Green Revolution Legacy

Today, the Green Revolution continues. As of 2007, Norman Borlaug is still alive and still working. But the revolution has critics and the practices Borlaug pioneered have changed. Agricultural technology has begun to take advantage of powerful genetic tools and — in large measure — has moved from the realm of public good to private, corporate gain.

Even well into his 90s, Borlaug remains committed to ending hunger. “I want to cut down on human misery,” he says simply. “This is the most fertile ground for planting all kinds of extremism, including terrorism. The people of the developed nations won’t live in peace and tranquility with that pot boiling over.”

So, it was no surprise when, in 1984 at the age of 70, he took a call from Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation. Sasakawa was organizing food aid to alleviate a drought in Africa, but was interested in a longer-term solution. He called Borlaug who was now teaching part-time at Texas A&M University.

Borlaug recalls Sasakawa’s conversation.

“He said, ‘I watched what went on in Asia when everybody said nothing could be done in wheat and in rice in India and Pakistan. Look what happened’ He said, ‘But nothing’s happening in Africa… Why aren’t you working there?’
“I said, ‘I’m retired. I work here teaching part time. I’m too old. I don’t know anything about Africa.’
“The next morning, he called back, and he said, ‘I’m eight years older than you are! We should have started yesterday! So, start tomorrow.”

Normal Borlaug InterviewBorlaug was intrigued and challenged. Shortly after, former President Jimmie Carter got involved and the three men toured Africa to choose the most promising and most challenging situations. In Ghana, the new Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) teamed with a Canadian-funded research farm to test new varieties of maize. In the first thee years, national maize production jumped nearly 50 percent. In this video oral history interview, Dr. Borlaug explains his commitment to Africa and his hope that they “could make a major breakthrough,” he says. “I’d like to see that happen in one African country before I say goodbye.”

In the Sudan, the SAA tested fertilization rates and introduced a new heat-resistant variety of wheat to irrigated farms. Within three years, what production increased from 150,000 tons to more than 750,000 tons. The program expanded to other sub-Saharan countries.

But then, the pace of progress slowed and intractable problems cropped up.

  • Most African agricultural areas do not have irrigation systems, and drought years returned.
  • In many African countries, roads from the farms to the towns don’t exist or are hazardous. Grain storage facilities also don’t exist. So, when bumper crops were produced in places like northern Mozambique, the surplus crops that couldn’t be consumed locally rotted on the ground and prices dropped dramatically.
  • In other countries, there wasn’t enough money in the cities to buy the surplus commodities being produced.
  • With small markets, the farmers couldn’t afford to buy the inputs — fertilizers and pesticides — that the high-tech crop varieties demanded. In several countries, when the SAA stopped paying for the inputs, the farmers couldn’t either and yields dropped.

These real problems were recognized by Borlaug and the SAA, but the solutions of better roads, local input manufacturing, better markets and financial credit systems are beyond the capability of an individual foundation.

Don Reeves Interview“Working in Africa,” Borlaug has said in several press accounts, “has been the most frustrating experience of my professional career.” But, he continues to travel throughout the continent urging governments to build the infrastructure, train local scientists and make the investments needed.

Don Reeves admires Borlaug’s contributions to the Green Revolution, but he wonders if the technical miracles will be enough. “There’s been no shortage of food” in the last 35 years, Don says. ” There’s been a shortage of purchasing power… Will people have enough income that they can demand food in the marketplace?”

Critics of the Green Revolution say that the problems in Africa are the natural consequence of this high-technology approach to hunger. They argue that the high rates of artificial fertilization are not sustainable. They say artificial pesticides are creating dangerous environmental pollution.

The critics point out that the Green Revolution’s natural affinity with farmers who are highly educated, well-financed “early adopters” simply allowed those farmers to out produce and force out their neighbors, the subsistence farmers. These families then became migrants, forced to become the new urban poor.

And critics argue that the Green Revolution was little more than a new colonial movement allowing high-tech companies in industrialized countries to exploit developing nations. They say that western plant scientists ignored the wisdom of farmers who had been scrapping together a living for centuries.

Borlaug and his supporters argue that, in fact, their whole idea was to give the benefits of technology away, for free. The Mexican Agricultural Program, CIMMYT, and the IRRI all shared their plant lines with local producers around the world. In addition, all of the programs brought budding plant scientists from around the world to be trained at their facilities.

In most countries, hybrid varieties of wheat and rice produced in Mexico or the Philippines were quickly crossed with local varieties to maintain the best strengths of the local plants and to foster genetic diversity.

For whatever the outcomes of the Green Revolution, no one can deny the good intentions of its scientists, men like Borlaug and Henry Beachell. For instance, when critics suggested that planting only the “miracle” varieties was killing genetic diversity, the Green Revolution scientists pushed for an international program to collect as many different strains of plant diversity as possible in many different locations.

In 1971, CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, was formed. It’s an alliance of 64 countries with funding from those countries, foundations and the World Bank. They have 15 centers set up that collect, store and distribute seeds for thousands of crops. They have research projects in over 100 countries and are working on techniques for sustainable agriculture for poor as well as rich farmers. Their mission and emphasis is on supporting the public good.

All of the research that CGIAR does is open to the public, farmers and scientists around the world. In contrast, private companies were able to convince the World Trade Organization in 1995 to permit companies to patent new bioengineered plants and artificially constructed gene sequences. CGIAR’s annual budget for agricultural research is less than $300 million. The top ten multinational ag biotechnology companies are spending $3 billion.

Private corporations are spending at least ten times more on research than the best-funded public organization or countries in the developing world. What that means for the future of a hungry planet is yet to be seen.

In 2008, the limitations of public funding for crop research was dramatically demonstrated when a new pest, the brown plant hopper, began destroying rice paddies throughout East Asia. The diets of millions of poor people in Asia were threatened. CGIAR said that they new how to create varieties of rice that would resist the pest but that budget cuts prevented them from doing the research.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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