Green Revolution: History, Technologies, and Impact

This transformative agriculture movement both solved and created problems.

Rows of combines harvest soybeans at a farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil with green fields on the periphery.

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The Green Revolution refers to a transformative 20th-century agricultural project that utilized plant genetics, modern irrigation systems, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase food production and reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries. The Green Revolution began in Mexico, where scientists developed a hybrid wheat variety that dramatically expanded yields. Following its introduction, hunger and malnutrition there dropped significantly. 

The model was subsequently extended to Asia, Latin America, and later Africa to increase food production for growing populations without consuming significantly more land. Over time, however, the techniques and policies of the Green Revolution were questioned as they led to inequality and environmental degradation. 

History

The Green Revolution transformed rural economies using industrial food production systems already widespread in wealthy western countries, but with new plant varieties. In the 1940s, an Iowa-born agronomist named Norman Borlaug began working with Mexican scientists on a more disease-resistant, high-yield wheat. Many Mexican farmers at the time struggled with depleted soil, plant pathogens, and low yields. 

The scientists developed smaller, fast-growing wheat that required less land to produce more grain. It had a dramatic effect: Between 1940 and the mid-1960s, Mexico achieved agricultural self-sufficiency. The results were heralded as an agricultural miracle, and the techniques were extended to other crops and regions grappling with food insecurity. 

By the 1960s, India and Pakistan were experiencing population booms and food shortages that threatened millions with starvation. The countries adopted the Mexican wheat program and the new varieties flourished, with harvests increasing considerably by the late 1960s.

Rice, a staple crop for millions, was another target. Research in the Philippines dramatically improved rice productivity and the new varieties and techniques spread across Asia. China undertook its own rice research and application of Green Revolution techniques on a massive scale to feed its growing population. Between the 1970s and 1990s, rice and wheat yields in Asia increased 50%. The poverty rate halved and nutrition improved even as the population more than doubled. 

In Brazil, the vast Cerrado savanna region had been regarded as a wasteland due to its acidic soil, but by fortifying the soil with lime, researchers discovered it could be quite productive for growing commodity crops. New varieties of soy were developed that could withstand the harsh growing conditions. This shift toward agricultural intensification and expansion of monoculture crops was repeated throughout Latin America.

In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and lauded for his work to decrease food insecurity, poverty, and conflict. But over time, a growing chorus of voices would call into question the practices that facilitated the Green Revolution.

Technologies

Farmer spraying pesticide.
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In addition to plant genetics, the basis for this agricultural revolution was a package of interventions to supercharge crop productivity, based largely on American industrialized techniques that had made places like California a global agricultural leader. This included enriching soil by applying powerful chemical fertilizers and combating plant pathogens and pests with chemical pesticides. Coupled with modern irrigation methods and farm equipment, the techniques doubled and tripled yields.

Several interests converged following World War II to help facilitate this emphasis on agricultural technologies. The United States had stockpiles of chemicals and pesticides like DDT, which had been widely used during the war to prevent the spread of malaria, lice, and bubonic plague. Borlaug’s plant experiments dovetailed with efforts of the U.S. government, leading philanthropies, and corporations to expand markets for fertilizers, pesticides, and farm equipment on which the high-yield crops depended.

Beyond these tools, the Green Revolution encompassed an array of development projects that supported agricultural modernization in poor countries and more efficiently connected them with larger markets. The United States vigorously took up this work as part of a Cold War foreign policy agenda to build inroads in countries deemed “vulnerable” to communist ideology, including those suffering food insecurity. 

In India, for example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) facilitated foreign investment, while the World Bank and organizations like the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation provided support for building roads, rural electrification projects to power groundwater pumping and irrigation, and mechanized farming equipment to improve efficiency. 

For a while, the interventions worked, increasing yields, reducing food insecurity, and allowing some farmers to prosper. Those successes became the public image of the Green Revolution. The reality was much more complicated.

Impacts

Even early on, critics warned of potential ecological and socioeconomic consequences and began questioning whether this agricultural transformation was really helping smallholder farmers and rural communities. And the nascent environmental movement, particularly after the publication of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, raised concerns about the impacts of agricultural chemicals. 

Environmental Degradation

Borlaug had sought to develop more productive grain varieties requiring less land to produce the same yields. But in fact, the success of these crops led to more land being plowed under for agricultural production. In addition, increased water consumption, soil degradation, and chemical runoff did significant environmental damage. Fertilizers and pesticides polluted soil, air, and water far beyond the agricultural lands themselves, including the world’s oceans.  

The Green Revolution transformed not only the farming system, but local foodways and culture as farmers swapped traditional seeds and growing practices for the new varieties of corn, wheat, and rice that came with this package of technologies. Over time, the loss of traditional crops and growing techniques decreased resilience in the food system and eroded valuable cultural knowledge. 

As climate change accelerates, further vulnerabilities of the modern food system have been exposed. Carbon emissions associated with industrial agriculture are helping push humanity toward a climate tipping point. 

Socioeconomic Disparities

By the late 1970s, the limitations of the Green Revolution were apparent. Many of its policies favored large landowners and producers, creating hardship for smallholders passed over for research opportunities and subsidies.   

After a period of rapid population growth and diminishing agricultural productivity, Mexico entered another period of food insecurity and began importing basic grains. This reversal of fortunes occurred in other countries as well. In India and Pakistan, the Punjab region became another Green Revolution success story but disproportionately benefited larger producers. Production tools—including irrigation systems, mechanized equipment, and requisite chemicals—were too expensive for small farmers to compete, driving them further into poverty and debt, and causing them to lose landholdings.

Such challenges led to changes in how Green Revolution programs were implemented, with more attention to the needs of smallholders and the environmental and economic conditions in which they worked. But interventions have had uneven results

Agriculture Today

The Green Revolution laid the foundation for a subsequent era of genetically modified crops, globalization of agriculture, and even greater dominance of agribusiness giants in the food system. Today, consumers are often disconnected from the people who grow their food and how it is grown. And while production has increased, so has the number of undernourished people and those with diet-related diseases as processed foods continue to replace fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The dominance of agribusiness has concentrated more land in the hands of large corporations, often leading to rural displacement. Many smallholders, no longer able to make a living off of farming, migrate to urban areas. Many rural communities remain in poverty and suffer the effects of chemical exposure as pesticide-resistant crop pests and soil degradation demand ever stronger chemical inputs. 

The world now faces another looming food crisis. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion people. Can a new Green Revolution feed them all? Perhaps, but it will require interventions quite different from the first. Today, there are increasingly urgent concerns about climate change and biodiversity loss and the impacts of converting even more forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other carbon sinks for agriculture. 

Technological Solutions

Paths to meeting the world’s food needs diverge considerably. There are new technological tools to help reduce waste and limit carbon emissions. Data systems can determine everything from which kinds of crops to grow in different climatic and soil conditions to the optimal planting, irrigation, and harvest times. 

Some support making tweaks to the current “gene” revolution to increase its sustainability: biotechnology, the genetic modification of plants and beneficial microbes to increase yields without consuming more land, reduce pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and design plants more resilient to climate impacts.

Agroecology

Others are calling for a completely different agricultural revolution. With an eye toward ecological restoration and equity, proponents of regenerative and agroecological practices envision a food system that shifts away from industrial agriculture and toward traditional methods that gained momentum as a response to the Green Revolution

These methods embrace traditional and Indigenous farming practices as alternatives to the chemical-intensive, monoculture farming. They include natural resource conservation, building soil health, and improving biodiversity, along with restoring traditional land tenure and re-centering human rights and wellbeing in agricultural systems. 

Agroecology is gaining popularity as the world confronts climate change and biodiversity loss and seeks a more just food system, but the dominance of industrial agriculture makes large-scale implementation challenging. Responses to the next looming food crisis will most likely incorporate both new technological approaches and agroecological methods.