An actual piece that I actually wrote (not just reblogged) is up at IATP’s Think Forward blog: Science means having to say “I’m Sorry”:

I’m sorry, but saying that the Green Revolution saved millions of lives is unscientific.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, recently made this widely repeated, but unscientific, claim in responding to columnist Rekha Basu. Basu recently criticized the foundation for awarding this year’s World Food Prize to three scientists who helped invent crop genetic modification. (Two of who are current or former vice presidents at Monsanto and Syngenta.) Quinn notes that the founder of the World Food Prize, famed Green Revolution researcher Norman Borlaug, specifically encouraged the foundation to consider these three scientists before his death. In his piece, Quinn admonishes Basu that “Dr. Borlaug would tell us it is our responsibility to use the power of science” to help solve widespread malnutrition. He does this shortly after lauding Borlaug as “the man who saved millions from famine and death in India and Pakistan.”

But… but

– See more at:

I expect to have some push-back, and it will be great to see any evidence I missed for a larger role of the GR. (I found Robert Paarlberg’s lack of solid evidence rather than assertion… disturbing.) It is true that day-to-day people tend to “prove” the GR’s effects by pointing to food supply increasing, despite an insufficient food supply rarely (though not never) being the key cause of hunger. While it’s certainly possible that the GR was a different case, it’s definitely true that the popular version of the story doesn’t rise past “More Food therefore Less Hunger”, despite more sophisticated analyses that put the effects of growing food supply as more or less the second strongest determinant of decreased hunger (after women’s education). Yet it doesn’t seem to get the second most attention. Anyway. I look forward to a good conversation!

4 thoughts

  1. I’ll cross-post this comment on Think Forward at IATP tomorrow, but just came across this piece from the Asian Development Bank. The author cites an a cautious IFPRI paper, saying “there is growing evidence that the Green Revolution has, at its worst, increased inequality, worsened absolute poverty, and resulted in environmental degradation”. (Though it’s worth noting that the IFPRI paper takes a “there’s some good, and some bad” approach to the GR, saying that “research studies show that much of [the contemporaneous] steady decline in poverty is attributable to agricultural growth and associated declines in food prices”, which is actually, I’d say, context-specific, broadly debatable, and in that paper, uncited; admits that “In India, for example, poverty in many low-potential rainfed areas has improved little even while irrigated and high-potential rainfed areas have progressed” — ultimately, the author falls back on the false counterfactual of saying “How else do you imagine we could’ve fed all those people?”, which is neither the appropriate counterfactual nor evidence.)

    The ADB piece further quotes the FAO:
    “Even in Green Revolution regions, numerous small, poorly equipped and very low-income farms were unable to gain access to the new means of production. Unable to invest and progress, they saw their incomes fall as a result of the drop in real agricultural prices. Many of them sank to levels of extreme poverty and were eliminated. Above all, vast hilly and barely accessible regions of rainfed or scarcely irrigated agriculture were essentially bypassed by the Green Revolution. The varieties cultivated in these regions (millet, sorghum, taro, sweet potato, yam, plantain, cassava) benefited marginally, if at all, from selection. The same was true for varieties of major cereals (wheat, maize, rice) that were adapted to difficult local conditions (altitude, drought, salinization, aridity, waterlogging). For example, the average output of millet throughout the world today is barely 800 kg/ha, and that of sorghum is less than 1 500 kg/ha. These so-called orphan varieties, having been bypassed by the selection process, make the use of fertilizer and phytosanitary inputs unprofitable, which only adds to the problems of the regions where they are grown.”

    The author continues his or her point:
    “Even in those areas which enjoyed substantial productivity gains, in the long-run these gains did not always translate into sustainable improvements in rural poverty. On the one hand, real declines in the prices of agricultural commodities and increasing crop failures due to pests and diseases resulted in a significant fall in farmers’ revenues. Because high yielding varieties often need regular or increasing inputs of chemical fertilizers and pest control, farmers had to borrow heavily in order to sustain productivity. In the long-run, this cost-price squeeze and the declining price trend of commodities in the world market led to significant declines in terms of trade and incomes of farmers.”

    I perhaps didn’t make it sufficiently clear in my piece, but my argument isn’t that we definitively know that the GR didn’t save millions; it’s that the evidence is shaky, contradictory, and contested enough that such a statement is not a supportably scientific statement. And further, for at least a limited number of contexts, the evidence is quite clear that it didn’t help, or even hurt. The counterfactual where everything stays the same except for the GR never happened is improper, as it is unlikely on any number of levels that everything would’ve continued exactly the same except there’s less food. History and counterfactuals are, alas, not that simple, and are certainly not proof; without a far more rigorous analysis, they barely count as an argument.

  2. Great article! I agree, regardless of any immediate temporary benefits that may have been seen from the green revolution, the longer-term environmental, social and political problems we are seeing now are largely ignored by GR proponents. But these indirect effects might actually be having more significant impacts, both on agroecosystems themselves and on society.
    Even if the GR had been proven to save millions of hungry, wouldn’t the longer term environmental and socio/political impacts from the GR be contributing enough to global “hunger” now to cancel out any initial benefits (both physical and metaphorical hunger, when you take into account the homogenisation of nutrition and crop varieties and the environmental degradation that is now contributing to food production issues)?

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