Assessing the Legacy of Norman Borlaug: Did the Green Revolution Prevent Famines?

“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 India, Pakistan, the Philippines and other countries, these concerns must be measured against the claim that “millions of people” would otherwise have starved.

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 United States. No source documentation is needed. But how do you measure, scientifically speaking, what would have happened? Have the alternatives to the agricultural model that prevailed be taken into account? Is it possible that – given that the predicted famines did not occur – that these projections were flawed? Can we assume that there were no alternatives to ramping up food production in the industrial style? Is it impossible that there might be another explanation to India‘s avoidance of widespread famines since Independence, other than the intervention of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Borlaug’s miracle seeds?

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.[1]

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.[2] Malthus, in other words, is thoroughly irrelevant to any understanding of the causes of hunger in the world. What was true in Ireland during the potato famine of 1845-1852 was also true in Bengal in 1943, and it remains true today- which is that millions died of starvation in the midst of agricultural abundance.

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.[3]

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.”[4]

Historians who have examined the periodic famines that plagued India during the colonial and modern periods have concurred with the Famine Commission that occurrences of famine were not a function of food scarcity, nor were they a result of a Malthusian imbalance between the size of India‘s population and the food producing capacity of the land. Under British rule, the commercialization of agriculture that would be stepped up in the late twentieth century had already begun, with an emphasis on industrial and export crops over food crops, as Daniel and Alice Thorner describe in their 1962 book, Land and Labor in India:  “Wheat poured out of the Punjab, cotton out of Bombay, and jute out of Bengal. As commercial agriculture and money economy spread, the older practices associated with a self-subsisting economy declined…In some districts the peasant shifted over completely to industrial corps, …villagers sent to market the cereal reserves traditionally kept for poor years…Years of successive droughts in the 1870s, and 1890s led to great famines and agrarian unrest.”[5] The landless laborers who lived “from hand to mouth” could scarcely feed themselves even in a good harvest year. As one agricultural laborer from Bihar, India put it, “If you don’t own any land, you never get enough to eat, even if the land is producing well.”[6]    

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. India, it was predicted in the 1960s, faced widespread food shortages and famine. What was the basis for this projection? The prediction of widespread famines, which gained such currency through in the popular books, Famine- 1975! by William and Paul Paddock, and The Population Bomb by Paul Erlich, had its genesis in a 1959 Ford Foundation report prepared by an Agricultural Production team from the United States, that examined demographic trends and food production in India and predicted widespread famines would occur in the year 1967. Given that India did not experience the massive die-offs that were predicted, we might allow that, quite possibly, the predictions were based on a flawed analysis. This was the conclusion of the economist Daniel Thorner, who examined the statistical methods of the 1959 report and judged that “this is the sort of jugglery that gives statistics a bad name.”

“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 India along with the team…”[7]  

If the threat of famine looming over the horizon was not what motivated the United States to invest billions of taxpayer dollars into revitalizing agriculture in the third world, there was a very real menace, which was the growing social unrest among the rural populations and a very real potential for communist insurgencies.  Peasants all over the world were demanding land. “If in 1945,” wrote Ford Foundation chair Paul Hoffman in a letter to the Unites States ambassador to India, “we had embarked on such a program and carried it on a cost of not over 200 million a year, the end result would have been a China completely immunized against the appeal of the Communists. India, in my opinion, is today what China was in 1945.”[8]

After two billion dollars in aid from the United States over ten years, India had established an industrial agriculture system with a complex of dams, irrigation systems, roads, grain elevators, and petrochemical plants. India became one of the leading wheat producers in the world. What remains invisible behind the statistics of its enormous wheat production is the enormous social, economic and ecological disruption that this transformation had caused, and which, in fact, increased poverty and hunger rather than reduced it. “The food systems that have maintained humankind through most of its history are disintegrating,” wrote Andrew Pearse, the author of the United Nation’s fifteen- nation study of the results of the green revolution, who concluded that “emergence of more capital intensive farming,” and the “dissolution of self provisioning agriculture” where the leading causes of the “crisis of livelihood” – in other words, poverty – in the developing world. [9]

Prior to the green revolution, wheat had never been an important crop in India, and it was not a staple of the Indian diet. What does it mean to boast that India increased its wheat yields under the green revolution other than to say that it grew more wheat in place of traditional cereal crops – at the insistence of the United States? Crops produced by subsistence farms are statistically invisible, and so to are the declines in the production of traditional food crops as a consequence of the commercialization of its agriculture.

If the commercialization of agriculture increased poverty in India rather than alleviated it, we must look elsewhere to explain the avoidance of famines since the middle of the last century. In 1947, India won its independence from Britain and became a democracy, and democracies do not allow millions of people to drop dead on the streets from hunger where food is available. In an exhaustive study of the occurrence of famines in India over the last two hundred years, Jean Druze offers an alternative explanation to the appearance of miracle seeds for the avoidance of famines in India since Independence, which is political and administrative rather that technological or even agricultural. If the food-to-head ratio had remained steady, as Druze found, what had changed since Independence was development of an effective emergency relief system and a commitment on the part of its leadership to avoid famines that has amounted, in Druze’s words, to a “political compulsion.”[10]

If India‘s food situation was precarious in the middle of the last century, which it was, we might ask if there were alternatives to the industrialization of its agriculture. Paul Erlich, typically, suggests that what the “under producing” countries of the world needed was the interference of more agricultural scientists from the West – however, maybe what they needed was to be left to continue the agricultural practices that had served them for millennia. Maybe what they needed was access to lands that had been taken from them by European colonizers and their descendants. What might have been the result if the United States had directed its two billion dollars in subsidies toward a peasant based, labor intensive agriculture, rather than for the purchase of machines and agro chemicals that displaced human labor and the more sophisticated agricultural wisdom that had served Indian farmers for centuries?

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 India. “Instead of breaking up the subject into fragments,” he wrote, “and studying agriculture in piece meal fashion by the analytical method of science, appropriate only to the discovery of new facts, we must adopt a synthetic approach and look at the wheel of life as one great subject and not as if it were a patchwork of unrelated things.”[11] But it would be the reductionistic model that would prevail, and that is still misunderstood to be more “efficient” and superior, although it is based on an outmoded mechanistic model rather than on a scientific understanding of the complexity of biological systems.

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, India loses six billion tons of topsoil every year. Ten million hectares of India‘s irrigated land is now waterlogged and saline. Pesticide poisoning has caused epidemics of cancers. Water tables are falling by twenty feet every year.  The soil fertility and water resources that had been carefully managed for generations in the Punjab were wasted in a few short years of industrial abuses.[12] If India‘s masses have avoided starvation, they have endured chronic and debilitating hunger and poverty. Over 200 million people in India are hungry, according to the 2008 Global Hunger Index, although India is a leading food exporter. The ongoing commercialization of agriculture in India continues to this day, and the result – which is exacerbated by climate change – is a swelling slum population that is growing at 250 times the rate of population growth. [13]

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. [14] 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 United States by creating unprecedented opportunities for western capital.

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. [15]

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 Africa, where agriculture is in dire need of support and development. But is this the most suitable form of agriculture for Africa? The world has at least grown wiser from the lessons of the green revolution. Or has it?

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

[3] Quoted in Dreze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in India,” in The Political Economy of Hunger. Ed. by Jean Drèze, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain. Oxford : Clarendon Press 1995. p. 92.

[4] Quoted in Lappé, Frances Moore. Food First. Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. New York: Balantine 1978. p. 80.

[5] Quoted in Ross, Eric. The Malthus Factor. Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development. London: Zed Books. 1998. p.49-50.

[6] Quoted from the New York Times in Lappé, Food First. p. 147.

[7] Thorner, Daniel and Alice. Land and Labor in India. London: Asia Publishing House. 1962. p. 114.

[8] Quoted in Ross, p. 153.

[9] 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

[10] Druze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in India.”

[11] Howard, Sir Albert. An Agricultural Testament. New York: Oxford University Press [1972] 1943.

[12] 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.

[13] Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso. 2006.

[14] Rathindra, Nath Roy.”Trees: Appropriate tools for Water and Soil Management.”

[15] See Ross, Eric. The Malthus Factor.