Whither Agriculture?: The “Green Revolution” @50

Staid hotels, would-be insurrectionaries should note, make unpromising ...

Staid hotels, would-be insurrectionaries should note, make unpromising backdrops for revolutions. Yet it was in the erstwhile Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, DC, that USAID administrator William Gaud proclaimed the start of one, on March 8, 1968. Around the world, farmers’ fields were alive with new growth, with agricultural yields in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Philippines shooting upward like so many blades of hybrid wheat, maize, and rice.

The revolution had been long in the making. Its origins lay in the dying years of the Second World War, with the success of a Rockefeller Foundation program to grow improved varieties of maize and wheat in Mexico. The towering stalks that United States land grant university scientists had helped raise there were soon the basis for new projects across Latin America. Before long, Western modernization theorists were beginning to see in these improved crops a compelling blueprint for agrarian change suited to the exigencies of the early Cold War. Eager to lure the world’s peasants and the governments of agrarian nations away from the seductive allure of land reform—or worse, socialist insurrection—these economists, sociologists, and fellow travelers helped midwife the rise of a global agricultural research network, with experts and plant material that moved readily from Latin America to the “hungry continent” of Asia.

The aims were not wholly humanitarian ones: prosperous peasants, doyens of agricultural modernization averred, were unlikely to sign on to the less certain promises of a red revolution. It was this contention that weighed heavily over the planners who drew upon disparate experiences in the Americas to dangle a “package” of inputs—hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and credit—that would lead peasants to certain prosperity. And from the vantage of the Sheraton ballroom in 1968, the rich first harvests of that package augured dazzlingly for the promise of global abundance. The fruits of American geopolitics and the agrarian politics of the Third World both seemed to be coalescing into something transformative, William Gaud declared. They contained “the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violet Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”1

Gaud’s hotel ballroom declaration has been seen, most frequently, as an optimistic one. Yet even he might have privately admitted to a certain unease. As he spoke, students of Indian agrarian politics were already noting the fundamental defects in a program that heaped a bundle of new resources upon the nation’s most productive peasants.2 Government ministers in India were worriedly parsing the outbreaks of revolutionary terror that had erupted where new prosperity had exacerbated older conflict. Even on the decorous pages of the American Economic Review, Klaxons were being sounded over the Green Revolution’s gains and their decidedly unequal geographic distribution. If producers in Mexico’s prosperous northwest, on Turkey’s Anatolian coast, and in Thailand’s central lowlands were luxuriating in new fecundity, their counterparts in poorer tracts had little to tout.

The most stark example of the Green Revolution’s lopsided impact came in Pakistan: Punjab, in West Pakistan was awash in healthy crops of wheat, while East Pakistan’s flood-irrigated plains saw little boon to its rice crops.3 The broadsides that a later generation of activists would lob at the Green Revolution—with varying degrees of precision—offered little by way of condemnatory evidence that a contemporary cadre of critics had not already advanced.4

What does the Green Revolution mean 50 years on, in a world where the very goal of abundant harvests seems somewhat antiquated?

And yet, there is something strange, and oddly quaint-feeling, in recalling these excoriations, and their intellectual descendants, half a century on. The countries that Gaud cited as waypoints in a revolutionary march—India, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Philippines—are now all run by a motley crew of strongmen wringing authoritarian careers out of first runs as tea seller, playboy cricketeer, Islamist footballer, and trigger-happy law student, respectively. The concerns of food security read as remarkably irrelevant in nations whose broadsheets bleed with the seemingly more urgent questions of insurgent majoritarianism, a failing security infrastructure, a decimated currency, and an increasingly rambunctious and lethal war on drugs.

What does the Green Revolution mean 50 years on, in a world where the very goal of abundant harvests seems somewhat antiquated? The question of food insecurity has certainly not disappeared. Last year marked the third consecutive year in which world hunger rose: the nearly 821 million hungry people in the world in 2018 marked a return to numbers not seen for at least a decade.5 One in eight Americans in Donald Trump’s America—including 12 million children—are food insecure.6 The specter of climate change stands to drastically remake every aspect of the global food system, from a widening of the divide between powerful exporters and anemic importers, to the decimation of global fish supplies.7 Promising models chart a path to eking out sufficient food for at least nine billion humans—from reorganizing the geography of global agriculture, to focusing on increased productivity on smaller farms, to developing microbes that will remake the nature of soil itself.8 Yet political malaise and denial consign these schemes to the realm of high fantasy.

Questions of food insecurity simmer quietly half a century after the Green Revolution’s early gains were believed to be annihilating them. They boil readily, but only when there is an easy culprit. Readers of the New York Times grappled in late October with the ghastly rib cage of a seven-year-old Yemeni girl, Amal, whose subsequent death epitomized Saudi Arabia’s brutal, man-made famine. The images, and the global discomfort that ensued, called to mind the famine images that were once a heart-wrenching staple of photojournalism and high-profile celebrity benefits: the emaciated pallor of Birhan Woldu, Bob Geldof’s Ethiopian poster girl for the Live Aid concert, the kwashiorkor-stricken boy on the cover of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, and the harrowing starvation photography of Ferdinando Scianna, Margaret Bourke-White, and Sunil Janah from the same regions.

Yet beyond the persistence of these images, the insurrectionary promise of the Green Revolution is worth calling to mind, half a century after its dawn. So, too, is the new body of work that scholars of agrarian change have put forward—a body that, in its totality, breaks down the seductive language of revolution itself. Instead, this emerging literature offers us new accounts of agricultural change embedded within larger political transformations. At a moment when an incendiary planet continues to heat but the questions of sustenance that animated an earlier era’s politics remain unresolved, new accounts of agricultural modernization might offer a path forward. These accounts challenge the idea that agrarian change occurs in revolutionary stages and break down the facile distinction between “traditional” and “modern” agriculture. Taken together, they help us foreground the small moments of contingency and the interactions among actors, ideas, and networks that lead, in time, to major change.

Curious students of the Green Revolution—in university classrooms and in activist forums—often come to the term through an encounter with Vandana Shiva, a sexagenarian philosopher of physics who has spun her interwoven polemics against globalization, biotechnology, and genetic engineering into a cottage industry.9 Draped in saffron saris and ecofeminist bona fides, Shiva’s steadfast opposition to corporate intellectual property and genetically engineered seeds has inspired substantive opposition in India to their use.10 (While transgenic cotton seeds are in wide use in India, the successful mobilization of activists there to prevent the introduction of a genetically modified eggplant cultivar in 2009 spoke to a fervent resistance to using similar technology in food crops.)

Shiva’s fierce intelligence, full-moon bindi, and valorization of all things cast as traditional puts her in a storied tradition of Indian mystics, from Swami Vivekananda and Ananda Coomaraswamy to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Bikram Choudhury, who have promised transcendence to Western audiences. The legacy of Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 Diet for a Small Planet and the rise of the health food movement has primed at least a few generations of American students for Shiva’s anti-modern ecological passion play. With conspicuous echoes of Mohandas Gandhi’s millenarian visions of a self-sufficient village India, books like Shiva’s The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (1989) and Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (2000) provide ready entry points for those seeking to understand why agricultural technology’s many promises have failed to provide sustenance—let alone justice.

Yet Shiva’s manifestos read more easily for activists than for students of agrarian change. They deepen the sense that global peasants, custodians of seeds and of knowledge best suited to particular contexts and soils, are repositories of pure traditional and unblemished stock. And these arguments place this “traditionalism,” rarely interrogated, against the rapacious, violent, and patent-hungry encroaches of Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta, and Evogene, whose names are synonymous with modern agriculture itself. These arguments harden, for students, an overly facile distinction between the technologies and ends of agricultural modernization, on the one hand, and the vicissitudes of “traditional” agriculture, on the other. They crystalize the idea that change occurs quickly and with revolutionary fervor, along with the ahistorical conceit that the loudest and most extreme visions are the only ones that have been available to historical actors. So, too, do they fly in the face of a growing body of scholarship that—taking its cues from the earliest critical accounts of the Green Revolution—has asked us to reconsider the scale, temporality, and political dynamic of agricultural modernization itself.11

Thirty years ago, with the failure of the Green Revolution’s ability to deliver peasants to prosperity and abundance already clear, social scientists began to turn their attention to the institutional origins of the dynamics that had brought American agricultural modernization to Latin American and Asian fields. The agricultural historian Deborah Fitzgerald was among the first to offer such an account, tracing the American agronomists who launched a Mexican crop breeding program under the Rockefeller Foundation’s aegis.12 Shortly thereafter, Jack Ralph Kloppenburg would sketch out the rise of patents, seed research, and New Deal agriculture that would bring particular breeding and hybridization technologies to the fore of global plant paradigms.13


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By the turn of the millennium, John H. Perkins’s work would thoroughly skewer the notion that the package programs of seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, and credit in the 1960s represented apolitical technology transfers; rather, they were processes deeply embedded in and governed by the strictures of national geopolitical and developmental goals.14 This work dovetailed with an early 21st-century proliferation of scholarship on modernization theory in its many incarnations. This body of literature was exemplified by Nick Cullather’s riveting The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (2010), which deftly probed the United States’ Green Revolution designs in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and connected them to the earliest stories of plant breeding and agrarian change in Latin America.

If this narrative feels familiar now, it obscures just how radical and important it was for this generation of scholars to push back against the earliest, apolitical accounts of the Green Revolution that did little to probe its underlying assumptions and institutional structures. And now, newer work on agrarian transformations in the 20th century is helping us see the politics, ideas, and institutions that underwrote change at local, national, and transnational scales.

A first and vital set of interventions has relocated and disrupted the traditional role of the United States in received accounts of global agricultural transformation in the 20th century. Tore Olsson’s account of the Mexican and US countryside in the 1930s and 1940s has shown the interconnectedness of what were once seen as distinct and linear processes of agrarian change.15 Students of global politics have long grappled with the specter of the United States’ imposing postwar agricultural surplus; Sarah T. Phillips’s new work is foregrounding the domestic politics that underwrote the use of superabundance as a geopolitical cudgel.16 Prakash Kumar, interrogating the long technical and institutional exchanges that sutured American missionaries and modernizers to the question of Indian agriculture, is complicating accounts that cast the agricultural relationship between the United States and India as that of patron and client.17 Jacob Tropp’s new work casts Native American politics at the center of global developmental efforts by focusing on the export of programs developed at the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.18 And Gabriel Rosenberg has recast 4-H, the most milquetoast instrument of American domestic and overseas agrarian development, as a potent site for the cultivation of capital-intensive agriculture and virile masculinity in consort.19

A second strand of work has asked us to reconsider the longer, national stories inflected by Green Revolution interventions. Mexico and India have been the sites of the first such investigations. Mikael D. Wolfe has situated the Green Revolution within a longer history of agrarian reform in Mexico, placing debates over water conservation at the center of national development.20 Two decades ago, Akhil Gupta’s influential account of agriculture’s role in questions of national development presaged a flurry of writing on India’s postcolonial agrarian politics; my own contribution to this literature has attempted to foreground the ways in which particular debates over sustenance animated the course of postcolonial Indian development and foreclosed political solutions to hunger in favor of technocratic ones.21

Recent revisionary accounts of the Green Revolution make for better scholarship and stronger scaffolding for environmental and agricultural activism.

Related work asks us to consider, with greater granularity, the other intellectual and material “donor states” vying for the developing world’s agricultural futures. American schemes of agricultural modernization competed, in the mid-century marketplace of developmental planning, with the seductive, if chimeral, allure of Soviet and Chinese agrarian reform. A recent wave of scholarship breaks new ground by foregrounding the actual course of mid-century socialism’s “scientific farming.” Jenny Leigh Smith regionalizes agrarian reform in the Soviet Union, showing that the failures of agricultural modernization there owed as much to local dynamics as to the shortsightedness of starry-eyed planners.22 Sigrid Schmalzer shreds the conceit that a Green Revolution would foreclose the possibility of red ones, demonstrating how Mao-era planners saw scientists, peasants, bureaucrats, and “educated youth” as central agents in the simultaneous realization of socialist reform and agricultural modernization.23

Other work on 20th-century agrarian modernization asks us to look beyond Cold War contexts to parallel stories. Venus Bivar shifts our gaze away from Asia and interrogates the rise of the organic movement in France, seeing in it a program of development and national cultivation fueled by big agriculture and the fascist right; Tiago Saraiva asks us to look at fascism in Italy, Germany, and Portugal (as well as their imperial possessions) as rooted fundamentally in questions of soil, cultivation, and domestication. Taken together, this work suggests that a reflexive focus on Asia blinds us to other revolutionary dynamics in unexpected places—perhaps even in European breadbaskets.24

An exciting, related wing of scholarship that draws upon the history of architecture asks us to consider the spatial, visual, and material paradigms undergirding Green Revolution technologies. Nikki Moore reminds us that the infrastructure of seed breeding in Latin America required fields, laboratories, dormitories, and libraries, whose modernist designs mirrored the putative regularity of new agricultural paradigms.25 And plant material was not the only material that brought together new discourses, practices, and networks: Ateya Khorakiwala’s work asks how the Indian Green Revolution might look if told not from the perspective of crops or people, but of materials like concrete, pozzolana cement, and steel.26

Some of the most compelling work has pushed our gaze back in time even further. Jonathan Harwood has located a first wave of Green Revolutions not in the modernizing designs of American agricultural planners, but in German plant breeding schemes in the half-century preceding National Socialism.27 It was here, Harwood contends, that researchers came to venerate particular forms of small family farms, bred plants suited to their needs, and crafted plans that would both actualize technological advancement and quell rural unrest—a model later adapted by modernizers in the United States as they worked toward similar goals in Latin America and Asia.28 Courtney Fullilove’s gripping work problematizes the very notion of a seed or crop itself by offering a long political history of hybrid wheat, tracing the networks of patents, expertise, and gene material that underwrote the Green Revolution’s raw seed stock.29

The sum total of this work asks us to think beyond the idea of a simple Green Revolution and the cast of heroes, villains, and underdogs that this framework implies. In refusing to take Gaud’s revolutionary paradigm on its own terms, and in insisting on accounts of agricultural modernization that are longer, deeper, and more granular in their analysis of politics, paradigms, and networks, we can go beyond both the left-wing caricature of agricultural technology and biotechnology companies and agribusiness’s tone-deaf insistence that their wares are apolitical and inherently emancipatory. These accounts make for better scholarship and stronger scaffolding for environmental and agricultural activism.30

This work is especially urgent now. In recent years, writing under the catastrophic specter of climate change, a cadre of environmentally minded scholars have taken up the charge of drafting blueprints for the end of the Anthropocene itself.31 Alternately sober and fantastical, this work has been characterized by a keen attentiveness to the fleeting nature of human life on earth, as well as by at least a little bit of ambulance-chasing. Its proliferation suggests, by implication, that the projects of sustenance that captured 20th-century planners—and 21st-century historians—are for naught in the face of near-inevitable planetary collapse.


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Yet these eulogies are perhaps premature in light of new work that helps us push back against the idea of revolutionary change and reminds us of the politicking, large and small, that lurks in the shadows of epiphanic proclamations. New work on the Green Revolution, and agricultural modernization more broadly, might take inspiration from the radically important scholarship now being produced by historians of medicine and science that uses particular commodities to trace out the networks of labor, consumption, and industry that link disparate corners of the world, helping us see the global structures undergirding our medicine cabinets.32

Neither the doomsday Malthusian predictions of the mid-1960s nor the fantasies of abundance offered by Gaud and others have come to pass. But new narratives of agricultural change that put contingency at their core offer much to an incendiary and still-hungry planet where questions of sustenance have not abated. The language of revolutionary change—emancipatory or cataclysmic—is no less seductive than it was to a group of development practitioners gathered in a Woodley Park hotel ballroom half a century ago. Yet as scholars of agrarian transformations turn over new soil, probing national visions, local stories, and transnational linkages with ever-greater clarity, they clue us into the ground-level dynamics that produce major change—and in so doing, they equip us, perhaps, with the seeds and implements needed to cultivate different futures.


This article was commissioned by Arianne Chernock. icon

  1. William S. Gaud, “The Green Revolution: Accomplishments and Apprehensions,” presented at the Society for International Development, Washington, DC, March 8, 1968.
  2. Francine R. Frankel, India’s Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs (Princeton University Press, 1971).
  3. Harry M. Cleaver, “The Contradictions of the Green Revolution,” American Economic Review, vol. 62, no. 1/2 (1972).
  4. See, for instance, Keith Griffin, The Political Economy of Agrarian Change: An Essay on the Green Revolution (Mamillan, 1974).
  5. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018: Building Climate Resilience for Food Security and Nutrition (FAO, 2018).
  6. Alisha Coleman-Jensen et al., “Household Food Security in the United States in 2017,” US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Report ERR-256, 2018.
  7. Luciana L. Porfirio et al., “Economic Shifts in Agricultural Production and Trade Due to Climate Change,” Palgrave Communications vol. 4, no. 1 (2018), p. 111; J. Keith Moore et al., “Sustained Climate Warming Drives Declining Marine Biological Productivity,” Science, vol. 359, no. 6380 (2018).
  8. Florian Zabel, Wolfram Mauser, and Tobias Hank, “Impact of Climate Change on Global Agricultural Potentials,” Procedia Environmental Sciences, vol. 29 (2015); Paul West, “Mind the Gaps: Reducing Hunger by Improving Yields on Small Farms,” The Conversation, January 23, 2017; Matthew Wallenstein, “From Flask to Field: How Tiny Microbes Are Revolutionizing Big Agriculture,” The Conversation, January 25, 2017.
  9. In a slightly earlier era, those same students might have come to the Green Revolution through a classic critical account of pesticide-heavy agribusiness, Angus Wright’s The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma (University of Texas Press, 1990).
  10. One recent profile is Michael Specter, “Seeds of Doubt,” New Yorker, August 25, 2014.
  11. An important recent conversation on the Green Revolution literature is Prakash Kumar et al., “Roundtable: New Narratives of the Green Revolution,” Agricultural History, vol. 91, no. 3 (2017).
  12. Deborah Fitzgerald, “Exporting American Agriculture: The Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, 1943–53,” Social Studies of Science, vol. 16, no. 3 (1986).
  13. Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).
  14. John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1997).
  15. Tore Olsson, Agrarian Crossings Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside (Princeton University Press, 2017).
  16. Sarah T. Phillips, The Price of Plenty: From Farm to Food Politics in Postwar America, forthcoming.
  17. Prakash Kumar, Agrarian Development in India: A Different History of Modernization, forthcoming.
  18. Jacob Tropp, “Transnational Development Training and Native American ‘Laboratories’ in the Early Cold War,” Journal of Global History, vol. 13, issue 3 (2018).
  19. Gabriel N. Rosenberg, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
  20. Mikael D. Wolfe, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico (Duke University Press, 2017). An earlier important account is Joseph Cotter’s posthumous Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880–2002 (Praeger, 2003).
  21. Akhil Gupta, Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India (Duke University Press, 1998); Benjamin Robert Siegel, Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
  22. Jenny Leigh Smith, Works in Progress: Plans and Realities on Soviet Farms, 1930–1963 (Yale University Press, 2014).
  23. Sigrid Schmalzer, “Red Revolution, Green Revolution”: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Three decades ago, Randall E. Stross helped show the interconnectedness of Chinese and American projects of agricultural modernization in the early 20th century; Randall E. Stross, The Stubborn Earth: American Agriculturalists on Chinese Soil, 1898–1937 (University of California Press, 1986).
  24. Venus Bivar, Organic Resistance: The Struggle over Industrial Farming in Postwar France (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
  25. Nikki Moore, “Designing Seeds and Laboratories for the Green Revolution,” Edge Effects, January 16, 2018.
  26. Ateya Khorakiwala, “Grain Silos Go to India,” Harvard Design Magazine, no. 43 (2016), p. 9.
  27. Jonathan Harwood, Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding (Routledge, 2012).
  28. American plant breeders, Helen Anne Curry teaches us, took these breeding idioms to new extremes in the middle of the 20th century, developing a fantastical quiver of tools designed to speed up the frustratingly slow process of evolution itself. See Helen Anne Curry, Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  29. Courtney Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
  30. For an example of recent work that represents both, see Raj Patel, “The Long Green Revolution,” Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 40 (2013).
  31. See Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Yale University Press, 2015); Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015); Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media, 2015); Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016); Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Polity, 2017); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing et al., eds., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  32. See, for instance, Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill (Duke University Press, 2009); Timothy Yang, “Selling an Imperial Dream: Japanese Pharmaceuticals, National Power, and the Science of Quinine Self-Sufficiency,” East Asian Science, Technology and Society, vol. 6, no. 1 (2012); Abena Dove Osseo-Asare, Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2014); and Jeremy A. Greene, Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).
Featured image: Sadias Adam Imam collects millet on land rented by a community leader in Saluma Area, near El Fasher, North Darfur (2010). Photograph by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / Flickr