Green Revolution Of The 20th Century

In minutes and hours, modern combines harvest grain that would have taken days and weeks to collect using traditional methods.
In minutes and hours, modern combines harvest grain that would have taken days and weeks to collect using traditional methods.

The first instance of the usage of the term “Green Revolution” was in 1968, when William Gaud, a former US Agency for International Development (USAID) director, noted that a revolution was taking place in the field of agriculture. With it arrived a growing and spreading use of new revolutionary technologies. Beginning in the 1930s, numerous technology transfer initiatives were developed which led to increase in the production and output worldwide. These efforts were concerned with spreading the use of new technologies such as high-yield varieties (HYVs) of cereals, chemical fertilizers, controlled water supply, mechanization and other new cultivation methods. Leading this Green Revolution was Norman Borlaug.

Synthetic Fertilizers and Pesticides

One of the fundamental pillars of the Green Revolution was the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This led to doubling in the production of cereals such as corn, wheat, and rice in developing countries from 1961 to 1985. In 1966, Philippines International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) introduced a new cultivar IR8 which required the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and had significantly higher production output than traditional varieties, resulting in an increase in annual rice production in the country from 3.7 to 7.7 million tons. For the first time in the 20th Century, the Philippines became a rice exporter, which occurred only after switching to IR8 rice.

Improved Seed Varieties and the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms

Another feature of the Green Revolution was the use of improved seed varieties and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). A variety of novel cultivars of wheat, maize, and rice, referred to as high yielding varieties, or HYVs, were introduced. An example of this is the IR8 variety of rice which made the Philippines into a rice exporter. These HYVs were bred by agronomists and possessed a higher potential for nitrogen absorption than other crop varieties. While HYVs will have a substantial advantage over traditional varieties when adequate irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers are available, traditional varieties may outperform them in the absence of these inputs.

Mechanization of Large-Scale Commercial Agriculture

Also crucial in the Green Revolution was the mechanization of large-scale commercial agriculture, a process which involved the use of machinery, significantly raising productivity and output per farm worker. For instance, mechanized harvesting led to an increase in cotton production in the Twentieth Century. By making more efficient use of labor, improving the timeliness of operations, and making input management more efficient, agriculture mechanization significantly increased productivity and is touted as one of the great achievements of the previous century.

Larger Farms, Fewer Farms

While mechanization and other technologies introduced by the Green Revolution were certainly revolutionary and did increase productivity, they had the adverse effect of rendering many people in the rural economy unemployed. This occurred as wealthier farmers sought to cut labor costs and increase productivity by use of the new technologies. This increased productivity also led to a drop in prices, which hurt the small-scale farmers. The emphasis was on larger and fewer farms. Small-scale farmers often went into debt as a result, with wealthier farmers quickly accessing credit and more land. These harsh economic conditions led to an increase in rural to urban migration, with small-scale farmers and many farm workers moving to cities while the wealthier farmers increased their land so as to maximize their production capacity.

Positive Health Impacts

The increased production of food made possible by the Green Revolution helped alleviate world hunger to some degree. The Green Revolution reduced food prices, enabling more people to have diversified diet, therefore improving nutrition. There was increase in the consumption of vegetables, fruits, vegetable oils, and livestock products in developing world, especially in Asian countries.

Negative Health Impacts

Alongside increasing productivity, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the Green Revolution had several adverse effects on health, such as an increase in the incidences of cancer, "blue baby" syndrome, hyperthyroidism, and congenital disabilities. Many cases were recorded of babies who were born having low birth weight, as well as low cognitive capabilities in school-going children. These negative health impacts were noted in developing countries such as India, where the Green Revolution was heavily practiced. While developed countries banned some of the harmful insecticides such as the DDT from agricultural use, manufacturing corporations from these countries set up factories in the developing countries, where they mass produced these toxic chemicals, adversely affecting the health of local people. Increased food production also led to a surplus of food, and lower prices, which contributed to the rise of obesity and other “diseases of civilization.”

Environmental Effects of the Green Revolution

One of the positive environmental effects of the Green Revolution was in saving forests and other environmentally fragile lands from destruction. This was because productivity was maximized within the land that farmers were already using, which eliminated the need to extend into these lands to increase productivity. However, due to excessive and sometimes inappropriate emphasis on the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the Green Revolution had some adverse effects on the environment, which include pollution of waterways. Irrigation practices led to build up of salt which resulted in land becoming unsuited for farming – some of the best farming lands were polluted and abandoned. These irrigation practices also led to a reduction in ground water level. The emphasis of Green Revolution on a few high productivity varieties of crops led to a loss of biodiversity on farms, which makes the current crop species vulnerable in case of the disease.

Impact on Climate Change

New studies show that the Green Revolution might be contributing to climate change to some degree. Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the growing season and release it when the trees are shedding their leaves. This corresponds with crops, whereby growing crops for instance maize absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when they are growing, and release it when they wither, then die, and decompose. This inhalation and exhalation of carbon dioxide contribute to seasonal changes in the global carbon cycle, and the new studies indicate that the high productivity brand of agriculture brought in by the Green Revolution makes those seasonal variations in the global carbon cycle swing to greater extremes. Because of the large scale of crops farmed since the Green Revolution, more carbon dioxide is released after they die and decay. However, it is believed that the effect on climate change is minimal.

Sustainability of Resources

High-intensity agricultural production methods introduced by the Green Revolution rely heavily on the use of non-renewable resources, such as minerals used in fertilizers. Machinery, transport, and pesticide production all rely on fossil fuels, which are also non-renewable resources. Critics point out that when oil and natural gas decline in the future, there will be a large-scale collapse in food production which will be so great as to be catastrophic.

Prospective Outlook into the Future

As a continuation of the mission of the first Green Revolution, there has come the Second Green Revolution, which has emerged in recent years with the support of American billionaire Bill Gates among many others. Their aim is to use genetic engineering of new crops and foods that will increase yield and nutrition, to sustainably feed the growing global population. The movement is prompted by fears of the decrease in oil and natural gas quantities as well as by the rising prices of food commodities. It is undeniable that the Green Revolution was one of the major achievements of the Twentieth Century. The growing world population might not have been sustainably feeding without the high-intensity production practices introduced by the Green Revolution. It, however, had its negative impacts on employment, health, and the environment. Efforts made in the Twenty-First Century to fight problems such as climate change, unsustainable population growth, and harmful effects of modern farming techniques will benefit from an examination of the Green Revolution.


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