The Green Evolution that preceded the Green Revolution

ResearchBlogging.org The standard litany against the Green Revolution is that it failed to banish hunger because the technologies it ushered in were no use to small peasant farmers. Farmers with access to cash and good land did well, but poorer farmers on marginal land got nothing out of the revolution, and if they did somehow buy into it (subsidies, handouts) they were worse off afterwards. That’s not to deny that the Green Revolution increased yields, especially of wheat and rice. Just to say that it did nothing for most smallholders.

A wonderful paper by Jonathan Harwood, in Agricultural History, demonstrates that this wasn’t always so.1 In the early days of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program, starting in the 1940s, the target was “resource-poor farmers who could not afford to purchase new seed annually”. The MAP’s advisors put improving cultivation practices at the top of their list, with better varieties second. And the improved varieties were to come from “introduction, selection or breeding”.

Accordingly, the MAP initially devoted considerable effort to testing existing Mexican varieties of maize to identify the best one for each locality. Simply by redistributing these to the most suitable locality, one advisor recommended, the quality of maize cultivation could be improved quickly without having to wait years for the development of new varieties. This approach was richly rewarded when it was discovered that yield in some regions could be increased by 20 to 30 percent by introducing a variety native to another region.

The MAP was pragmatic and focussed on farmer needs in other ways too. Breeding was based on synthetic varieties rather than F1 hybrids, which could take a decade or more to deliver. The first of these improved varieties yielded about 30% more than the benchmark variety.

So what changed? Harwood identifies an overall shift in the relationship between the MAP and its host government in Mexico, in particular over the role of extension. At first, the Rockefeller Foundation’s advisors were convinced that extension was the most important activity for them. As Harwood writes:

This initial emphasis upon extension is significant because it reflected the advisors’ concern to reach small farmers. Large farmers, in Mexico as elsewhere, were much better placed to look after themselves. Unlike their smaller brethren, they could afford to take risks with new methods and had the capital to invest in them; many were thus keen to cooperate with the MAP by offering land for field trials and adopting new varieties. But to disseminate the requisite knowledge to small farmers required a functional extension service, which Mexico did not yet have. The existing service … was totally unsatisfactory. Since its staff had no means of transportation, they never came into direct contact with farmers and were thus reduced to distributing leaflets and answering letters. Given low levels of literacy among peasants, this was not a viable way of reaching the vast majority of farmers. Nor was the MAP ever likely to have either the resources or the manpower to take on such a huge job itself.

The Mexican Government, despite advice to improve extension, preferred to support large landowners rather than peasant farmers. And it was, of course, the large landowners (and business in general), who supported the Mexican government. The strange part is that while the MAP publicly said its goal was to alleviate poverty, in private its officers had additional motivations. Harwood quotes a 1951 Rockefeller Foundation note:

Communism makes attractive promises to underfed peoples; democracy must not only promise as much, but must deliver more. … [U]nderprivileged people attribute their present plight to the domination of the capitalist colonial system. … In this struggle for the minds of men the side that best helps satisfy man’s primary needs for food, clothing and shelter is likely to win. … Appropriate action now may help [people of developing nations] to attain by evolution the improvements, including those in agriculture, which otherwise may have to come by revolution.

And so the plant breeders formented their own revolution, instead of continuing to help peasant farmers evolve. MAP staff began to concentrate on problems they could solve, rather than problems that needed solving. The Mexican government wanted exports, to fund industrialization. MAP scientists turned their attention to wheat, and in just ten years Mexico’s output of wheat had trebled and by 1958 the country was indeed exporting wheat.

Are there lessons here for today? Extension continues to be neglected by countries and donors alike, and many breeders do their best to improve yields while remaining outside the economic and political arenas where the battles to end hunger must be fought. Complex problems require complex solutions. It would be nice to think that rather than new Green Revolutions, today’s moving spirits might eventually return to their roots and seek Green Evolutions again.

  1. Harwood, J. (2009). Peasant Friendly Plant Breeding and the Early Years of the Green Revolution in Mexico Agricultural History, 83 (3), 384-410 DOI: 10.3098/ah.2009.83.3.384 []

2 Replies to “The Green Evolution that preceded the Green Revolution”

  1. ” The standard litany against the Green Revolution is that it failed to banish hunger”… Yet Norman Borlaug is celebrated as the father of the Green Revolution and the man who saved a billion lives.

    As to the conclusion of this excellent post, it would be nice to think that we could have both a Green Evolution and a Green Revolution. There will be nine billion mouths to be fed by 2050.

    1. … “because the technologies it ushered in were no use to small peasant farmers.”

      My post has little to do with Norman Borlaug or how many “lives he saved”. It is to do with the billion people who are currently chronically hungry, and the billion more who are obese.

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