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The Green Revolution – Were We Lied To?

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The collection of research and technology transfer programs known as the “Green Revolution,” sometimes known as the “Third Agricultural Revolution,” took place between 1950 and the late 1960s and significantly enhanced agricultural productivity in many regions of the globe.

A founding narrative of the Green Revolution was discovered to be false.

In a recent analysis, a researcher at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT revealed that one of the founding narratives of the Green Revolution, a movement to modernize agriculture through technology that began more than 50 years ago, was untrue.

The Green Revolution is frequently credited for tripling the production of staple crops while only requiring 30% additional cultivated land in the second half of the 20th century. This accomplishment was largely made possible by the use of technology, such as the breeding of higher-yielding plant varieties and the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Policy thinkers paved the way for the Green Revolution, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Ted Schultz described the tale of Maya Kaqchikel farmers cultivating onions and other crops in the delta of a tiny river and the surrounding hills in Panajachel, Guatemala, in his 1964 book, Transforming Traditional Agriculture. He supported his worldwide vision of technology-centered agricultural growth with this narrative of a technologically-stagnant rural village completely integrated into a market economy. This village served as a well-established example of a much larger trend in global agriculture for Schultz.

False Green Revolution Case Study

According to a recent analysis, the Green Revolution narrative was based on a misinterpretation of a case study in Guatemala. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT / Manon Koningstein

This story, Jacob van Etten, Principal Scientist and Director of the Digital Inclusion research program at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, said, became the narrative basis of the Green Revolution, along with the population growth and food security aspects from Norman Borlaug, who also helped to develop 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 “got the story wrong” 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 narrative underpinning the Green Revolution, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, van Etten showed that Schultz deliberately tried to hide that the village’s Mayan farmers were not challenged in technological terms and were able to reach relatively high economic returns.

“I hadn’t expected this… What I thought I would find would be that the story only represents one kind of experience in agriculture, but actually, it’s not even about this village, it’s a story about Schultz’s version of the village that influenced the world,” van Etten said, “and it’s a wrong story.”

The researcher explained that Schultz presented a distorted narrative that painted a picture of a population held back by a lack of access to modern varieties and fertilizers.

“What limited farms in that village wasn’t technology, it was access to land, to markets, to credit,” van Etten said, adding that Schultz’s parable ignored ethnic tensions dominating market exchange, the main barrier for agricultural development.

Lessons for the Future of Agricultural Research

In the paper, van Etten explained that Schultz told his own story rather than the narrative-as-lived of the farmers he portrayed and as a result, the Panajachel story neglected the institutional and ethnic reasons behind the farmers’ struggles harnessing technological change.

The reason why 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 look at the Green Revolution as a broad process of change that was not only about crop seeds and fertilizers,” he said, adding that for example, historian Kapil Subramanian found in a 2015 study that the Green Revolution’s impact on productivity in India did not only rely on improved varieties.

There were also major infrastructural investments in rural electricity to power irrigation pumps, as well as strong government management of markets for inputs, credit and food grains.

According to van Etten, agricultural development is not just about technology but about a mix of things, in which markets and other institutions play the most important part.

“Our founding myth might be wrong, but if it gained influence, it was because of human choices,” van Etten said, “These choices become enshrined in the way we run research organizations, but we can take a new course in defining the goals of where we should go next.”

In addition, van Etten said that much of the work of CGIAR is already correcting old technology-centric thinking.

“We take a critical look at the delivery of new technologies, gender, and inequality aspects, and look beyond technologies to policies and institutions,” van Etten said, “Being aware of our own history helps to remove blinkers.”

Another lesson was that in Panajachel, far from stagnation, there was a traditional knowledge base that was innovative in its own way.

“A lot of innovation was happening… The local varieties are not just the result of 10,000 years of slow work and in Panajachel, farmers got seeds from all over the place and tried them on their farms,” van Etten said.

As agricultural research moves into a new phase, van Etten said, it’s important to give farmers and their communities more agency to mix new technological solutions with their local knowledge.

“Agricultural research can tap into local inventiveness and amplify it and Schultz was wrong in painting farmers as helpless and stagnant,” van Etten said.

“But Shultz was right in claiming that agricultural research is a good public investment and it can further accelerate farmer innovation, as we need all hands on deck to deal with current challenges, such as climate change.”

Reference: “Revisiting the adequacy of the economic policy narrative underpinning the Green Revolution” by Jacob van Etten, 28 June 2022, Agriculture and Human Values.
DOI: 10.1007/s10460-022-10325-2

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