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).