“Father of green revolution saved millions of lives” reads one headline. “The Nobel winner who fed the world” reads another. It would seem that any claim that a single human being could have achieved these miracles, let alone a technician – should arouse at least a measure of skepticism. Although some of the commentary that appeared following the announcement of Borlaug’s death admitted that the green revolution has had its critics – it has after all, increased poverty in the world, widened the gap between rich and poor, caused water tables to drop to dangerous levels, caused widespread chemical contamination, and led to staggering losses of topsoil and soil fertility – the claim that Borlaug’s innovations in plant genetics “saved millions of lives” has gone by virtually without challenge.
The moniker “green revolution,” which refers to the United States’ aggressive campaign to “modernize” third world agriculture, has been one of the most successful public relations ploys in the history of political marketing. For what could be more politically benign than the wholesome images it evokes – images of green fields and amber waves of grain – or less objectionable than an effort to grow food to feed the hungry and the poor? For all the criticisms of the industrial agricultural system that the green revolution introduced to
What, however, is the basis for the claim that the green revolution saved millions of lives? It is repeated often enough, although source documentation is never provided – it is as generally accepted as, for instance, the claim that the civil war ended the institution of slavery in the
The persistence of the belief that so- called high yielding seeds (they produce high yields only because they are tolerant of large doses of chemical fertilizers) saved millions of people from famine, is all the more remarkable given that the scholarship has thoroughly discredited it. What is implied here is that industrial methods produce more food than small farms that integrate a diversity of crops and rely on natural fertilizers and hand labor – which has been disproved by innumerable scientific studies.
What is also implied by the argument is the Malthusian logic, which holds that famines are a consequence of a lack of food, and a lack a food is a consequence of the failure of agricultural systems to produce enough to keep up with population growth. Naturally where there is hunger, we assume that there is a lack of food. Historians and economists – most notably Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate, who has examined the causes of hunger and famine in dozens of scholarly books – have found that famine and hunger have historically been unrelated to food availability. Malthus, in other words, is thoroughly irrelevant to any understanding of the causes of hunger in the world. What was true in
According to the Malthusian view, which Borlaug himself adopted, the world had run out of land on which to grow food and the only way to increase food production was to find a way to increase the crop yields on any given piece of land through technological innovation. Malthus, however, did not take into account patterns of land ownership, or issues of who controls the land and what it is used for. Neither did Borlaug, who accepted that if there was hunger, there must be a scarcity of food. But one cannot, after all, eat cotton or jute, nor can one eat coffee or tea, nor for that matter, can a poor Indian peasant eat the food that she herself produces, because it is destined for export and for the tables of the affluent of distant cities.
This understanding of the lack of a relationship between food scarcity and hunger, although it has been deepened by the work of Sen and other scholars, it is not new; the Royal Commission of Famines established by the British in India in the nineteenth century understood it – namely, that hunger and famine under its rule were not a consequence of a scarcity of food. In the year 1880 the Commission found that:
The effect of drought is to diminish greatly and at last to stop, all field labor, and to throw out of employment the great mass of people who live on the wages of such labor distress arises, not so much from an actual want of food, as from a loss of wages – in other words, money to buy food as a general rule, there is an abundance of food procurable, even in the worst districts and the worst time; but when men who at their best, live from hand to mouth, are deprived of their means of earning wages, they starve, not from the impossibility of getting food, but for want of the necessary money to buy it.
Later, in its report on the Bengal famine of 1943 – the last major famine to occur in India, which claimed one and a half a million lives, the Commission also attributed other factors – namely greed and opportunism, as causes of the disaster: “Enormous profits were made out of this calamity, and in the circumstances, profits for some meant death for others. A large part of the community lived in plenty while others starved, and there was much indifference in the face of suffering.”
Historians who have examined the periodic famines that plagued
It was the Malthusian argument however, that framed the justification for an aggressive intervention in the agricultural economies of developing nations that we call the green revolution.
“The fuss and the furor,” wrote Thorner, “the ‘crisis of overwhelming gravity’
are not a matter of 1959, but of 1966
one wonders whether an ominous crisis came to
If the threat of famine looming over the horizon was not what motivated the
After two billion dollars in aid from the
Prior to the green revolution, wheat had never been an important crop in
If the commercialization of agriculture increased poverty in
There was an alternative, and it had its proponents, besides the peasants themselves. Sir Albert Howard, an agricultural officer with the British colonial government, who is considered to be the grandfather of the modern organic farming movement, published An Agricultural Testament in 1943, which was based on his years of patient observations of traditional faming in
While an industrial system of monocultures, mechanical tilling, and over-fertilization is ill-suited to any ecological – or social – environment, it is particularly ill-suited to a tropical environment, and the environmental consequences of introducing this technology to the tropics has been devastating. Today, as a consequence of technologies introduced by the green revolution,
The alternative, as proposed by Howard, and as practiced for thousands of years by Indian farmers, is a multi-tiered system of agro forestry that is capable of supplying food, fuel, and fiber needs, while providing year-round employment, and a surplus, over the long term.  In addition to these benefits there are those that are impossible to quantify because the values are immeasurable – the value of clean water, meaningful work, biological diversity, and the cultural, social and physical vitality of thriving farming communities.
Such a system of small holdings would have required land reform, and it would have done little to feed the larger industrial economy; although it may have benefited the rural poor in India, it would not have helped the economic security of the United States, which benefited greatly from the sales of fertilizers and machinery as a result of the green revolution. If the green revolution failed as a humanitarian program, it succeeded as an economic stimulus plan for the
The industrialization of agriculture has never been a means of meeting human needs, but of feeding the demands of an industrial economy, which requires cheap grain and a cheap pool of surplus labor. Malthus originally wrote his essay as an argument against the poor laws; Malthusian arguments about ratios of population growth and food production have always been ideologically motivated, and have been used to advance the view that hunger in the world in “natural,” deflecting criticisms away from the inequalities of colonial or capitalistic systems and onto the poor themselves. 
While these considerations may be important to correct the historical record, they are more than of academic interest. The same justifications for a second generation green revolution are being advanced in the promotion of genetically modified crops, to the detriment of the world’s small farmers but to the benefit of companies like Monsanto. (“Nine billion people. A Changing climate.” – we have all seen the advertisements.) In cooperation with the World Food Program, well meaning philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are subsidizing the purchase of agro chemicals, hybrid and GM seeds for small farmers in
Discussions about the legacy of Norman Borlaug – saint or sinner? – over-estimate his contribution on both sides of the debate. To misunderstand this is to exaggerate the importance of the genetics of crops, which has so perilously little to do with the persistence of hunger in the world. Borlaug’s seeds are the equivalent of the proverbial stone in the soup – for what would these seeds have meant without, not just the technological package of machines and agrochemicals, but the entire ideological package that constituted the green revolution? As much as the “red” revolution it was designed to contest, the green revolution was ideologically inspired; it was a form of social and political engineering necessary for the global triumph of industrial capitalism. This was no miracle, and there was no wizardry involved. Our culture is all too easily seduced by the make-believe of technological magic, and our faith that technology will solve our problems is as irrational as it is dangerous. Behind the curtain, as it turns out, there is only a little old man with a cook stove.
Alexis Lathem is a freelance journalist and award-winnig poet, and teaches writing at the Community College of Vermont.
 See, for instance, Lappé, Francis Moore, et al. World Hunger: Twelve Myths, 2nd ed. Grove Press, New York 1998; Johda, N.S. International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics; Rosset, Peter, “The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture,” Policy Brief N. 4, Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1999.
 Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
 Quoted in Dreze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in
 Quoted in Lappé, Frances Moore. Food First. Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. New York: Balantine 1978. p. 80.
 Quoted in Ross, Eric. The Malthus Factor. Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development. London: Zed Books. 1998. p.49-50.
 Quoted from the New York Times in Lappé, Food First. p. 147.
 Thorner, Daniel and Alice. Land and Labor in India. London: Asia Publishing House. 1962. p. 114.
 Quoted in Ross, p. 153.
 Pearse, Andrew. Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want. Social and Economic Implications of the Green Revolution. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Oxford: Clarendeon Press. 1980. p. vii
 Druze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in India.”
 Howard, Sir Albert. An Agricultural Testament. New York: Oxford University Press  1943.
 Rathindra, Nath Roy. “Trees: Appropriate tools for Water and Soil Management,” in The Green Revolution Revisited : Critique and Alternatives. Ed. by Bernhard Glaeser. London: Allen & Unwin 1987.
 Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso. 2006.
 Rathindra, Nath Roy.”Trees: Appropriate tools for Water and Soil Management.”
 See Ross, Eric. The Malthus Factor.