Green Revolution

High-yield, high-input rice strains were adopted in many developing nations, increasing food production and reorganizing agriculture to follow the American model.

Summary of Event

In 1964, at the International Rice Research Institute International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, the Philippines, a new variety of rice was bred which, with the addition of sufficient water, fertilizer, and pesticides, among other things, would double rice production in much of Asia. This new seed, in conjunction with high-yield variety wheats already developed, led to vast social and ecological changes as small, diverse agricultural plots farmed with traditional methods were converted to larger, single-crop fields throughout the world. Green Revolution
Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield]
Genetic engineering
[kw]Green Revolution (1964)
[kw]Revolution, Green (1964)
Green Revolution
Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield]
Genetic engineering
[g]Southeast Asia;1964: Green Revolution[07800]
[g]Philippines;1964: Green Revolution[07800]
[c]Environmental issues;1964: Green Revolution[07800]
[c]Agriculture;1964: Green Revolution[07800]
Chandler, Robert F.
Borlaug, Norman
Swaminathan, M. S.

The plant-breeding program at IRRI was an extension of work done in the 1940’s by Norman Borlaug, an American plant pathologist, in a joint program between the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation. Borlaug developed the first high-yield wheat by interbreeding local varieties with seeds from around the world to incorporate high productivity, disease resistance, and some degree of adaptation to local conditions. The new hybrids had tripled wheat production in Mexico in six years. Contributing to Borlaug’s success was the team of young Mexican agricultural scientists he trained and sent into the field, which became part of the model copied at IRRI.

The International Rice Research Institute was created in 1962 under the direction of Robert Chandler, a former president of the University of New Hampshire. Chandler and the Rockefeller Foundation, joined by the Ford Foundation, wanted to do for rice, the staple food of Asia, what Borlaug had done for wheat. They were concerned that, although population growth was climbing in Asia and other developing areas, food production was not keeping pace.

IRRI’s goal was in line with a change in U.S. foreign aid Foreign aid, U.S.;agricultural assistance policy. Previously, the United States had shipped food directly to countries in need; after 1965, the policy was changed to encourage increased agricultural production in those countries. Much of that encouragement took the form of shipments of fertilizer, without which the new hybrid seeds could not perform their miracles. Critics have pointed out that new advances in fertilizer production in the mid-1960’s by the Kellogg Corporation had created a glut on the fertilizer market in the United States, leading Kellogg to seek the development of new markets abroad.

In two years, Chandler’s scientists at IRRI announced the development of a strain of rice called IR-8. IR-8 was bred from a cross between a tough, productive strain from Indonesia and a dwarf rice from Taiwan. No sooner had IR-8 been hailed as the new miracle crop than dissemination of it began around the globe. The new crop was soon found, however, to be susceptible to a range of diseases and pests. In 1968 and 1969, it was devastated by bacterial blight, and in 1970 and 1971, it was devastated by a tropical disease called tungro. As Norman Borlaug had found earlier with his strains of wheat, the effort to develop new resistant varieties had to be constant. In 1977, the first rice variety with resistance to multiple diseases was released, only to be attacked by a previously unknown virus, and so the cycle continued.

When disease struck fields planted in the hybrids, destruction was complete. The new fields were a simplified ecosystem of one crop or monoculture. All the other species of plant which could have helped interrupt the spread of disease had been eliminated. Moreover, all the plants, being genetically identical, were identically vulnerable.

The promise of increased yields drew millions of farmers each year to try the new wheat and rice. In India, this process was initiated by M. S. Swaminathan, an agricultural official who invited Borlaug to India in 1963 for consultation. Borlaug convinced him to try the new Mexican wheat and the farming methods it required. By 1965, Swaminathan had committed India to try the new process on a massive scale. Despite resistance to the new methods, Indian farmers were persuaded to try. By 1968, India’s wheat production increased by five million tons, and by the early 1970’s, India was self-sufficient in grain, as was the Philippines.

In Mexico, the existing research program was turned over to the Mexican government, and a new organization, the International Corn and Wheat Improvement Center International Corn and Wheat Improvement Center , was created. Additional backing came from the Kellogg Foundation as new research centers were established in Nigeria in 1965, Colombia in 1968, Liberia in 1971, and Peru and India in 1972. By 1971, however, the foundations sought to divest themselves of this network, and a consortium of foundations, governments, and agencies of the United Nations, called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, was formed to take over the funding.

By the 1970’s, as a result of the work of these institutes, high-yield wheat or rice or both were grown in Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kenya, Egypt, Pakistan, Brazil, Indonesia, Ceylon, Burma, Vietnam, and other countries.

As for the recurring problems of eruptions of new diseases and pests, the emphasis shifted at IRRI and the other research programs to breeding for improved hardiness and disease resistance rather than for further increases in yield.


Some critics have called the term “high-yield varieties” a misnomer, because in anything less than ideal conditions, the new crops performed less well than the crops they replaced. Large quantities of fertilizer were the primary input which the new seeds required, but they also needed a constant and plentiful water supply, which in many areas entailed large-scale irrigation projects. Since the new breeds were as a rule less pest-resistant than the old, pesticides were also a prerequisite. Machinery replaced labor in preparing the land and harvesting the grain. Higher yields were also achieved because fields were planted two or more times per year. Taken as a whole, the hybrids represented a radically different system of agriculture, with significant social and environmental impacts.

In the social realm, although the Green Revolution created the possibility of solving world hunger by dramatically increasing yields, in many places it led instead to the further impoverishment of small farmers who could not afford the inputs required. In Indonesia, it has been estimated, only 25 percent of peasant farmers benefited from the Green Revolution. As the hybrid seeds came into use, many farmers lost their land and became day laborers in the countryside. Others migrated to the cities, contributing to the further crowding of urban areas, while the larger landowners prospered and bought up the abandoned farms. Indeed, when the Mexican government initiated the first research program, the reduction of the farm population had been as much a goal as the increase of the food supply.

The new agricultural system changed communities which had been relatively self-sufficient in food to ones dependent on seeds and inputs from the United States and multinational corporations. While IRRI and the other research institutes aimed to stimulate local production of fertilizer, that has been the exception, with Kellogg and other corporations remaining the chief source. In the Philippines, for example, as the new hybrids were introduced, the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil Company set up four hundred agroservice centers, which sold ESSO fertilizer and inputs.

The Green Revolution has had an equally significant impact on the environment. The old agricultural ecosystem of subsistence-style farms was based on small fields, often intercropped, often broken by hedgerows, windbreaks, or streams, often including fields which lay fallow to let the soil regenerate. Insects, animals, and birds remained part of the environment.

The large-scale farm machinery of the new system required larger fields. Hedgerows and even streams were destroyed, while pesticides eliminated insects and animals. As high yields depended on the maximum possible number of plantings, soil could not be allowed to lie fallow. Fertilizer supplied the nitrogen necessary for fertility, leaving the soil, after harvesting, again depleted.

One ton of petroleum is required to produce two to three tons of fertilizer. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised its prices in 1973, the price of fertilizer in Southeast Asia rose from $50 to $225 per ton. In its dependence on this nonrenewable energy source necessary for pesticides and machinery as well as the production of fertilizer, the new agricultural system was vulnerable. Moreover, the environmental costs of extracting, refining, and shipping petroleum on an unprecedented scale had to be included in its price tag.

Although before the Green Revolution pesticides Pesticides were virtually unknown in developing nations, since then their use has climbed steadily. Few governments there thought to regulate pesticide use or had the means to do so. As dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and other substances were banned in the United States, companies shipped their stocks to the less-developed countries for sale. High illiteracy rates and repressive working conditions often complicated these problems. Health statistics are often unavailable or partial in many developing countries, but the World Health Organization estimated in 1979 that five thousand people died, one-half of whom were children, and one-half million more were poisoned by direct contact with pesticides. A 1979 survey of five major markets in Bangkok reported pesticide residues in over three-quarters of the rice and flour, and every freshwater fish tested was contaminated.

Pesticide use in Green Revolution countries has led to contamination of people, land, and water there, and pesticides have also found their way back to the United States and Europe in food imports. Furthermore, new generations of pesticide-resistant pests develop continually. These superpests have contributed to crop failures around the world, and to the collapse of some agricultural industries.

The Green Revolution has also contributed to a larger problem, the diminishing of genetic variety worldwide. Only fifteen species of plant, three of which are rice, corn, and wheat, provide 85 to 90 percent of human energy. As genetically identical hybrids spread throughout the world, they take the place of locally adapted crops, which are lost forever. The new strains were created by the interbreeding of just such crops from around the world, and as scientists seek to develop new hybrids in response to outbreaks of disease, they are beginning to find the genetic material they need already gone. All of this notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that the expanding production of food saved countless millions from starvation. Green Revolution
Crops, high-yield[Crops, high yield]
Genetic engineering

Further Reading

  • Brown, Lester. Seeds of Change: The Green Revolution and Development in the 1970’s. New York: Praeger, 1970. A readable introduction for the layperson, from the former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s international development unit, who helped develop the policies that fostered the Green Revolution.
  • Doyle, Jack. “Green Revolution II.” In Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World’s Food Supply. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Puts the Green Revolution in the context of bioengineering advances before and since. Comprehensive.
  • George, Susan. “The Green Revolution.” In How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1977. Scathingly critical of the Green Revolution. Scholarly, well documented, with footnotes and index. Hard to find.
  • _______. Ill Fares the Land: Essays on Food, Hunger, and Power. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1984. Less comprehensive than her previous book, but otherwise similar.
  • Lappé, Frances Moore, and Joseph Collins. “Modernizing Hunger.” In Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. New York: Ballantine, 1977. An influential best seller. Argues that equitable distribution of land and resources is more important for the eradication of hunger than are high-yield crops. Written in a lively question-and-answer format.
  • Mooney, Pat Roy. “The Green Revolution.” In Seeds of the Earth: A Public or Private Resource? Ottawa: Canadian Council for International Cooperation, 1979. Puts the Green Revolution in the context of genetic erosion and conservation. Scholarly, with many tables and footnotes.
  • Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A history of the Green Revolution from the point of view of its effects on national security concerns and the Cold War. Bibliographic references and index.
  • “Pesticides.” In Pills, Pesticides and Profits: The International Trade in Toxic Substances, edited by Ruth Norris. Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.: North River Press, 1982. Well-documented exposé written by scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
  • Wu, Felicia, and William Butz. The Future of Genetically Modified Crops: Lessons from the Green Revolution. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2004. Brief book evaluating the proper legacy of the Green Revolution for the twenty-first century. Bibliographic references.

United Nations Holds Its First Conference on Food and Agriculture

First Modern Herbicide Is Introduced

European Economic Community Adopts the Common Agricultural Policy

Borlaug Receives the Nobel Prize for His Work on World Hunger