Undesirable side-effects of the Green Revolution and how to overcome them

The Green Revolution (GR) was introduced in Southeast Asia in the latter part of the 1960s to forestall the prospects of massive starvation and the red revolution (the spread of communism). Basically, the GR involves high yielding seeds of wheat, rice and maize, fertilizers, pesticides, machines and irrigation technology. Apart from high yielding, the new varieties can also be harvested in a shorter time enabling an extra crop to be grown. By increasing the demand for farm machinery, fertilizers and pesticides the GR benefits the producers of these items in the industrialized countries. Therefore the GR has served a mix of humanitarian goals and self-seeking profit motives.

The Green Revolution was designed to be scale neutral meaning that it would benefit all farmers – large and small. However, contrary to expectations, the GR increased opportunities for large commercial farmers who had the means to buy the modern inputs and ultimately to buy out small proprietors and evict small tenants. The unequal effects have led to social and political tensions as well as to economic inequality, poverty and food insecurity.

Although the Green Revolution increased grain production and enabled India for example to become self-sufficient with a surplus for export and donation, it has not ended food insecurity. Forty six percent of India’s children under the age of three are underweight. In some Asian countries the number of under-nourished people has increased. Therefore an increase in food production does not automatically result in food security for everyone.

The famously high-yielding growth of the GR is tapering off and in some cases even declining in large part because of an increase in the price of fertilizers and other chemicals but also because of the overuse of the same chemicals which have exhausted the soil’s productive capacity and damaged the environment in the process. It is important to remember that Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, had advocated the use of organic fertilizers – usually manure—to restore soil nutrients. M. S. Swaminathan, a colleague of Borlaug has elaborated that stagnation in productivity is due to, inter alia, depleting natural resources base such as a steep fall in ground water table and impaired water quality; increasing input cost, particularly diesel; deficiency of micro-nutrients in the soil and deteriorating soil health; and high indebtedness of farmers.

Too much use of fertilizers such as nitrogen have had adverse environmental effects. It has been shown that some of the nitrogen leaves fields with runoffs, damaging rivers, wetlands, estuaries and seas through the depletion of oxygen. Biodiversity has also been adversely affected including the disappearance of some types of fishery resources.

Too much irrigation water has also been reported as environmentally harmful. Over-watering has had negative impact on soil composition with an increase in salinity and a reduction in soil productivity.

The use of herbicides has also had adverse effects. One of them – the paraquat, a highly toxic chemical, – is sprayed on vegetables and fruits, grains, trees etc. A teaspoonful of paraquat can lead to certain deaths within a month. It has also had adverse effects on wildlife including birds and aquatic life.

There is indisputable evidence that the Green Revolution has had a negative impact on human health. Agricultural chemicals are known to have killed people especially farm workers. Many others have suffered serious side-effects including sterility, birth defects, cancer, nervous disorders and muscle wasting. Children of workers have been poisoned some of them fatally when their parents unwittingly exposed them to high levels of chemicals.

There is also the ecological disturbance from spraying of the DDT. “It has been shown that even relatively non-volatile pesticides such as DDT evaporate into the atmosphere quite rapidly, particularly in hot climates, and can be transported over long distances, contributing to what has been known as global chemical pollution” says Mostafa K. Tolba, former head of the United Nations Environment Program and his colleague Osman A. El-Kholy.

The Green Revolution uses large amounts of water – surface and ground water. The over-use of water resources in India has resulted in falling water tables in some parts by as much as 70 percent as aquifers are depleted faster than they are being recharged. Low income families are unable to drill down to the depth now required to tap water. With increasing global warming, glaciers will melt away in the Himalayan Mountains, causing a reduction in surface and ground water supplies.

The Green Revolution has contributed to many suicide cases for various reasons in the Asian region. Since 1997, more than twenty-five thousand Indian farmers have taken their own lives. Dropping of the water tables and the subsequent water shortage; the inability to repay the loan when the crop fails are among the factors contributing to suicide.

Then there is the negative impact on mixed cropping. Before the introduction of the Green Revolution, Asian farmers practiced mixed cropping with many different varieties of each species. This diversity of genetic resources offered protection against the vagaries of disease and weather. With the introduction of a single GR seed, the genetic diversity is being lost. For the peasants, this diversity is the most important resource for their survival. Studies in Tanzania have found that in a typical village, some 80 percent of vegetable dishes are prepared from wild plants.

The side-effects have provoked a reaction. Voices are increasingly being heard from (small) farmers and consumers demanding increased production and consumption of organic foodstuffs. Organic farming avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.

Organic agriculture uses natural processes and by managing biological diversity in time (rotations) and space (mixed cropping), organic farmers use their labor and environment services in ways that increase production in a sustainable manner. Organic agriculture minimizes the challenge of indebtedness and provides more employment opportunities than mechanized Green Revolution. However, organic agriculture may not be able to meet the increasing demand for food. Consequently there is need for intensified research to find ways and means of combining organic and inorganic methods of farming that avoid the excesses of the first generation of the GR. Therefore governments need to increase resource allocation for research and development as well as extension service and encourage popular participation of farmers who have vast rural knowledge. Post-harvest, agro-processing and value addition technologies will be crucial as well particularly in eliminating food losses.

In order to achieve food security for all, agricultural productivity and increased total food production will have to be complemented by poverty reduction strategies. According to S. M. Swaminathan, “A famine of sustainable livelihood opportunities, rather than availability of food in the market, is responsible for household food insecurity. Therefore, a major effort is needed to create skilled non-farm employment opportunities, which are market-driven”.

Countries like Uganda that are in the early stages of increasing food productivity should pay close attention to the lessons of the first generation of the Green Revolution that began in Southeast Asia in the second half of the 1960s.