Philanthropy and Historical Research / The Green Revolution

Was the Green Revolution a Humanitarian Undertaking?

Editors’ Note: With this post from Jonathan Harwood, HistPhil begins a forum on the Green Revolution. The GR is often touted as one of the greatest achievements of twentieth century philanthropy, but perhaps with no other initiative is the gap between assessment of its impact and significance by scholars and practitioners so wide. With this forum, HistPhil seeks to bridge that gap through considerations of the Green Revolution as programmatic model, as inspiration, as cautionary tale, and as subject of intense ideological and political debate.

The Green Revolution (GR) is sometimes portrayed as a set of humanitarian programmes, organised by philanthropic foundations, which applied northern expertise to the problem of hunger and poverty in the global South. Several historians of the GR have qualified this view, noting that although the GR’s consequences may have been humanitarian – in that it succeeded in boosting food production and reducing the need for grain imports – the actual motivation behind the programmes, as John Perkins demonstrated, was a geopolitical one. Namely, during the 1950s and ‘60s hungry Asian peasants were thought to be susceptible to the charms of communism. In this piece, however, I will argue that this geopolitical interpretation does not go far enough in challenging the view that the reduction of hunger – whatever the motive – was a central concern of the GR’s planners and funders. Recent work on the GR in India by Corinna R. Unger and by Kapil Subramanian suggests that historians (including me) have not paid enough attention to the fact that GR programmes were not even designed to maximise food production.

As various development historians have shown, in the 1950s it was common among modernisation theorists to regard peasant agriculture as ‘static’ and’traditional’, thus resistant to economic change. Development programmes, therefore, needed to do more than merely introduce new technology and institutions; they would have to bring about a shift in mentality. To that end, as Nick Cullather has shown, development experts were particularly keen on innovations which would not just improve agricultural production but would yield spectacular results quickly. The resulting shock – among farmers and government officials alike – was thought necessary to undermine longstanding values and assumptions. And the point of triggering this psychological ‘reawakening’ was to induce among peasants the desire to do more than just feed their families better but to gain cash-income through increasing efficiency and producing primarily for the market. Unger reports one Rockefeller Foundation official enthusing in 1969 that India’s peasants were ‘breaking out of centuries-old patterns of subsistence agriculture and entering the new world of commercial food production….’. Given this aim, the targetting strategy of the GR’s planners made sense. They set up programmes to distribute improved seed, fertiliser and pesticide only in ‘promising’ regions where water was plentiful, growing conditions were good, and farmers were keen on new technology. This, they reckoned, would maximise the likelihood of producing the most dramatic yield-gains.

A major drawback of this strategy, however, was that while it boosted production in the selected areas, it did not maximise overall food-production (and was accordingly controversial among Indian experts). For example, as Subramanian shows, the Indian irrigation bureaucracy’s longstanding strategy was to maximise the area served by public systems since this was thought to be not only socially equitable but would also maximise production. But in the 1960s David Hopper, the Ford Foundation’s agricultural economist in New Delhi, while conceding that the bureaucracy’s strategy was indeed the optimum way to maximise production, instead advocated concentrating irrigation on ‘progressive’ areas because this would maximise profit for the favoured few.

The situation with fertiliser was similar. Indian agricultural economists had calculated that the overall effect upon production would be greater if fertiliser were distributed widely in small amounts (because Indian tall wheat varieties were more responsive to low doses of fertiliser than were the high-yielding dwarf varieties promoted by the GR). The GR’s proponents, however, insisted that available supplies of fertiliser should be concentrated on the favoured areas so that very high doses of fertiliser could be used there, and yields would be maximised. Finally, we need to ask why GR breeding-programmes focused on some crops rather than others. Although rice (along with white millet) was much more widely grown (and consumed, especially in rural areas) than wheat in 1960s India and had been accordingly favoured by agricultural policy there during the 1950s, from the mid-1960s GR programmes devoted more resources to wheat- than to rice-improvement. (A comparable crop-bias had earlier characterised the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program.) Boosting aggregate food production was evidently less important to the GR’s champions – despite the existence of widespread rural hunger – than producing spectacular yield-increases on a relatively small number of farms.

Many years ago Gavin Williams made a similar case for the World Bank’s development aid to small farmers during the 1970s; its main aim was not to enable them to grow more food but to encourage production for the market. Moreover the tension between these two aims is much older. As Harro Maat and other historians of colonial agriculture have shown in recent years, although colonial authorities usually promoted the growing of cash crops for the international market, peasant farmers often resisted, growing subsistence food crops for themselves and sometimes for sale on local markets. Have things changed since then? According to Rajeev Patel, the team carrying out a Gates Foundation-funded project for the African Enterprise Challenge Fund reported that a central problem they faced was that most farmers there ‘viewed agriculture as a way of life and not a business’. For the foundations, it appears, the profitability of small farms remains more important than the amount of food they produce.

– Jonathan Harwood

Jonathan Harwood is emeritus professor at the University of Manchester and visiting professor in the Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine at Kings College London. His most recent book is Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since (Routledge 2012) and his current work focuses upon the role of expertise in twentieth century agricultural revolutions.


3 thoughts on “Was the Green Revolution a Humanitarian Undertaking?

  1. This post came to my attention via Twitter. This is a really fascinating side of the Green Revolution that I wasn’t aware of. I’m a philosopher of science and ethicist, and I’m currently working on a paper on the distrust of agronomists/molecular biologists in the context of the current GMO controversy. A discussion of this take on the Green Revolution would be really useful for my project, but I don’t know the names you’ve mentioned here at all. Would you mind recommending a few key formal publications?


    • Dan,
      Thanks much for your response. Here’s a list of the sources cited by Prof. Harwood. I hope you find this helpful, and if your research ends up intersecting at all with philanthropy, we’d love to hear more about it:

      • Cullather, N. (2010). The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

      • Hazareesingh, S. and H. Maat, Eds. (2016). Local Subversions of Colonal Cultures: Commodities and Anti-Commodities in Global History. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

      • Patel, R. (2012). “The long Green Revolution.” Journal of Peasant Studies 40(1): 1-63.

      • Perkins, J. (1997). Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes and the Cold War. New York, Oxford University Press.

      • Subramanian, K. (2015). Revisiting the Green Revolution: Irrigation and Food Production in 20th Century India (PhD diss., Dept. of History, Kings College London).

      • Unger, C. (2015). Entwicklungspfade in Indien: eine internationale Geschichte, 1947-1980. Goettingen, Wallstein.

      • Williams, G. (1981). The World Bank and the peasant problem. Rural Development in Tropical Africa. J. Heyer, P. Roberts and G. Williams. London, Macmillan: 16-51.


  2. Green Revolution was a subversive revolution, the real green growth of Indian people got stunted, Everybody very well knows who are the players; and social scientists consider a real critique of the so-called development as taboo.


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