Few of the scientists involved with the Green Revolution ever believed that the new seeds would solve the world's food problem. The problem of food deficiencies involves more than just increasing food production, and even if this were the only factor, yields cannot continue to increase indefinitely. Possibly the greatest achievement of the Green Revolution is that it has bought a little more time to solve the food problem. Food output rose in exactly the years it was needed - when population growth rates reached their highest levels. Yet it will all have been in vain if effective social and economic reforms and national population programs are not instituted to improve the well-being of the people by reducing poverty and bringing down the rate of population growth.
It would also be wrong to present the Green Revolution as an unqualified success. Even though the output of grain has increased, there have been significant drawbacks. These drawbacks are outlined below:
1) To maximize yields, the new seeds require large amounts of water and fertilizer (about three times more than traditional crops), in addition to pesticides and herbicides. These are expensive to buy. Although the cost is usually regained by the increased yields, it is difficult for small farmers to obtain the initial financing. Large landowners usually have better economic and social connections with government and bank officials. As well, they have more land to put up as collateral. Thus it is usually much easier for rich farmers to benefit from the high-yield seeds, while the poor farmers often see these benefits pass them by.
Tenants and sharecroppers (farmers who do not own land) have also benefitted little from the Green Revolution. Increased yields usually mean they pay higher rents or a greater share of the crop. Because the farmers benefitting from the new technology find it to their advantage to use more machinery, the landless, who must survive by wage labour, usually find jobs are scarce and wages low.
2) The increasing need for chemicals also poses a serious threat to both people and the environment. Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides not only introduce dangerous chemicals into the food being produced, but also enter the food chain and affect drinking water, soils, and other plants and animals. In many instances, the long-term effects of many of these chemicals on human health are not adequately understood.
And there are other problems as well. The use of chemicals has increased the presence of large multinational companies in the LDCs (lesser developed countries). Not only are some of the chemicals they produce banned in the DCs (developed countries) (e.g., DDT), but in some cases the companies manufacture these poisons in the LDCs under less stringent safety regulations than in their operations in the DCs. The Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal, India, in December 1984, although a rare event, was a horrifying example of what can happen when the manufacturing of these products is mismanaged. An estimated 5000 people died minutes after a deadly gas, (methyl isocyanate, used in the manufacturing of pesticides) was accidentally expelled into the air; 60 000 other people were severely debilitated. The accident was later proven to be the result of the dangerous and negligent way in which the plant was operated.
3) Farmers who did benefit from the new seeds saw their yields and incomes rise. Since the more land a farmer has the greater the return from the high-yielding seeds, the richer farmers have been expanding the size of their farms. Usually this is at the expense of the smal1 landowner. As a result, the size of the rural landless population has steadily increased. These people must then find work as agricultural labourers (not an easy task in most LDCs) or migrate to the city in the hope of finding employment.
4) The new technology requires more labour for land preparation. setting out seeds and plants, spreading fertilizers and pesticides, and harvesting. In some areas this has even led to an increase in wages (although overall there has been little change). On the other hand, as farm sizes increase and some farmers become wealthier, more and more farming practices are being niechanized. For example, between 1967 and 1975, the number of tractors in India rose from 66 000 to 215 000. Here again, lending institutions favour the larger farmers when issuing loans for farm machinery. As mechanization increases, it becomes more economical to increase farm size even further, thus reducing labour needs. And so the cycle continues. The number of landless people grows, fewer people are employed, and the number of poor increases. So while the output of food is rising, so is the number of people who cannot afford to buy it.
5) Green Revolution technology has not been distributed evenly. Varieties of high-yielding wheat or rice are grown on less than a third of the land planted in cereal grains (36 percent in Asia, 22 percent in Latin America, and 1 percent in Africa). Areas that have been passed over for these crops include those where there is little irrigation or where soils are less productive and areas where the roads are poor and the markets distant. The challenge of the future is to find the means to raise production levels on the small, labour-intensive farms that support over 1.5 billion of the world's poorest farmers, farmers who so far have been left out of the Green Revolution.
In general terms, it seems inappropropiate for science to try to increase food production using seeds that require the added expense of fertilizers, chemicals, and water. What is needed are seeds that are better able to withstand pests and drought and are suited to a labour- intensive farm technology. The majority of people in the LDCs farm just to survive. They lack both the land and the money that is necessary to benefit from the high-response seed varieties of the Green Revolution.
Of course, we cannot blame the Green Revolution for
all of these problems. Most are the result of the inequalities and injustices that are part of the political and
economic structure of the LDCs.
As populations grow, particularly in the developing
countries, so will the need to produce ever larger
amounts of food. Agricultural research must continue,
and its results will have to be even more successful than
those already achieved by the first Green Revolution.
To help the poorest people, whose need is greatest, not
only will food output have to increase but costs will
have to be kept as low as possible. Some of the ongoing
The research network begun by
the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico in 1943 has now
expanded to include thirteen research centres around
the world. The centres are funded through the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agriculture (CGIAR). Their research covers twenty-one food
crops, conservation of genetic resources through the
formation of gene banks, and animal husbandry. An
important function of the centres is to maintain the
productivity level of the seeds currently in use while
developing new varieties with better resistance to pests
and diseases. In addition, research programs are working to develop new crops and technologies for farmers
who cannot afford the fertilizers, water, and pesticides
that the high-yielding varieties require. (For example,
there is considerable emphasis on finding farm-grown
nutrient sources to reduce the need for purchased fertilizers. In the Philippines, a nitrogen-fixing, blue-green
algae sustained by a fern called azolla that grows in
flooded rice paddy fields has reduced the need for commercial fertilizer by 50 percent without lowering
In the rush to introduce new seeds and technologies to increase food productivity. the role of the traditional farmer has been downgraded. Few people have been concerned about the traditional farming practices in the LDCs. For centuries, these farmers had maintained the land's fertility by carefully managing the soil, water, and nutrients as well as by preserving the genetic diversity of the crops and livestock on which their farming (and their lives) depended. Much of the technology of the Green Revolution has ignored these practices. Today, however. people are beginning to realize the importance of the old farming systems.
Shifting cultivation (practised mainly in the low latitude tropical forests) is one example. Farmers clear an area by burning the trees and shrubs; the ashes then become fertilizer for the crops. Because of the low fertility of tropical soils, the fertility level diminishes after only a few years; the fields then have to be abandoned and new ones cleared and the process begins again. The old fields are allowed to regenerate naturally, and after a period of years can be recultivated. While this is an inefficient system that is unable to support large numbers of people. it does illustrate important principles of land management that can be used in designing productive and sustainable farming practices.
One such adaptation is a continuous-cultivation agroforestry system called alley cropping. Field crops are grown between rows of nitrogen-fixing trees such as acacias. The foliage from the trees contributes organic matter to the soil, while the nitrogen that is fixed by the roots of these trees also contributes to maintaining soil fertility. This system has proven to be effective, making permanent agriculture possible in tropical and subtropical environments.
Traditional methods do have limitations, particularly low levels of production, but they should not be ignored or discarded. Many of the techniques from these systems can be adapted and used with today's modem technology to produce higher levels of production, and equally important, preserve the land and so make agriculture sustainable. Sustaining these yields is a very important factor. If high-yielding technologies cannot be made sustainable, then the lives of hundreds of millions of people will be in jeopardy.
1) Briefly outline the drawbacks to the Green Revolution.
2) Briefly explain some of the new developments after the Green Revolution.
your answers by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please make sure you give a title to your answers. (ie. Answer to Green Revolution)
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