The Green Revolution

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Kiranjit Kaur


CGIAR: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research

CIMMYT: International Corn and Wheat Improvement Centre

FAO: Food and Agricultural Organization

GM Crops: Genetically Modified Crops

IRRI: International Rice Research Institute

USAID: U.S. Agency for International Development

HYV: High Yielding Variety


The Green Revolution marks the period between 1960 and 1980 when a remarkable increase in the production of wheat and rice was achieved. This was made possible by the efforts of the Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the diligent leadership of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. The establishment of CIMMYT and IRRI contributed tremendously towards development of modern varieties of wheat and rice and were the main reasons behind the success of the Green Revolution. The high yield potential of these varieties is attributed to their short stature and high responsiveness to fertilizers. Soon after their development, these were adopted on a large scale in the developing countries, and manyfold increase in production in these areas was achieved. In recent times there is again a need to boost the production levels considering the food scarcity and hunger situation in the world. In this scenario, genetically modified crops and the use of biotechnology in agriculture can be potentially useful in future.

To provide food for an ever-increasing population is one of the main challenges that science has always faced. A major breakthrough occurred in this direction when a remarkable increase in the production of wheat and rice was achieved in South Asia through the utilization of new wheat and rice varieties developed at the International Corn and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Philippines respectively. This breakthrough is known as the Green Revolution, the term coined by William Gaud of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1968 and marks the period between mid-sixties and mid-eighties when a remarkable increase in production of wheat and rice was observed in developing countries (Murphy, 2007; Swaminathan, 2006). The most significant impact of the Green Revolution was observed in India, Pakistan and the Philippines during 1960-1970 and China after 1980 (Borlaug, 2000). The success of the Green Revolution in these developing countries is ascribed mainly to the adoption of High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of wheat and rice along with increased use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation (Davies, 2003).

Famines and Food Scarcity

Humanity has been facing problems like famines and food scarcity since times immemorial. Worth mentioning is the Irish potato famine of 1840s that led to the death of about one million people (Nusteling, 2009). India has witnessed devastating famines, most notably the Gujarat famine of 1899 and the Bengal Famine of 1943 which led to the death of about three million people (Burton, 2010; Basu, 1986). P.V. Sukhatme (1961) of the FAO reported that between 300 and 500 million people were undernourished in the world and between one-third to one-half of the world’s population suffered from hunger and malnutrition. Thomas Malthus, in 1798, argued in his famous prediction that the population has the tendency to grow geometrically whereas the food production follows an arithmetic increase. This would lead to depletion of food resources as the population grew and consequently humanity would face famine. However, Malthus could not visualize at that time that technological advancements could make a tremendous difference in the food production and that it could keep pace with the population curve. Also, advances in the field of health sciences can help restrain population growth by adopting measures such as family planning and contraception (Sachs, 2008). The ever impending food scarcity problem necessitates steps be taken in the direction of improving agricultural production so that the future of mankind can be safeguarded. The Green Revolution was one such step which commenced with the arrival of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Rockefeller Foundation and the Legacy of Norman E. Borlaug The grounds for the Green Revolution were set when US vice president Henry Wallace approached the Rockefeller Foundation to launch a program for crop breeding in Mexico. Himself a successful crop breeder, Wallace had helped to produce the first sterile hybrid corn in the 1920s and was the founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company (Murphy, 2007). In 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation launched its Mexican Agricultural Program. The primary objective of this program was to develop HYVs having higher response to agrochemicals. The initial results of the program were very encouraging and the Rockefeller Foundation decided to establish an independent institute known as CIMMYT in Mexico, which acquired its present name in 1963, though its foundation had already been laid in 1943 ( CIMMYT, 2010). Before that, between 1920 and 1940, the Rockefeller Foundation started supporting hybridizing efforts in corn to produce improved crop for industrial agriculture. As a result there was a boost in hybrid corn seed sales around the 1930s and corn yield increased significantly after introduction of double cross hybrids. Later replacement of double cross hybrids with single cross hybrids further increased yields in the 1960s (Hindmarsh, 2003 ; Khush, 1999). Tollenaar and Lee (2006) reported that the mean yield improvement of corn in the US between 1939 and 2004 was 100 kg/ha/year or 2% per year. He further mentioned that the genetic contribution to corn yield improvement in the past seven decades in the US was about 75%. The Rockefeller Foundation further spread its hybrid corn production program to Brazil in 1946, Argentina in 1947 and Kenya in 1956. On the other hand, simultaneous efforts were being made to introduce the Green Revolution programs in developing countries including India, Philippines and Indonesia in 1960s (Hindmarsh, 2003). Meanwhile a major development took place when the Rockefeller and Ford foundations joined hands with the Philippines government to establish the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) near Manila in 1960. At IRRI, the focus was totally on research and breeding of rice which is the staple food of over one billion poor people across the world (Murphy, 2007).

The credit for success of the Green Revolution goes to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug who is honored as the “Father of the Green Revolution”. Dr. Borlaug spent almost his entire life working to alleviate food scarcity from the world. Borlaug is very well known in developing nations, but he was away from lime light in western circles and for this reason he is also called “the forgotten benefactor of humanity”. The world came to know about him in 1970 when he was awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize for his exemplary work. Born in 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, he earned a PhD in Plant Pathology from the University of Minnesota in 1941. Later, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation and worked as a scientist under the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program as the head of the Wheat unit from 1944 to1960. After the establishment of CIMMYT, he became the leader of the Wheat Program in 1963, the position he held until his retirement in 1979. The new varieties developed at CIMMYT, along with improved management practices, revolutionized the wheat production in Mexico in the 1950s. He spread this successful model of wheat production technology to other developing nations like India and Pakistan in the mid-60s and as a result, between 1964 and 2001, the wheat production in India increased from 12 to 75 million tonnes while in Pakistan an increase from 4.5 to 22 million tonnes was achieved.. Thus, the work of Dr Borlaug revolutionized agriculture in the developing countries and saved millions of people from starvation (CIMMYT, 2010; Easterbrook, 1997).

The Green Revolution: Wheat and Rice

The main part of the success story of the Green revolution was the new semi dwarf varieties of wheat and rice. Borlaug (1971) himself stated that the main reasons of success of these varieties, were their wide adaptation, short stature, high responsiveness to inputs and disease resistance. The genesis of semi dwarf wheat varieties started when Japanese scientists developed the semi dwarf wheat variety Norin 10 using Daruma as the donor of the semi dwarfing trait. The recessive genes responsible for dwarfing were named rht1 and rht2. To begin with, Daruma, which was a Japanese semi-dwarf variety, was crossed to Fultz, which was a high yielding U.S. winter wheat, giving rise to Fultz-Daruma. Fultz-Daruma was later crossed with Turkey Red which was also a high yielding U.S. winter wheat. This gave rise to Norin 10 which was a semi dwarf and high yielding variety. Norin 10 semi dwarf wheat was later brought to the US and led to the breeding of the cultivar Gaines by Dr. Orville Vogel in the 1950s by crossing locally adapted lines with Norin 10. Dr. Borlaug later used the Gaines wheat to develop modern semi dwarf varieties by crossing it with local strains (Swaminathan, 2006; Dalrymple, 1978). Swaminathan (2006) further describes the shuttle breeding methodology used by Dr. Borlaug wherein alternate generations were grown at two diverse locations. As these locations differed in terms of soil, temperature, rainfall and photoperiod, the methodology resulted in production of strains possessing wide disease resistance and insensitivity to photoperiod. This, in turn, increased the adaptability of the strains in different environments. The CIMMYT wheat program also made efforts to breed resistance to rust in wheat by utilizing the variety Hope, which had durable stem rust resistance and Frontana, which had durable resistance to leaf rust. This resistance is found to be conferred by minor genes which have an additive interaction relationship (Rajaram, 2005). The genesis of dwarf rice varieties occurred when the recessive gene, sd1, for short height was incorporated from a Chinese variety Dee-geo-woo-gen meaning short-legged (Khush, 2001). The IRRI team developed a semi dwarf variety IR8 in 1962 by using Peta as female parent which was tall and vigorous, and Dee-geo-woo-gen as the male parent which had stiff straw and conferred the genes for semi dwarf nature. The resulting IR8 had stiff straw, was resistant to lodging and its insensitivity to photoperiod made it a very well adaptable variety. This variety became so popular that it began to be called the “miracle rice” (Hargrove et al., 1988). The success of these rice and wheat varieties is mainly attributed to their short stature. The wheat and rice varieties grown prior to the Green Revolution had tall stature, leafy nature and weak stems. These tended to grow excessively tall, lodge and yielded less when applied with high doses of nitrogenous fertilizers. Also, these earlier varieties had a harvest index of 0.3, which means the ratio of grain to straw was 30:70. They had the capacity to produce a total biomass of 10-12 t/ha, hence their maximum yield potential was 4t/ha. While on the other hand, the improved Green Revolution semi dwarf varieties of wheat and rice had a harvest index of 0.5. Their total biomass potential was 20 t/ha, hence their maximum yield potential was 10 t/ha (Khush, 1999; Sakamoto and Matsuoka, 2004). Khush (1995) considers the improvement in the harvest index as the most important architectural change in rice and wheat varieties that was responsible for increasing their yield potential. The other factors that led to the success of the Green Revolution, apart from the improved varieties, were the utilization of high levels of inputs such as inorganic fertilizers, improvement in irrigation facilities, and the formulation and implementation of supportive government policies. The worldwide irrigated land area increased from 94 million ha in 1950 to 240 million ha in 1990, while worldwide fertilizer used rose from 14 million tons in 1950 to 140 million tons in 1990 (Khush, 1999 ; Brown, 1996).

Impacts of the Green Revolution

The world production of cereals has increased about 2.53 times during 1961-2006 (FAO, 2007). During the same period, the cereal production in developing countries has increased 2.7 times, compared to 2.3 times in developed countries. The irrigated land area was 139 million ha in 1961, which increased to 210 million ha in 1980 and to 271 million ha in 2000. Worldwide fertilizer usage increased from 31 million tonnes in 1961 to 117 million tonnes in 1980 and to 137 million tonnes in 2000 (FAO, 2007). The world production of rice, wheat and corn during 1961-2000 also showed increasing trends (Fig. 1). Area planted under HYVs of wheat in 1978-79 was 72.4 percent of the total area under wheat in Asia, while 30.4 percent of the total area under rice was planted with HYVs (Table 1) (Dalrymple, 1978). In recent times, the second and third generation modern varieties (HYVs) have evolved and replaced the original modern varieties in many areas (Evenson and Gollin, 2003). In India, the total cereal production has increased from 70 million tonnes in 1961 to 186 million tonnes during 1961-1999, while in China, an increase from 91 million tonnes to 390 million tonnes during the same period has been observed. The number of tractors in developing countries rose from 0.2 million in 1961 to 4.6 million in 1998 (FAO, 2000).


Though the Green Revolution was successful in increasing the food production tremendously, it has faced criticism for starting an era of chemical farming. Some argue that the high input agriculture methodology triggered problems such as soil degradation, soil salinity, chemical pollution and differential socioeconomic impacts leading to instability (Davies, 2003; Evenson and Gollin, 2003). Another argument against the Green Revolution is that it has itself led to poverty. Critics argue that only the big farmers could access the costly technology introduced in the developing countries while the smaller farmers suffered and their economic condition further deteriorated and this widened the economic gap (Strauss, 2000). The supporters of the Green Revolution argue against these criticisms by stating that the Green Revolution actually reduced the poverty and helped the poor more than the rich because it was also associated with reduction in food prices as the production increased (Lipton, 2007). In spite of all the criticisms, Green Revolution is still a huge step undertaken by mankind in the direction of getting rid of hunger and food scarcity.

Table 2 4 1.jpg

Fig 1: World production of wheat, rice and corn in million tonnes from 1961 to 2006. Source: FAO, 2007

Emergence of CGIAR

As the Green Revolution started by CIMMYT and IRRI became successful, the need to expand their areas of operation was felt. The operations were to include more countries and more crops which required more staff and experts to test varieties in different agro-climatic areas. As a result, the Rockefeller and Ford foundation, with support from the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, established the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) in 1971, an organization which coordinates agricultural research in developing countries worldwide with support from the World Bank and various Governments. At present, CGIAR has about 15 international agricultural research centers (Murphy, 2007; CGIAR, 2010).

Fatigue in the Green Revolution and Hunger in the World

It has been observed that the state of agriculture is different in recent times than it was during the Green Revolution periods. Many experts are of the view that a slowdown in the Green Revolution has occurred and the various factors involved are, increase in demand accompanied with a loss of pace in the supply and the rising costs of food grains. Secondly, the support for agricultural research is decreasing and the shift of research from public to private sector is being witnessed. Hence, compared to the type of public research carried out by charitable organizations, which kindled the Green Revolution and helped the poor is losing its grounds and multinational companies are taking over (Runge and Runge, 2010). According to the FAO (2010), the share of agriculture in GDP decreased from 30 percent to 11 percent in south East Asia between 1965 and 2004. Also, a decrease in production in major producing countries has been observed with China’s wheat production decreased from 123 million tonnes in 1997/98 to 100 million tonnes in 2000/01 and further decrease to 91 million tonnes in 2004 (FAOSTAT, 2007). FAO (2010) estimated the number of malnourished people in the world to be 1.02 million in 2009 and a major portion of these to be residing in Asia Pacific (Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Number of undernourished people (millions) in the world during 2009. Source: FAO, 2010

Table 2 4 2.jpg

Future: Can Transgenic Crops Replace Modern Varieties?

An important question that science faces is how to safeguard the future of humankind and save millions of people from hunger and poverty. Many advocate the use of biotechnology to develop genetically modified (GM) crops or transgenic plants to further boost agricultural production. The major traits of genetically modified crops that are currently under cultivation are pest resistance with Bt Cotton as an example, and herbicide tolerance, for example Roundup Ready crops. The main GM crops under cultivation are soybean, corn, canola and cotton while China also produces virus resistant peppers, tomatoes and flower-color-altered Petunias on small scale (Pingali and Raney, 2005). James (2004) reported that during 1996 and 2004, the global area under GM crops has increased 47 times. The herbicide tolerant soybean occupied the maximum area among the various GM crops (Table 2). The USA grew the maximum area under GM crops (59 percent of the global area) followed by Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and Paraguay. Though the food production can be boosted with development and adoption of genetically modified crops, various concerns about health and environmental issues of transgenic crops have been raised. Secondly, the people have developed a negative attitude towards anything which has been genetically altered. The need is to raise the awareness of the common people about the positive and negative effects of GM crops to enable them to make reasonable decisions using scientific and logical approaches.


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