The Green Revolution – Have we been lied to?
One of the founders of the Green Revolution turned out to be wrong.
In a recent analysis, a researcher from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT revealed that one of the founding principles of the Green Revolution, a movement to modernize agriculture through technology that began more than 50 years ago, was not true.
The Green Revolution is often credited with tripling the production of staple crops while only 30% additional farmland was needed in the second half of the 20th century. This achievement was made possible in large part through the use of technology, such as the breeding of higher yielding plant species and the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Policy thinkers paved the way for the Green Revolution, and Nobel laureate economist Ted Schultz described the story of Maya Kaqchikel farmers growing onions and other crops in the delta of a small river and surrounding hills in Panajachel, Guatemala, in his 1964 book, Transformation of traditional agriculture. He supported his global vision of technology-driven agricultural growth with this story of a technologically stagnant rural village fully integrated into a market economy. This village served as an established example of a much larger trend in global agriculture for Schultz.
This story, said Jacob van Etten, chief scientist and director of the Digital Inclusion research program at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, became the narrative foundation of the Green Revolution, along with the population growth and food security aspects of Norman Borlaug, who also helped develop of the dwarf strain of wheat that dramatically increased crop yields.
Van Etten said that by revisiting the history and context of the 1930s, it became clear that Schultz had “misunderstood the story” and that new narratives about the Green Revolution should reserve a much more important place for institutional change in agricultural development. .
In his paper, Revisiting the adequacy of the economic policy story underpining the Green Revolution, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, Van Etten showed that Schultz deliberately tried to hide that the Mayan farmers in the village were not challenged in technological terms. and were able to achieve relatively high economic returns.
“I wasn’t expecting this… What I thought would be that the story represents just one kind of farming experience, but actually it’s not even about this village, it’s a story about Schultz’s version of the village that the world,’ said Van Etten, ‘and it’s a wrong story.’
The researcher explained that Schultz presented a distorted narrative that painted a picture of a population hampered by lack of access to modern varieties and fertilizers.
“The limited farms in that village weren’t the technology, it was access to land, to markets, to credit,” Van Etten said, adding that Schultz’s parable ignored the ethnic tensions that dominated market exchange, the main impediment to agricultural development.
Lessons for the future of agricultural research
In the paper, Van Etten explained that Schultz told his own story rather than the life stories of the farmers he portrayed and as a result, the Panajachel story ignored the institutional and ethnic reasons behind the farmers’ struggle to harness technological change.
The reason it matters, Van Etten said, is that these founding myths continue to influence how researchers and the general public perceive the Green Revolution.
“It helps to look back at history and see the Green Revolution as a broad process of change that wasn’t just about seeds and fertilizers,” he said, adding that historian Kapil Subramanian, for example, found in a 2015 study that the Green De Revolution’s impact on productivity in India depended not only on improved varieties.
There was also major infrastructural investment in rural electricity to power irrigation pumps, as well as strong government management of inputs, credit and food grain markets.
According to Van Etten, agricultural development is not just about technology, but about a mix of things, with markets and other institutions playing the most important role.
“Our founding myth may be wrong, but if it gained influence, it was because of human choices,” said Van Etten. where we need to go now.”
In addition, Van Etten said that much of CGIAR’s work corrects all of the old technology-oriented thinking.
“We look critically at the delivery of new technologies, gender and inequality aspects, and look beyond technologies to policies and institutions,” said Van Etten, “Awareness of our own history helps remove blinders.”
Another lesson was that in Panajachel, far from stagnation, there was a traditional knowledge base that was innovative in its own way.
“There was a lot of innovation going on… The local varieties are not just the result of 10,000 years of slow work and in Panajachel, farmers were getting seeds from all over and trying them on their farms,” said Van Etten.
As agricultural research enters a new phase, Van Etten said, it is important to give farmers and their communities more space to combine new technological solutions with their local knowledge.
“Agricultural research can tap into and enhance local inventiveness and Schultz was wrong in portraying farmers as helpless and stagnant,” said Van Etten.
“But Shultz was right when he claimed that agricultural research is a good public investment and can further accelerate farmers’ innovation, as we need all hands on deck to meet current challenges, such as climate change.”
Reference: “Revisiting the adequacy of the economic policy narrative underlying the Green Revolution” by Jacob van Etten, June 28, 2022, Agriculture and Human Values.
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