How to Be Curious About the Green Revolution

Social media is alive with folks’ thoughts on Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker piece. As the controversy fades, I worry that people will be left with three ideas.

  1. Vandana Shiva is unreliable therefore all critiques of GMOs are too.
  2. Farmer suicides aren’t about GMOs so we can stop worrying about them.
  3. The Green Revolution is worth repeating, because what we need to feed the world is yet another boost in food production.

All three of these ideas ought to be banished from your mind.

  1. Specter’s ad hominem isn’t a substitute for good argument.
  2. Farmer suicides are a serious problem, in India and elsewhere, and have much to do with farmer debt. If you’re interested, Stuffed and Starved has a whole chapter on how suicides from the US to the UK to India are linked, and have much to do with the modern food system. Louis Proyect’s piece at Counterpunch makes the argument about debt nicely. Specter himself has dismissed Proyect as “perfect for Marxists flattering frauds” (though it could also be that he’s dismissing Mark Bittman’s tweet about Proyect, thus inverting the designation of Marxist and fraud. Twitter is an engine of ambiguity).

Claim number 3 is the most pernicious. The idea that “the Green Revolution worked by increasing crop production to end hunger, and that we need to repeat it with GMOs” is, despite the last paragraph in Specter’s piece, one that suffuses his argument. Unsurprisingly,  the social media debate over GMOs turns on the idea that GMOs can feed the planet, and those who are suspicious of these crops are peddlers of famine and ignorance.

In order to be able to think that the Green Revolution worked, much has been forgotten. Serious analysis of the Green Revolution needs far more space and time than either social media, or indeed, The New Yorker can contain. I put together a preliminary 63 page academic piece last year. Assuming you don’t have time to muddle through that, the post below is a short guide about how to think about the Green Revolution. It’s a detective story, but one for which clues are available in the public domain. The main trick: to see a question when others see a conclusion. In other words, to be curious.

Specter points to the success of the Green Revolution in India, noting that “between 1965 and 1972, India’s wheat production doubled”.

1. Really?
It’s worth asking whether there’s anything to explain. Is it, in fact, true that India’s wheat production doubled over these years? Economic historian Morton Jerven points out that the data themselves are products of agricultural policy.  When millions of dollars go into large agricultural projects, the numbers from ministries of agriculture that report the success of that project ought to be treated sceptically. The claim of a doubling of wheat production ought, then, to be thought of less as an independent verification of the Green Revolution, and more a product of the Green Revolution.

2. If it is true, what does the data represent?

Let’s pretend for a moment that the sociology of data isn’t a serious concern. Let us assume instead that the numbers reflect something like reality. The place to go for agricultural data is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. You can play with their dataset, using a very pretty new interface, and generate a graph like this.

Indian Wheat Production 1965-72
Indian Wheat Production in tonnes 1965-72

Let’s put this graph of Indian wheat production from 1965-72 into context, and look at wheat production from 1961 to 1980, just to be sure that dates haven’t been cherry-picked.

Indian wheat production in tonnes 1961-1980
Indian wheat production in tonnes 1961-1980

What ought to jump out is quite how flat things are before 1965. The population in India was growing steadily, there were more mouths to feed, and yet farmers seemed not to be growing any more wheat at all. Odd. Let’s put a pin in that. Meantime, let’s have a think about why more wheat might have come from the land in those years. One idea: people were planting more. We can test that by plotting the ‘area harvested’ to get a graph like this.

Area of Indian wheat cultivation and production tonnage 1961-1980
Area of Indian wheat cultivation and production tonnage 1961-1980

In 1965, the area harvested was 13,422,000 hectares in 1972, 19,138,000 hectares. So, one of the reasons that wheat production doubled is that something changed to encourage farmers to plant more wheat. Already, this ought to be making the fact-checkers at The New Yorker squirm. That production doubled is correct. But a large part of the reason isn’t to do with seed improvements per se. It’s because farmers are planting more. The yield hasn’t doubled: in 1965 is 9,132 Hg/Ha and by 1972 it’s 13,799 Hg/Ha.

So what we’re talking about is something that made farmers plant more wheat, and that made it possible somehow for 50% more wheat to come out of every unit of land farmed. Other things being equal, a 50% increase is not to be sniffed at. If I gave you some magic beans that grew 50% more abundantly over seven years, you might think we were living in a fairy tale.

3. What caused this?

The most magic beans of all are soybeans – they’re great for the soil, rich in protein, and are practically bulletproof. Let’s have a look at how they did over the same period. Beans weren’t a Green Revolution crop, so tracking their success might shed some light on to causation.

Indian soy production in tonnes 1965-1972
Indian soy production in tonnes 1965-1972

Soy wasn’t a Green Revolution crop, but its production went up by 150%. Rightly, you’d notice that soy production is much lower than wheat production. So although soy production goes up by more than wheat’s production, the fact that its production growth outpaced wheat is less interesting. What matters  is both that its production increased, and that Indians eat a lot of it.

So what could it be about the Green Revolution that made farmers flock to wheat? Was it that the price went up? Farmers are smart people. If they can get more for their money, of course they’ll plant more. If you go to the database, you can find data for the price in rupees that farmers received. There isn’t any annual data before 1966, which we’ll come back to, but 1966-1980’s numbers look like this.

Indian wheat prices in nominal rupees 1966-1980
Indian wheat prices in nominal rupees 1966-1980

4. Is the cause part of the story we’ve heard so far?

So the price was fairly flat from 1965-72 from the data we can extract from the FAO, except for a spike in 1967. The story we have is that yield went up, prices stayed flat, and farmers planted more. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that it was the magic of yield alone that drew farmers to doubling their production. You might even think that it was the seed alone that made this possible- that nothing except swapping old seed for modern improved varieties, made this possible.

But it wasn’t so. The Green Revolution involved fertilizer, irrigation, land sales, consolidation, birth control and government subsidies and supports. The seeds were a small part of the story. This was so commonly known in the 1960s that even members of Congress knew it. In hearings for the Foreign Assistance act of 1968 before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congressman Thomas Morgan pointed out that

“in the past, members of this committee have found that there were cases where assistance was applied to agriculture. . . but the operation was frustrated because the farmers. . . had no inducement to adopt improved methods because they derived very little from their increased production.”

The response from the USAID administrator, William Gaud, was that in the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Chile and Brazil, ‘primary credit for providing the incentive’ to grow more wasn’t better seed, but higher prices.

So what, then, is going on? Here’s a clue – let’s look at wheat prices, and wheat imports from 1961-1980.

Indian nominal wheat prices in rupees and import tonnage 1961-1980
Indian nominal wheat prices in rupees and import tonnage 1961-1980

One of the main reasons farmers weren’t growing wheat in 1965 is because a large part of India’s wheat supply was coming from outside the country. Specifically the United States. The best single volume treatment of the Green Revolution is John H. Perkins’ Geopolitics and The Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes and the Cold War. He talks about the US food aid program, P.L. 480 (everyone of a certain age in India knows the initials for the Public Law 480 programme, in which discounted US-grown food was shipped to other parts of the world to prevent the spread of communism). From page 175 of that book comes this remarkable explanation of why farmers’ wheat production was relatively low.

Indians paid for P.L. 480 grain in rupees, which were held by the American government in India. In the 1970s the P.L. 480 payments gave the United States control of as much as one-third of the money supply in India. It was almost as if the Americans had bought a big piece of India with grain. To make matters worse, the huge supplies of American grain that flowed into India during the 1950s and early 1960s accomplished the function intended by Nehru’s government, to keep Indian grain prices down. In fact, prices were so low that Indian domestic production stagnated. Indian farmers simply could not compete against grain sold at a loss by the American government, so they stopped trying and Indian production failed to rise fast enough to meet increasing domestic demand.

What happened in the mid-1960s to make all this change? Prime Minister Nehru died in 1964, and his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, oriented the country towards a farm payments system that paid farmers more. Perkins again: “prices of wheat rose from 37.5 rupees per quintal in 1964 to 48 rupees per quintal in January 1965, to 50 rupees per quintal in November 1965.” (p185) Ah. So, the missing price data from the FAO database led us astray. Also, it helps to know that catastrophic drought in 1965-1966 and again in 1966-67 meant that Indians were hugely dependent on foreign aid in those years.

What does all this mean? Well, for a start, it means that when someone says that Indian wheat production doubled from 1965-1972, the quality of the seeds is likely to have far less to do with it than US foreign policy, Indian purchasing and price support policy, and the weather. If you’re interested in  how a country doubles its grain production in seven years, you have to be a little more curious about it than to believe in agricultural miracles.

5. If the claim is true, does it advance the argument?

The point of all this, though, is about hunger. The claim about the doubling of India’s wheat production appears in a paragraph in which the logic ricochets from farmer suicides, to this:

“Last October, at a public discussion devoted to food security, the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich stated that Monsanto had “killed most of those farmers in India.” Ehrlich also famously predicted, in the nineteen-sixties, that famine would strike India and that, within a decade, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” Not only was he wrong but, between 1965 and 1972, India’s wheat production doubled.”

You don’t have to agree with Ehrlich’s catastrophism to ask: did hunger decline in India as a result of the doubling of grain production? The FAO has, deep in its database, estimates for the number of calories per person per day, and grams of protein per person per day. This is what they look like.

Daily per person calorie and protein intake estimates in India 1961-1980
Daily per person calorie and protein intake estimates in India 1961-1980

The population didn’t double between 1965 to 1972 – yet despite increasing wheat production, hunger per person seems to be worse than when India was following socialist agriculture policy. People in India still died of hunger, though certainly not in the hundreds of millions that Ehrlich fantasised about. Is the issue then that Indians were eating something else instead of wheat, and perhaps wheat is a distraction? In southern India, the staple is rice, but rice was a Green Revolution crop too. Note, though, that asking these questions takes us a long way from the easy logic of ‘more wheat was grown, so Indians ate, so we should do it again’.

India, despite having been a pioneer in the Green Revolution continues to have one of the worst rates of hunger on the planet. To quote the World Bank, “Although India has seen strong economic growth over the past 20 years, malnutrition in children under five years of age continues to be among the highest in the world. Rates of malnutrition among India’s children are almost five times more than in China, and twice those in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

All this production is for naught without social change.

Fair enough, you might respond, but without the Green Revolution, things would have been much much worse. And all of a sudden we’re in a different conversational place. The discussion isn’t just about producing more, but the terms of distribution. The conversation isn’t about the Green Revolution, but what might have been done differently after Nehru died. The Green Revolution wasn’t the only option on the table. GMOs aren’t the only ones today. It serves us well to be curious about the Green Revolution, and its alternatives. My fear is that it’ll be up to readers to bring that political and historical curiosity to their journalism – science writers don’t seem to have it in them these days.

11 Replies to “How to Be Curious About the Green Revolution”

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. With a more nuanced understanding based on data, politics, and history, the conversation shifts away from merely pro- or anti- positions (Green Revolution or GMO) into exploring multiple alternatives: what would your alternatives be? And acknowledging that these alternatives, too, are affected by politics and history, what do we need to do next? What kind of intelligent, democratic systems can we implement to support those alternative farming systems beneficial to land, livelihoods, and life?

  2. Raj, this is a brilliantly constructed piece. Not only do you shift the debate about Vandana’s controversial personality and politics to a much more important set of questions, but you use it to model a method for critical thinking and a deconstruction of the old worn argument that we need a new Green Revolution technology to feed the coming 9 billion people. Bravo!

  3. I did not think Specter intended his piece as an argument for gmos. There is real value at looking at individuals beyond making an argument for what they are against. The question I was left wondering is what is wrong with the food movement that causes them to hold a figure in high regard that has made so many offensive, mendacious, and stupid statements.

  4. “the social media debate over GMOs turns on the idea that GMOs can feed the planet”

    I don’t know what social media you’re following, but I’m not aware of a vast swath of those opposed to the sort of GMO-fear mongering typified by Shiva making this claim. The anti-GMO crowd of course accuses GMOs and Monsanto of a vast number of different sins — from poisoning & impurifying our precious bodily fluids to killing the Monarch butterfly to killing all the bees to making our third generation sterile to causing Indian farmer suicides — and of course of paying off government officials and most scientists to keep up the corporate gravy train. The anti-anti-GMO response is just to point out that this is a bunch of hooey, that GE is a useful agricultural tool, and that, as evidenced by their behavior, the clients for it — that is, the farmers — seem to want some (not all) of its products when they can get it. End of story. Turning this all into some massive political story is the move of the antis, not the “pros” – who are really just trying to keep the discussion grounded in facts. Which is also what Michael Specter was after.

  5. Excellent piece, thank you. One detail wasn’t immediately clear: on what data and what time span do you base the statement that “despite increasing wheat production, hunger per person seems to be /worse/ than when India was following socialist agriculture policy”? I cannot discern much of a trend in the kcal/capita/day graph — there seems to be a tenous increase in the focal period 1965-1972, and a chaotic fluctuation in the two decades shown.

    Just curious, thank you!

  6. I happened to have read a research piece from IARC that dissects the cause-effect relationship of GR into its components: seed, pesticides, fertilizers, land expansion etc. This data attributes the growth in wheat production to affirmative actions of GR. It appears that one can have it both ways if science were to drive this conversation! I am inclined to believe the informed policy instead must drive food production decisions. In that sense, the pressing issues seem to be malnutrition (as opposed to simple food availability), rural debt & unemployment, climate change, fossil fuel import dependence and food security. Any decision on way forward must be an outcome of thoughtful consideration of these factors and not simply a feather from a historical cheat sheet. While corporate interest can hijack scientific conversations through vile interpretation of data, even decisions that weight only social consequences of food policy decisions may turn out inimical to the very intended beneficiaries. Thus the most pressing concern is not whether we end up embarking on GR 2 or not. Rather, the concern is whether our country has the institutional robustness to insulate policy making from being captured by vested interests or even by well meaning activists that are solely driven by their visceral opposition to such vested interests?

  7. Thank you Raj Patel for taking us through the thicket of India and the Green Revolution. Indeed Vandana Shiva from her experience in the violence torn Punjab wrote her book THE VIOLENCE OF THE GREEN REVOLUTION. I find the comments about her often the cause for despair as they rerun the same points gleaned from someone else and cap them with words like liar, charlatan, demagogue. How many of those repeating these have read any of her twenty books? This is a brilliant mind with a broad vision of a better world. The GMO issue is only one issue in the range of her activism. She is a worthy successor to Gandhi and she leads a modest totally devoted life. She indeed stands on the side of the small farmer and organic agriculture. And the vitriol in these attacks only mean that someone’s bottom line is being threatened as the population grows more conscious of the food we’re eating.

  8. Green Revolution versus Modern Corporate Culture. How can natural vegetation in agricultural super power like India survive when it is replicating western corporate culture and urbanizing every corner of India? With more farmer suicides on the rise, how valid is it to build more smart cities in the name of advancing technology? Please Answer!! Thank you.

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