camel and small stock herding of the Rendille and the cattle-dominated pastoralism of the Samburu. This mixed herding system of the Ariaal has several advantages. Because they rely on different animals with different grazing requirements and capabilities, the Ariaal can exploit different environmental zones.

With camels they can convert the irregular and widely dispersed leafy vegetation of more arid environments into camel milk, meat and transport potential. At the most, camels require water every four days; this, combined with their long distance walking makes it possible for them to be herded in areas with sparse vegetation. About 30% of Ariaal grazing territory is represented by arid brush from 700 to 100 meters. This area is used for camel grazing in the dry season. Another, even more marginal environment that  the Ariaal are able to exploit through their camels is the Kaisut desert lowlands. This area makes up 55% of the Ariaal grazing territories. The desert provides an opportunistic resource when seasonal rains produce extensive pastures in the short wet season; this pasture is grazed by Ariaal camels and small stock (Fratkin 2004).

In contrast to camels, cattle are the most productive at converting the grassy vegetation of wetter environments into milk and meat. The Ariaal are able to utilize the resources of the savanna between 1000 and 1400 meters altitude through their cows. At this altitude there is much more rainfall to provide for the needs of the cattle herds. These highland environments of Marsabit and the Ndoto Mountains are the most important grazing area for Ariaal cattle even though in terms of area, these highland pastures only comprise 10% of their total herding territory (Fratkin 2004).

It is obvious then, that the Ariaal exploit a diverse environment, comprising at least four distinct ecological zones. They are able to utilize these different ecologies because of their diversified herds. The different diets, mobility, and water requirements of their different animals allows them to convert the vegetative products of several ecosystems into human food and animal labor.

The Ariaal’s ability to use these environments is also a factor of their mixed identity and ability to relate to both the Samburu and the Rendille. “[…] the Ariaal have greater access to grazing lands than the Rendille, as they utilize their broad ties of intermarriage, descent, and friendship with both Samburu and Rendille clans and can herd in their areas (Fratkin 2004:3).” The Ariaal speak the languages of both the Samburu and the Rendille. They belong to Samburu clan-names and practice Samburu age-set rituals. They also practice the Rendille customs of annual blessings of camels and evening group prayers led by elders. These cultural traits allow the Ariaal to associate with and get help from both the Samburu and the Rendille. These traits are also valuable resources that the Ariaal rely on as much as they rely on the different environments that they utilize. In a new situation or new economic opportunity, the Ariaal have twice as many cultural options to choose from in approaching the circumstances.

Fratkin shows how the Ariaal have benefited from their mixed identity and their exploitation of a mixed environment. In many cases they have faired better than the neighboring groups of pastoralists with less diversification. When bovine pleuro-pneumonia swept through East African cattle herds in 1882, camels and small stock were unaffected. Those pastoralists, such as the Samburu, who were heavily dependent on cattle were hit the hardest. The same thing happened when the rinderpest epidemic decimated cattle in 1891 and 1898. However, when smallpox spread through the human population at the end of the nineteenth century, the Rendille, who were more isolated and had no resistance, lost many lives. The resulting lack of herders to care for the large camel herds was one of the historical events leading to the emergence of the Ariaal.
The appearance of the Ariaal as a mixed culture around the time of these disasters is extremely significant. The diversified survival strategy that defines the Ariaal evolved as a response to the problems faced by the Samburu and the Rendille. Therefore, it is not surprising when Fratkin notes that the Ariaal, with their big toolbox, have been more able to maintain a successful pastoral way of life then many of the neighboring pastoralists. By not putting all their eggs in one basket, the Ariaal are less susceptible to disaster.

Another group of pastoralists that have met changing circumstances with diversification are the Baluchi. In his studies of the Baluchi shepherds of Iran, Philp Salzman has come up with the idea of a “multi-resource economy” to describe their diversified strategies of production. Most Baluchi households pursue sheep and goat pastoralism, agriculture, date farming, raiding/trading, and even some hunting and gathering. This history of supplementing the pastoral economy has made it possible for the Baluchi to remain pastoralists or return to pastoralism despite losses in the herding sector. The Baluchi have also been better at incorporating the opportunities offered by global capitalism into their multi-resource economy than those Irani pastoralists with more specialized economies.

Salzman describes how the Baluchi have benefited from their diversification. “The plurality of skills and abilities needed for prosecuting the Sarhadi multi-resource economy has proved to be invaluable for the Baluchi in adapting to changing conditions. The audacity and mobility developed in raiding was adapted to migrant labor, smuggling, and trading. And the flexibility of residence group nomadism was used to accommodate irrigation cultivation as part of the multi-resource economy (Salzman:352).” In other words Salzman is saying that the Baluchi have a big toolbox.

The opposite of a diversified economy is a specialized one. A specialized economy is usually the most productive adaptation to a specialized ecological or economic niche. Rendille camel pastoralism is the most productive system in the driest parts of Marsabit district. The economy of the Basseri is also more specialized (Salzman 2000: 357). Intensive sheep production in the high quality pastures of the Zagros Mountains is so productive that Basseri culture has evolved to focus almost exclusively on that sector, putting little energy into other sectors such as grain cultivation. Specialization limits a culture’s options when confronting change and does not provide much of a backup plan in case of failure in the sector of specialization.

Salzman notes that unlike the diversified economies of the Balcuhi “[…] the economies of the Basseri (Barth 1961) and Qashqai (Beck 1991) were more specialized. Pastoral sheep production predominated, with only a limited amount of supplementary grain cultivation. Similarly specialized were nomadic pastoral peasants such as the Yoruk (Bates 1973), the Sarakatsani (Campbell 1964), the Komachi (Bradburd 1990, 1994), and the peasant pastoralists of India (Salzman 1986, 1988).” Notice  that Salzman has defined  many of these pastoral groups as “peasant pastoralists.” These specialists have lost much of their political and economic autonomy in recent times. Many households have become permanently removed from the pastoral economy and alienated from their respective pastoral cultures.

It is apparent that pastoralists whose survival strategies are already diversified are better at adapting to change; this does not mean however, that specialized pastoralists are doomed in the face of change. Those pastoralists whose small toolboxes and specialized tools have not been successful in adapting to change have not just rolled over and died; they have not just disappeared or sedentarized. In many instances they have discarded their old tools and diversified their toolboxes. While the Bedouin have seen the decline of their specialized camel pastoralism, they have responded by developing new sectors of their economy by becoming sheep herders, smugglers, traders, and mercenaries (Barfield 1993).

The collapse of particular cultural traits and economic sectors should not be seen as the failure of pastoral people to adapt; it is a vital part of the cultural survival strategy. The sloughing off of cultural mechanisms that are not beneficial is as important to adaptation as the development of new mechanisms, or the exploitation of new economic opportunities. As the Bedouin have exemplified, even specialized pastoralists, whose old techniques are no longer adaptive, are more than capable of adjusting their survival strategies to meet new circumstances. The key for policy makers and development organizations is to realize this, and make the economic and subsistence opportunities available for pastoralists, who will diversify, and who will adapt, if only given the chance.