Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

How to Improve the Social Benefits of AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

How to Improve the Social Benefits of AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH

Article excerpt

The Green Revolution left millions of the world's smallholder farmers behind. Increasing the role of farmers in agricultural innovation can help them catch up--and will lead to better science in the process.

Famines have killed tens of millions of people across the centuries. But as the global population rose from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to nearly eight billion today, mortality from famine was radically curtailed. What accounted for this remarkable accomplishment? Perhaps the most commonly cited factor is the Green Revolution, typically summarized, as in this online encyclopedia entry, as the "great increase in production of food grains (especially wheat and rice) that resulted in large part from the introduction into developing countries of new, high-yielding varieties, beginning in the mid-20th century."

Today, many efforts to address rural poverty and food insecurity in low-income nations through agricultural research for development (AR4D) programs are built on this narrow view of the Green Revolution. And indeed, the accomplishments of the Green Revolution should be celebrated. But they have also been misunderstood. To start, the contribution of Green Revolution crop varieties to preventing famine is overstated. For example, India's food production was increasing steadily more than 15 years before Indian farmers started adopting Green Revolution wheat in 1967. The Green Revolution's successes were also concentrated among wealthier farmers. This was in part because research organizations directly targeted "successful" farmers to test new technologies, with the idea that best practices would trickle down to poorer farmers. But this often didn't happen. Poor, smallholder farmers often lacked access to credit, could not afford inputs such as fertilizers, or grew different crops than the ones developed by Green Revolution research. Overall, the Green Revolution did little to reduce food insecurity and actually increased rural inequality, leaving behind the poorest and most vulnerable.

The continued failure of AR4D donors and research organizations to fully understand these ambiguous and uneven outcomes of the Green Revolution is leading to simplistic scientific and policy approaches that can further exacerbate economic and social inequities experienced by millions of smallholder farmers worldwide. Accordingly, we argue that agricultural research policies need to accommodate the complexity of the real world of smallholder farming if they are to achieve their dual goals of enhanced food security and poverty relief.

Modernizing the peasantry

Starting in the 1940s, the United States became involved in funding international agricultural research centers through the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and later the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This investment in international scientific infrastructure, along with the spread of synthetic fertilizers, led to a growth in production of grains such as wheat and rice. This era was later dubbed the "Green Revolution." Orchestrators of the Green Revolution focused on maximizing yields in targeted areas in order to increase aggregate food production. The Green Revolution also promoted commercialization of agriculture, which fit with America's political goal of modernizing the global peasantry to promote democracy and economic growth. Production of maize, wheat, and rice increased in the areas targeted by the US-based organizations, and new "packages" of modern crop varieties, fertilizers, and irrigation were applied in geographically disparate regions, especially for wheat.

Under certain conditions (typically those of larger farms), farmers increased their yields and incomes. Although the Green Revolution coincided with poverty reduction in parts of the world, a multitude of political, economic, and infrastructural changes were also occurring, and academic scholars continue to debate the extent to which agricultural innovation was responsible for reduced poverty. …

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