No more green revolutions

Foreign seeds and fertilizers will not bring food security. Raj Patel explains why.

A wheat crop is sprayed with chemicals in South Africa. Chemical-heavy agriculture has brought despair to farmers in Punjab and Haryana, the epicentres of the Green Revolution in India. DEWALD KIRSTEN/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Covid-19 pandemic has made hunger worse: the number of people without access to adequate food in 2020 was 2.37 billion – up 320 million in a year. The prevalence of undernourishment – a measure of how much of the world suffers from an acute form of food deprivation – increased by 1.5 per cent to nearly 10 per cent. In 2015, international leaders committed to ending poverty and hunger. But at current rates, the number of malnourished people in 2030 won’t be zero, it will be 660 million.

In a bid to reverse these trends, members of the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, government officials and policy experts around the world will attend a Food Systems Summit under the aegis of the United Nations in New York this September. It will be led by Agnes Kalibata, who was the Minister for Agriculture in the East African country of Rwanda between 2008 and 2014. During that time, she oversaw an incredible 300-per-cent increase in maize production, spurred by Rwanda’s participation in the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a billion-dollar initiative largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which aimed to bring high-yield agricultural practices to 30 million smallholder farming households.

Students of history will, at this point, start to get a little nervous. The idea of a ‘Green Revolution’ – especially in the era of ‘Green New Deals’ – might sound just like the radical transformation the world needs but the cocktail of donors, corporations and governments flying this banner has often been toxic. You might have heard of the Green Revolution – presented as the pure and disinterested application of plant-breeding science – in the context of it helping countries to dodge catastrophic hunger in the 1960s and 1970s. But the reality is rather different: it was a US imperial strategy that was counter-revolutionary and ecologically disastrous.

The term was first coined in 1968 in a speech by William Gaud, the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). ‘Developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution,’ he said. ‘It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.’

This was always a capitalist political project at heart. It opposed the land reforms that communists in the Global South had advocated. Instead, the Green Revolution spoke to the fevered Malthusian nightmares that troubled Western policy elites. They believed that populations would inevitably swell and outstrip their food supply. In the 1960s, the foreign policy establishment projected the moment when populations would expand beyond the food supply, and then spiral into starvation and social collapse would arrive in 1985. This biological fear was coupled with a political one: after a fecund proletarian population in the Global South exhausted their food supply, the poor would riot, take to the streets in the capital city and become communist. The Green Revolution – whose supporters included the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations – was a mix of government policy, subsidy, fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, birth control and philanthropy to ensure that more cheap food would postpone the inevitable communist dawn.

The rural poor were a far lower priority, even if they were often hungrier than their urban counterparts. It was fair game to exploit rural land, for instance, as long as the food was cheap and plentiful enough to help manage expectations in the cities.

Rwanda’s yield increases have also come at the cost of declining dietary diversity, just like in India

In India, a country that was on the front lines of the Green Revolution, higher prices for farmers, seed technology and irrigation brought spectacular increases in wheat output in the first few years. The problem? Other crops that the rural poor needed, like lentils and vegetables, weren’t being planted because – unlike wheat – they weren’t being subsidized. Also, the vast availability of pumps to use groundwater for irrigation set farmers on a path where, decades later, the water tables have been drained, and the soil is now increasingly lifeless. The original technology is failing and, under the Indian government’s new plans, the subsidies are about to be pulled. For farmers in Punjab and Haryana, the epicentres of the Green Revolution, where rural despair, drug addiction and desiccated soil have caused vast social problems, it was a final betrayal. Last year, they took to the streets, organizing a protest that swelled to over 250 million participants, and which persists today in encampments around New Delhi.

At least, you might argue, India scored a victory in the battle against hunger. But while calorie intake may have increased, per person protein intake was lower at the end of the 1970s than it was at the beginning of the 1960s, and it remains catastrophically bad. India is home to 189 million malnourished people, ranking 94 out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index.

To be fair, the Green Revolution worked on its own terms: India didn’t fall to communism in ways that Western elites had feared. But the Green Revolution was never meant to end hunger, at least not by its politician champions. It was just meant to put enough food in the mouths of the most restive to shut them up.

Fantasies of a mis-remembered Green Revolution live on in the work of AGRA in Africa. As do the Green Revolution’s original sins. Just like India, Rwanda’s yield increases have also come at the cost of declining dietary diversity. The number of hungry people increased in absolute (though not relative) terms in Rwanda from 4 million to 4.5 million people and, as scholar Tim Wise has noted, across the 13 countries supported by AGRA, the yield improvements have been modest and the number of malnourished people has increased by 30 per cent. (While AGRA has disputed the findings, it has yet to publish a comprehensive evaluation of its impacts that gives evidence to the contrary.)

It’s clear that something needs to change in food systems around the world. Climate change is already upending agriculture, particularly in the Global South, where small farmers have fed the majority of the population. Farms smaller than 20 hectares produce more than 75 per cent of most food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, south Asia and China. But the Green Revolution’s policies and chemistry have brought farmers to the precipice. That’s why they’re protesting in India. The trouble is, the only way governments are able to respond is within the terms set by the business community, in a ‘multi-stakeholder dialogue’ at the UN Food Systems Summit in which corporations invite the rest of the world to join them at the table.

Farmers haven’t got time for this sort of theatre. That’s why over eight million new farmer groups – not farmers but organizations of farmers – are already looking at alternative forms of agriculture, ones that are diverse and robust in the face of the climate crisis (see ‘Taking back the peanut basin’). As the Covid-19 crisis continues in the Global South, farmers’ groups are also involved in ensuring not only that food gets grown, but that people are fed. As I write, a full-blown counter mobilization to the UN food summit is getting underway. Farmers understand, just as the World Economic Forum and others do, that society’s architecture decides who gets to eat and who starves.