Why the Green Revolution failed

John Naughton

Consider an English domestic gardener troubled by a most common affliction: the depredations of the caterpillars of the cabbage-white butterfly (Pieris rapae) as they chomp their way through the leaves of his cabbage plants. Much incensed by this, he has resort to proprietary brands of chemical insecticide available to him courtesy of Messrs Shell, ICI, Fisons et al. Application of this ‘technological fix’ yields eminently satisfactory results. The caterpillars are decimated, the plants restored to former glory.

A few days later, the caterpillars return, seemingly none the worse for the blitz. Their chomping is as voracious as ever, and their numbers, if anything, larger. Our hero resorts again to the spray – with similar results.

Enter an ecologist. What the gardener has been doing, he explains, is intervening in a system which he doesn’t understand. This system contains not just the cabbage plant and its tormentors but also a small beetle (Harpalus rufipes) which preys on them. This beetle lives on the ground at the foot of the plant stalk, where insecticide is more persistent, and is accordingly more devastated by its application than are the caterpillars. So when the latter re-establish themselves – as they will – they find themselves in the happy position of not having to cope with a major predator.

This little tale about the consequences of ignoring systemic interconnectedness – what Henry Kissinger used to call ‘linkage’ – is laughably simple. Yet it is acted out every year in countless vegetable plots and allotments all over the country. It is also acted out on a much larger scale, and with much more serious consequences, all over the globe, in those situations where planners and decision-makers decide to employ available technology to ‘solve’ particular problems.

The saga of slum clearance and residential tower-blocks is just one example drawn from recent British history. What could have been simpler than to use high-rise building technology to solve the problem of Inner London slum clearance within the density constraints imposed by the Abercrombie Report? The fact that this strategy implied massive disruption of the complex social system within which East Enders conducted the ordinary business of living seems to have escaped everyone’s notice at the time. The consequences, however – in terms of alienation, depression, vandalism, delinquency, family breakdown – are now widely appreciated. Whether the larger lesson has been learned is another matter.

Consider another example, this time on a massive scale: the story of the Aswan High Dam. The dam was constructed at enormous expense (mainly to the Russians) and to plan. It did indeed create the massive storage reservoir considered necessary for all kinds of worthy purposes. However, evaporation from the reservoir turned out to be much more rapid than had been expected, partly because of the spread of water-hyacinths, which in turn became a breeding ground for the snails which carry bilharzia. This led to the use of chemical control measures, which in turn led to water pollution. The fact that the reservoir water was low in nutrients and sludge meant that artificial fertilisers had to be used in the Nile valley, with consequent water pollution – and disruption of traditional farming methods in the region. Continuous irrigation led to salting of the fields. Even coastal fishing died out for a time, for lack of the traditional riverborne nutrients. And so on, seemingly ad infinitum.[1]

Everything, it seems, is connected to everything else. Large-scale technological intervention – whether in ecosystems or in social systems – has to reckon with this systemic inter-connectedness. It is – as Dr Kissinger was fond of saying – rather like tugging at one corner of a fisherman’s net: the whole thing becomes distorted as a result. The consequences are usually unforeseen, and often tragic. In this area hindsight seems to be the only exact science. Which is why a recent spate of studies into the most ambitious case of massive technological intervention in recent times is worth pondering.

This intervention is colloquially known as ‘the Green Revolution’. In crude terms, it involved the development of a novel agricultural technology based on new High Yield Varieties of staple crops such as wheat, rice and the like (HYVs, in the jargon). These have as their basic biological property high responsiveness to plant nutrients from both soil and photosynthesis. Following their development in Mexico in the 1940s and 1950s, HYVs have been the basis of scores of ambitious agricultural projects in the Third World, and seemed at one time to promise significant inroads into the problem of world hunger. All this was accompanied by a good deal of self-gratifying propaganda from scientists on the subject of their contribution to human welfare: the Green Revolution was seen as accumulating credit which might one day cancel the moral debit of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[2]

Between 1970 and 1974, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) carried out 16 studies to evaluate the extent to which agricultural developments based on HYVs had achieved the twin objectives of making Third World countries self-sufficient in food and of freeing their populations from hunger. The studies were carried out by a wide range of specialists – agronomists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and historians – each of whom employed his or her own research methodology. A 50-page summary of the main findings of this multi-disciplinary squad was published by the UN in 1974,[3] and despatched to member governments accompanied by a mild letter commending its lessons.

Despite the fact that these lessons were watered down and filtered in order to remove even the slightest overtones of criticism or blame, the report was greeted with a deafening silence. The reason for this is not difficult to discern: the UNRISD studies unearthed a story of naive hopes – based in the main on simplistic notions about technology and its social impact – crushed by collisions with inequality and the systemic effects of massive technological intervention. The criticisms of agricultural policies implicit in the UNRISD report were ignored, not because they were anodyne in the standard UN mould, but because they were devastating and unanswerable.

But if societies ignore their mistakes then they cannot learn from them. Andrew Pearse is co-director of UNRISD’s Participation Programme, and he has produced a sobering book in which he summarises and comments upon his agency’s study of the impact of the Green Revolution. What Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want reveals is the widespread failure of the new technology to improve the nutritional situation in the developing world. This failure is documented, and carefully analysed in a text of considerable sophistication.

The most significant general point to be derived from the UNRISD studies is that the hoped-for ‘revolution’ turned sour for two main reasons. The first was the naivety of the concept of technology implicit in the Green Revolution strategy; the second was the failure of planners to anticipate the consequences which inevitably follow from the disruption of age-old social, economic and farming systems. The latter brings us back, in other words, to the problem of systemic interconnectedness, to the consequences of tugging at one corner of the net, to the counter-intuitive effects of intervention.

The question that should be discussed first, however, is the nature of that intervention. There is, to my mind, an urgent need for a radical overhaul of what is meant by ‘technology’. Many people still carry in their heads an implicit equation between it and tangible artifacts (as, for example, in the Bang and Olufsen ad which includes a photograph of HiFi equipment over the slogan ‘Isn’t technology beautiful?’). An equation of this sort is no longer meaningful, however. Putting a man on the Moon was correctly hailed as a technological achievement, but not so much because of the machinery involved as the sophisticated and massive organisation which orchestrated the project. The definition of technology must therefore be extended to include socio-economic organisation: it is not a matter of hardware alone. We must move, in other words, to a conception of technology as the application to practical tasks, within an organisational context, of scientific and other knowledge.

The need for such a redefinition is glaringly obvious in the case of the Green Revolution. HYVs can only work if they have plenty of water, if their diseases, pests and weeds are rigorously controlled by chemicals, if the standard of husbandry is high, and if liberal doses of artificial fertiliser are applied to them. The prerequisites for their ‘success’ therefore include not just the genetic ‘hardware’ – in this case the seeds – but also access to arcane knowledge and to an organisational structure which includes the availability of finance for fertiliser and pesticide, a functioning market system and a sophisticated infrastructure of roads and irrigation.

In the absence of these prerequisites, one of two consequences can be expected to follow from the introduction of HYVs. Either the strategy fails outright; or it ‘succeeds’ in an invidious way, by reinforcing and accelerating the dominance of those farmers who already have large holdings, educational sophistication, political leverage and access to finance. In Mexico, India, Tunisia, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, for example, where HYVs were ‘successful’, the result was wild inflation in land prices, the liquidation of smallholders, the further ‘marginalisation’ of landless labourers and the concentration of ownership and agricultural production in the hands of fewer people, each with greatly increased holdings.

From all this it is clear that the application of a ‘technological fix’ to any given social or economic problem needs to be more rigorously thought out than has been the practice hitherto. And it must be recognised that such application involves not just hardware – of whatever kind – but a whole bundle of skills, attitudes, knowledge, organisation and infrastructure. Mr Pearse uses the term ‘package’ in this connection, and it is an apt one. Assessment of the potential worth of a given technology must look beyond the physical artifacts involved to the likely impact of the other ingredients of the package on the social and economic context in which the perceived problem resides.

Failure to do this will lead to ever greater disasters as our capacity for large-scale technological intervention increases. Technologies do offer ‘solutions’ – but to what problems? In the case of food, for example, as the authors of Food First eloquently bring out, the real problems are not the genetic inferiority of traditional foodgrains or the shortage of arable land (though of course both have a bearing on the world nutrition problem): they are that people go hungry because they are poor, and that existing patterns of land-ownership in developing countries are both savagely inequitable and ineffective in meeting the food needs of the indigenous population. Until such problems are tackled, technological fixes of the kind represented by HYVs will be at best ineffectual, at worst devastatingly counterproductive.

Which brings us back to where we started – to the consequences attendant upon hasty or ill-informed intervention in a system. To some extent, our difficulties in this respect are not of our making: social or economic systems, or ecosystems, are formidably complex entities, and we lack many of the analytical tools necessary if we are to have a chance of being wise before the event.[4] But the analytical obstacles – though formidable – are, if anything, the smallest part of the problem. The real difficulty seems to me to be attitudinal For the tunnel vision which is an endemic part of the Western technocratic approach to problem-solving renders its sufferers peculiarly insensitive to the subtlety and fragility of evolved systems. This insensitivity, a prominent feature of many of the Green Revolution projects, is embodied in an ‘ideology’ (Mr Pearse’s word) which ‘encourages an image of the agricultural sector in which the rational and scientific solutions of the problems of production are constantly being generated by the scientists, but are not “adopted” by a backward peasantry. It is assumed that the reasons for the adoption or non-adoption of the practices are to be found in the ignorance and conservatism of the peasants. In some popular lines of research, cultivators are classified as “progressive”, “early adopters”, even “backsliders”, as if elements of technology were articles of religious faith, and their behaviour attributed to personality traits common to peasantries ...’

Traditional farming practices represent ingenious and resilient solutions to the problem of obtaining a livelihood without the props of Western agriculture. Sometimes these solutions turn out to be surprisingly efficient in terms of energy use, biological sustainability and other criteria. (Lappé and Collins point out, for example, that the equation of small-holdings with low productivity has as little global validity as the more conventional notion that ‘biggest is best.’) They are backed up, in many cases, by the accumulated experience of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, and are entitled to be treated with more respect than has been accorded them by eager, Western-educated technocrats who are, as Mr Pearse puts it, ‘dominated by the belief in the capacity of scientific and technological research to find the right way and to teach it to the peasantry.’

[1] See The Careless Technology edited by M. Taghi-Favar and J.P. Milton (Stacey, New York, 1973).

[2] See, for example, Public Affairs by C.P. Snow (Macmillan, 1971, pp. 212-3).

[3] The Social and Economic Implications of Large-Scale Introduction of New Varieties of Foodgrain (UNRISD Report No 74. 1, Geneva, 1974).

[4] What makes matters worse is that the traditional methodological dogma of Western science – reductionism – comes unstuck when confronted by the behaviour of systemic ‘wholes’. This is because they seem to possess holistic properties which cannot be deduced from the study of their individual components in isolation: they are, as the old cliché has it, ‘greater than the sum of their parts’.