Green revolution

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The development of modern agricultural high-performance or high-yielding varieties that began in the 1960s and their successful spread in developing countries is referred to as the Green Revolution . The term was coined by the then managing director of USAID , William Gaud, towards the end of the 1960s and referred to the record yields achieved at that time with new cultivation methods in Turkey, Pakistan, India and the Philippines. From this perspective, hunger appeared as the result of technical deficits and the Green Revolution as an instrument for preventing violent revolutions.

The consequences of the Green Revolution are controversial internationally. On the one hand, it significantly improved the nutritional situation of many people, especially in Asia. On the other hand, serious environmental damage has been recorded in many countries because the increase in food production was primarily due to the enlargement of the cultivated areas, faster staggering of the harvests and at the cost of massive pesticide use. Smallholders were pushed out of the industrially cultivated areas and had to develop new peripheral locations with low productivity. The groundwater supplies were also overused. The uprisings due to the food shortage in many countries around the world since 2010 make the limited sustainability of the Green Revolution clear.


The Green Revolution was based on the collaboration between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government that began in the early 1940s to increase the production of wheat, corn and beans. Mexico imported almost half of its wheat needs in the mid-1940s. Within ten years, the program, under the direction of Norman Borlaug, developed high-yielding semi-dwarf wheat varieties that made Mexico's self-sufficiency possible. In 1963 these new varieties grew to 95% of Mexico's wheat acreage and the yield was six times higher than in 1944. The wheat program became the International Corn and Wheat Research Institute (CIMMYT) in 1963 and began to expand to other countries.

In Asia and Africa there were repeated acute food shortages in the 1950s and 1960s. Frequent famine and drought made feeding the rapidly growing population difficult. In 1961, 194 kg of grain were produced per inhabitant in Asia; in the United States 868 kg. This was reflected in the nutritional status of the population. The calorie intake was 1,891 kcal per day per inhabitant in Asia and 2,882 kcal in the USA. The life expectancy did not reach 50 years in Asia and the infant mortality rate was with 125 to 150 deaths per 1,000 births is very high. In Africa, the average caloric intake was 2089 kcal and child mortality was 100–300.

The Indian government invited Borlaug in the early 1960s to repeat the Mexican success story. With the support of the Ford Foundation, the first improved wheat varieties were introduced in Punjab shortly afterwards . From there they also came to Pakistan. In 1960 the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was founded with the aim of replicating the breeding successes for rice. In 1980, high-yielding wheat and rice varieties covered large areas of the Indian subcontinent. The rapid adoption was made possible by active government support, which provided guaranteed prices, free irrigation, and heavily subsidized inputs.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was founded in 1971 to coordinate and disseminate global agricultural research. The World Bank , FAO and UNDP supported the establishment. At the time the CGIAR was founded, the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture were established alongside CIMMYT and IRRI . Over the years eleven other research centers have emerged, each with a different focus (different food crops, livestock , fish , water management , agroforestry and food policy).

In the decades that followed, further high-performance varieties were developed and spread at increasing rates, including in previously neglected regions such as the Middle East , North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa . By the year 2000, over 400 public research programs in over 100 countries had approved approx. 8000 varieties for rice , wheat , maize , sorghum , pearl millet , barley , beans , lentils , peanuts , potatoes and cassava .

High yielding varieties

The Rockefeller program in Mexico initially developed wheat varieties of conventional height, which, however, buckled when heavily fertilized. The same was true for rice varieties. The focus was therefore on dwarfism. Semi-dwarf varieties not only bend over more difficult, they are also ripe earlier and less sensitive to the effects of light. In addition, resistances to pests and diseases could be crossed. The short height was the prerequisite for increasing yields.

Dwarf varieties were first discovered in Japan in the 1870s . As the availability of mineral fertilizers increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these dwarf varieties continued to spread. However, only a few of these dwarf varieties were the later semi-dwarf varieties that carry a gene or two for reduced height gain.

Wheat varieties with dwarf genes spread in Japan in the early 20th century. One of these varieties was an ancestor of some Italian semi-dwarf varieties, which were later used as parents in the Middle East and China . Another Japanese semi-dwarf variety was the basis for the Norin 10 variety , which was developed in Japan in the 1930s. Norin 10 was introduced to the United States after World War II, where it was crossed with the Brevin strain at Washington State University . Results of these crosses were sent to Borlaug in Mexico. With their help, Borlaug developed a number of semi-dwarf varieties that became widespread in the 1960s.

Rice varieties with dwarf genes were grown in China in the early 20th century. After the Second World War, a semi-dwarf variety was first developed through breeding in China, Taichung Native 1 . A variety from southern China , Dee-geo-woo-gen , was one of the parents for the first variety IRRI bred, IR8 .


The Green Revolution has increased agricultural yields , benefiting farmers and consumers around the world. It is estimated that the Green Revolution has significantly reduced malnutrition and child mortality rates. Critics point to the environmentally damaging consequences of the Green Revolution through the intensification of cultivation, e. B. soil degradation (e.g. through salinization ), chemical pollution, increased stress on aquifers and displacement of original plant species, i.e. restriction of biodiversity, which occurred even though the research centers also had the aim of reducing poverty and hunger and using environmentally friendly cultivation methods develop and disseminate.


Before the start of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, the average rice yield in India was 1.5–1.6 tonnes per hectare. Since then, over 1,000 modern varieties have been developed (over half by IRRI and its partners), resulting in a rapid increase in global rice production. In 1980 the wet rice yield was 2 tons, in 1990 2.6 and 2000 3 tons. In addition, early-ripening varieties made it possible to shorten the cultivation period and to sow and harvest a second time. For example, the IR36 variety was harvested after 105 days, while the traditional varieties took 170 days. Indian production increased from 60 million tons in 1970 to 135 in 2000. The Philippines doubled its rice production two decades after introducing the IR8 variety . Similar effects were found in other Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia went from being a net importer (1960) to a food self-sufficient country (1984). Vietnam had a food surplus in the 1980s while it was deficient in the 1960s.

South Asian wheat production also increased more than five-fold from 66 million between 1965 and 1995. In total, over 3000 high-yielding varieties have been developed over the past four decades.

Without the green revolution, the arable land in developing countries would be an estimated 3–5% higher than it is today.

Fight hunger

Asia's total grain production increased from 385 million tons in 1965 to over a billion tons (2005). This was made possible by the quick adoption of the new varieties. The adoption rate in Asian developing countries rose from 20% for wheat and 30% for rice in 1970 to around 70% for both crops by 1990. The doubling of the population was exceeded by the increase in production: 207 kg of grain were produced per capita in 1965; 2005 275 kg. The calorie consumption increased between 1981 and 2003 by over 40% (from 1891 to 2695 kcal per person per day). There has also been progress in life expectancy and child mortality. The level of malnutrition decreased significantly. The decline was greatest in East and Southeast Asia (43% to 13% between 1969 and 1971 and 1996–1998); in South Asia from 38% to 23%. In Africa, however, the proportion hardly fell.

Without the Green Revolution, developing countries would today experience 22% lower yields, 29% higher food imports, 14% lower per capita calorie consumption and an additional 187 million starving people.

Economic growth and poverty reduction

The growth in grain production led to a decline in food prices, albeit only until the turn of the millennium. Wages remained low, which boosted growth in the Asian economies. The increasing degree of self-sufficiency also made it possible to use foreign currency to expand infrastructure and other development projects instead of importing food.

The growth of agriculture has also played an important role in the growth of the other sectors. A study in eleven Indian villages, using a before-and-after comparison, estimated that every rupee from the sale of agricultural products generated 1.87 rupees in non-agricultural activities. The growth of the agricultural sector during the Green Revolution also made a decisive contribution to the reduction in poverty over the past 40 years. Globally, the number of poor fell from 1.15 billion in 1975 to 825 million in 1995, despite a population growth of 60%.

Criticism of the Green Revolution

The green revolution, despite its positive role in fighting hunger and poverty, has been criticized for several reasons. The most important point of criticism is the environmental pollution from heavy use of mineral fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. These can contribute to the pollution of groundwater and bodies of water and damage human and animal health. Critics of the Green Revolution also cite a decline in the number of actively used varieties as the cause of genetic erosion. Locally well-adapted varieties have in many cases been replaced by new breeds that have spread internationally.

In order to achieve higher yields, the harvest cycles of many varieties, especially rice, have been permanently changed. In many cases, however, the harvest cycles of the grain also influence the breeding cycles of the pests, for example that of the brown rice cicada in South and East Asia, which only reproduces during rice cultivation and dies after harvest. Due to the faster staggered rice harvests, the cicada can multiply unhindered all year round. This increases the risk of large parts of the harvest failing and thus leads to the increased use of pesticides.

The use of fertilizers has increased significantly over the past four decades. Based on surveys, IRRI assumes that the use of NPK in Chinese wet rice fields in 2004 was 256 kg per hectare. In Vietnam it was 173 kg, Indonesia 167 kg and India 95 kg. In Punjab and Haryana , the Indian states most affected by the Green Revolution, an average of over 200 kg of NPK were applied, while in the less affected Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh it was only 50 and 10 kg respectively. The use of water also increased massively in many Asian countries, especially India. There has been an increase of 70% in the last three decades. According to a study, water consumption in agriculture in Northwest India is unsustainable; there the groundwater level drops by 4 cm every year. In Punjab, India's “bread basket” in particular, high levels of pesticides are measured in the blood of the inhabitants; the number of cancers is increasing. Farmers often use pesticides indiscriminately and do not wear protective clothing because of the heat.

From a socio-economic point of view, two aspects have been heavily criticized, on the one hand the strong dependence of local farmers and the countries as a whole on large international corporations. Critics claim that most of the high-yielding varieties that emerged during the Green Revolution are sterile and protected by patent law. The farmers could no longer use their own grain as a basis for sowing the following year and, on the other hand, could not put any seeds aside, because according to international patent law this is a criminal offense and is strictly prosecuted. Adding to this dependency would be the dependence on artificial fertilizers to increase yields and remain competitive, as well as the need to use pesticides to protect against the increased risk of pests, which must also be purchased. These reviews neglect that strains were developed by nonprofit institutions like CIMMYT and IRRI. In addition, the critics often confuse hybrid seeds , which do not make sense to put them aside for the next year, with sterile varieties that are not yet on the market, but are being evaluated by the seed industry in order to be able to sell as much seed as possible. In the case of wheat, the basis of the Green Revolution in India, hybrid seeds do not yet play a role. In addition, there are and were only a few farmers who actually still produce their own seeds. In the overwhelming majority of cases, buying new seeds from a seed dealer before sowing them is simply cheaper than the laborious process of producing your own seeds.

On the other hand, the criticism is directed against the unjust distribution, since the Green Revolution concentrated on the resource-rich regions and neglected resource-poor regions. There was no Green Revolution in East India or Sub-Saharan Africa , even though poverty there is very high. In particular, yields in sub-Saharan Africa have been stagnating for a long time. The inequality between poor and rich farmers also increased dramatically. Many farmers who suffered from poverty before the Green Revolution could not afford the chemical pesticides and fertilizers necessary for optimal yields of modern varieties. In India in particular, a large number of farmers slipped into landlessness or had to commit themselves to bondage to rich farmers.

Finally, it should be noted that the Green Revolution, despite its central role in preventing further famine in Asia, by no means completely prevented hunger. India is an example of persistent hunger in the face of a successful Green Revolution. Despite undernourishment and malnutrition in its own country, India exports large quantities of grain, of which, according to official statistics, 20-30% are eaten by rats.

Conclusion: The Green Revolution was able to put a barrier to hunger, but it could not completely defeat it, and the Green Revolution has not made distribution any fairer either.

Current approaches

In addition to high-yielding varieties, agricultural scientists have developed new approaches over time to meet the problems and new challenges mentioned. Examples are integrated pest management , nutrient management and water-saving irrigation technologies. In the field of plant breeding, the focus is now increasingly on marginal locations. For this purpose, research is carried out in the areas of salt tolerance , for example . In 2010, flood-tolerant rice varieties were tested in several countries that can survive underwater for up to two weeks, which can be helpful in the case of flash floods in vulnerable areas, such as Bangladesh . In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50 drought-tolerant maize varieties have already been developed, the yields of which are 20–50% higher than those of other varieties under drought conditions.

Research is also being carried out in the field of biofortification in order to reduce the prevalence of deficiency symptoms. One example is the golden rice , which is expected to be approved in 2011 or 2012.

As a counter-model to a “green revolution” with industrialized agriculture and the focus on supplying the cities and exporting, scientists like Felix zu Löwenstein and Hans-Heinrich Bass and the journalist Uwe Hoering advocate a “green renaissance” (Bass) with ecological sustainable, small-scale agriculture and the focus on food security.

Individual evidence

  1. a b Raj Patel u. a., The End of Africa's Hunger , trans. according to The Nation 2009, online: [1] , p. 2
  2. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Robert Zeigler & Samarendu Mohanty: Support for international agricultural research: current status and future challenges. New Biotechnology, Vol. 27, No. 5, Nov. 30, 2010, pp. 565-572.
  3. a b c d Evenson, R. & Gollin, D. (2003): Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science, Vol. 300, May 2003, pp. 758-762.
  4. a b c d Dana G. Dalrymple (1985): The Development and Adoption of High-Yielding Varieties of Wheat and Rice in Developing Countries. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 67 (5), pp. 1067-1073.
  5. Michaela Führer: The Dangers of India's “Green Revolution” , Deutsche Welle, May 14, 2013
  6. ^ Felix zu Löwenstein: We will eat organically or not at all
  7. Hans-Heinrich Bass: Africa needs a green renaissance, not a green revolution
  8. Uwe Hoering: Food Sovereignty or Agricultural Colonialism in Africa (PDF; 197 kB)