The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution, Energy, and Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: John Perkins contributes to HistPhil’s forum on the Green Revolution.

Scholarship over the past 20 years has produced a much richer understanding of the Green Revolution, but one critical angle has received little attention: the role of energy. This post will sketch the important issues connecting energy with the Green Revolution and explain why they received little attention until recently. I present it with the hope that it will inspire more intensive study.

Philanthropic organizations, particularly the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, played a key role in developing and promoting the international spread of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice after the 1940s. This Green Revolution, a name developed in the 1960s for purposes of public relations, rested on finding and developing plant varieties that responded well to fertilizer and water. Both already-industrialized and yet-to-industrialize countries adopted the new plants and methods, but the Foundations focused their work on the latter group.

As grain yields increased after the 1960s, natural and social scientists explained the physical and institutional bases for the higher yields and devised policies to further promote them. Other studies, sometimes critical and sometimes not, assessed the social and economic consequences in less industrialized countries. Notably, these studies said little about the Green Revolution’s origins or the parallel adoption of the varieties in highly industrialized countries.

Historical scholarship in recent years, however, has provided many new insights about the origins of the Green Revolution and a broader assessment of its impacts. These agricultural changes (a) stemmed from efforts of more than a century to apply modern science to agriculture, (b) involved scientific institutions first developed in the 19th century, (c) stemmed from desires of national leaders to change their countries from rural-agrarian to urban-developed, (d) bolstered US strategic military objectives of containing the former USSR during the Cold War, (e) supported industrialization efforts arising within not-yet-industrialized countries, (f) reflected ideas about demography, growing populations, and food supplies, and (g) affected the ideas of “modern” and “biodiversity.” Other literature assessed the environmental impacts of the Green Revolution and whether its strategies could or should be repeated.

Why didn’t the older studies or the more recent ones explore the role of energy in successful cultivation of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice? How important is the linkage between energy and the Green Revolution, or more broadly between energy and high-yielding agriculture? Might historians of philanthropy contribute studies on the relationship? The following ideas seem most important for studies focused on events after 1945.

After the end of the Second World War, strategic leaders in the United States saw two evolving crises. First, Europe and Japan lay devastated by the war and without energy resources—particularly oil—to aid reconstruction and revival of industrial and agricultural production. At the same time, US oil production was losing its capacity to export large supplies to its allies, as it had done before 1945.

The wartime alliance of the USA, the UK, and the USSR frayed and snapped by 1949 and tensions surged: the Cold War. US foreign policy emphasized the need to keep Middle East oil fields out of Soviet hands and to guarantee access to that oil for Western Europe, Japan, and the United States itself.

Second, agricultural yields in less industrialized countries, like India, had not increased as they had in the US after 1900, and US strategic leaders saw shortages of food as destabilizing and a possible source of communist insurgencies. As part of efforts to thwart the Soviets, aid leading to the Green Revolution began to flow.

A key distinction between the two issues—oil and food—lay in the actors. The US government, in collaboration with major international oil companies, dealt with the energy problem. The US government, in collaboration with private philanthropy, dealt with food and agriculture. From the government’s perspective, both issues were part of the Cold War, but they were distinct problems, managed by different agencies and not otherwise linked. Until 1974, private philanthropy didn’t see them as linked either.

A very direct linkage, however, connected energy issues with food and agriculture. On several levels, Green Revolution practices to obtain high yields of grain did not work without sufficient supplies of the right sorts of energy, such as electricity and petroleum.

Most directly, high yields depended on fertilizer, particularly nitrogen fertilizer but sometimes also phosphates, potassium, and other substances. Fertilizer production, at acceptable prices in the amounts required to change national yields, depended on cheap energy. For example, making ammonia fertilizer used natural gas as a chemical feedstock and an energy source to drive the reactions. Similarly, reliable water supplies for high yields depended on the energy to build dams, operate irrigation works, and pump ground water.

Beyond providing fertilizer and water, Green Revolution practices required a skilled work force of agronomists, plant breeders, and extension agents. This expertise developed first in the industrialized countries with economies based on extensive energy supplies. Agrarian countries had few or no universities or other types of schools. They lacked farm mechanization, so almost the entire labor force was agricultural. Urban populations were relatively small, and most urban people worked in commerce and government. Agricultural expertise based on modern science was as much a part of the energy-intensive industrial revolution as were steam engines and iron-steel-chemical-electrical production.

Production of high yielding varieties was, for many reasons, dynamic, not static. Stability of this production required agricultural expertise to support farmers. It would be useless, for example, to expect an agrarian country to develop a sustainable high-yielding agricultural economy without its own cadre of experts to advise farmers.

To take the story to an even higher level, leaders in less industrialized countries wanted to “liberate” labor from agriculture to create an industrial and service work force. In short, they wanted their countries and societies to move from agrarian to developed. This liberation rested on two changes: mechanization of agriculture (e.g., tractors, not bullocks or oxen; harvesting machines, not hand cutting and threshing of grains); and urban industry making all sorts of things with the aid of fossil fuels.

How did leaders and staff scientists of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations see the Cold War and energy during the efforts to increase national yields of rice and wheat in countries like India? The Foundation leaders had been involved in building US strategy for the Cold War, and they clearly saw agricultural programs as a component of efforts to thwart the Soviets.

Many agricultural scientists who worked for these Foundations had grown up on farms but left as farmers began to mechanize and use more fertilizer. For them, energy-intensive agriculture was normal. They assumed ample energy to support agricultural development in places like India. They had no experience leading them to assume otherwise.

Direct questions about the assumption finally began to surface in 1974 in the Ford Foundation’s study, A Time to Choose. The study, initiated in 1971, was completed during the Arab oil embargo of 1973 – 1974. For the first time, Americans could not simply assume that they could use as much energy as they wanted at any time for any purpose. By that time, the United States could no longer supply its own needs, and it was no longer an oil-exporting country.

A Time to Choose emphasized the need for energy efficiency in contrast to always ensuring an ample supply for whatever purpose. Efficiency of energy use had long played a role in industries using large amounts of energy, for example iron and steel production. Despite this longstanding interest in efficiency, many uses of energy still had enormous potential to provide the same benefits with considerably less fuel.

The study linked energy use and agriculture only in a subsidiary report to the parent study committee,[1] and it did not play a major role in the main text of A Time to Choose. This subsidiary report had direct relevance to the Ford Foundation, because it directed attention to programs promoting high-yielding agriculture, including those sponsored by the Foundation. McGeorge Bundy, President of the Foundation, acknowledged the importance of the subject for the Foundation’s philanthropy in a Foreword to the subsidiary report and commended it as a useful beginning.

In subsequent years, others picked up on the link in two ways. First, agricultural yields were both a cause of and a victim of climate change. Energy expended to support high yields came largely from fossil fuels, which released climate-changing carbon dioxide. In addition, high yields required high levels of nitrogen fertilizer, which released nitrous oxide to the atmosphere, a gas 300 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. Although agricultural practices were not the main source of greenhouse gases, they contributed to it.

Second, agriculture could be a source of energy for industrial operations. For example, rice husks left after refining could be burned to produce heat to generate electricity, which in turn could offset the energy demands for refining rice.

It’s clear that rice researchers and their financial supporters now recognize both climate change and the potential to generate biofuels. Less clear are the roles that philanthropy might play in fostering future programs that better understand both energy and high yielding agriculture and their relationship. Historians can shed light on this critical issue.

-John H. Perkins

John H. Perkins is a Member of the Faculty Emeritus, The Evergreen State College. He served on the founding faculty of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Miami University (Ohio) and then became a Senior Academic Dean and Member of the Faculty at Evergreen State. His books include Insects, Experts, and the Insecticide Crisis (1982) and Geopolitics and the Green Revolution (1997). 

Dr. Perkins would like to acknowledge Dr. Susan Jenkins and Prof. Carolyn Merchant for supporting him as a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. The resources of the University were very helpful in preparing this post.


[1] Arjun Makhijani, Energy and Agriculture in the Third World (Cambridge: Ballinger Pub. Co., 1975), 168 pp.

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