A family harvests crops near Jaipur, India. Photo via envato

The Green Revolution transformed Indian agriculture, but at what cost?

As farmer protests return, the world’s most populous country stands at a crossroads

From 2020 to 2021, farmers in India launched a series of mass demonstrations against three bills, later repealed, that would have deregulated the country’s agricultural sector.

And next week, farmers – who make up more than half the country’s population – will take to the streets again to protest “against the anti-worker, anti-farmer and anti-national policies” of the Indian government.

Critics say the protests are ultimately rooted in policies dating back to the Green Revolution, a process that transformed the country’s farming systems in the second half of the 20th century.

Starting in the 1960s, millions of Indian farmers abandoned traditional methods in favor of a Westernized approach to agriculture: planting high-yield wheat and rice seeds and adopting new irrigation techniques, mechanized farm tools, fertilizers and pesticides.

This was the start of the Green Revolution in India. The ‘father’ of this movement, the late agronomist and plant geneticist M. S. Swaminathan, was credited with having saved millions of lives from famine and was awarded the first-ever World Food Prize in 1987.

“Back then, we had limited resources, and yet we needed to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for every mouth – every day,” says G. N. Hariharan, executive director of the M S  Swaminathan Research Foundation.

“We needed to arrest starvation and provide adequate food to everyone in this vast country. But even then, Dr. Swaminathan cautioned that we must be able to aim at sustainable development rather than just looking at productivity.”

Hariharan points out that India has grown into a major rice and wheat exporter. “During the recent demand for wheat due to the Ukraine crisis, for example, India was able to lend a helping hand.”

“How was that possible? This is because of the advanced technologies that are helping us today,” he stresses.

Farmers in India spraying pesticides in a soybean field. Photo via envato.

From its roots in Mexico in the 1940s, the Green Revolution spread to many countries across the Global South, including India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Brazil.

But decades on, critics remain unconvinced, claiming the system was merely a quick fix that brought significant problems in its wake.

This includes a deep reliance on subsidized fertilizers and chemicals, increased water usage and a monoculture system that forced farmers to abandon native crop varieties.

“If you say the Green Revolution had a huge positive impact: no, it did not,” says Vandana Shiva, a renowned environmental activist and scholar and founder of Navdanya.

“Because right from the beginning, it shrunk India’s food base. Our pulses disappeared, our oil seeds disappeared – all gone,” she adds.

“In Punjab alone, 250 species became a monoculture of rice in one season and wheat in another, and it uses 10 times the amount of water.”

Shiva, who holds a PhD in physics, says she approached understanding the Green Revolution through a quantum theory lens.

“You don’t look at one thing as one impact in quantum theory,” she explains. “You look at the context. In quantum theory, we have systems causation and contextual causation.”

Shiva says she concluded that if the world had more small farms, we would have more food for people. But instead, what we are doing is destroying them.

“Creating these mega-farms requires lots of resources, lots of chemicals, lots of energy inputs, and this is often overlooked. [Agricultural workers] have been called ‘energy slaves’ – the invisible people who work to produce the chemicals, the invisible people who work to drive your mechanization. So, it’s hugely inefficient in terms of resources,” she adds.

From the Green Revolution to the Evergreen Revolution

Towards the end of the 20th century, new farming technologies emerged, as did significant global issues like the climate crisis, which led to a shift in the discourse around industrial agriculture.

Movements like the ‘Evergreen Revolution’ – a term coined by Swaminathan – emerged to tackle issues like human and ecosystem health and food security.

“What are all the nutrition requirements needed?” Hariharan poses. “How can we make our farms more productive, more economically viable, and less vulnerable to climate issues and so on? All these things are now coming into one basket.”

This means using advanced technologies correctly and adopting whichever approach works most effectively, he adds. “Advanced technologies do not mean we can keep going and spoiling our soil and water. Today, with precision agriculture, we know exactly what the crop demands, and we can provide it.”

Dr Hariharan believes effective technologies come down to three factors: they must be economically viable, socially acceptable and ecologically sustainable. 

We need to be judicious in using these technologies, he emphasizes, using the analogy of preparing meals using a knife, but mishandling it and hurting yourself.

“Do we shout at the knife? Will we shout at the knife or the way we handle it? That is the crucial question every one of us needs to ask before talking about the pros and cons of technologies that are available to humankind,” he explains.

A pigeonpea processing mill in India. Photo by Michael Major/Crop Trust via Flickr.

More mouths to feed

India has now become the world’s most populous country. According to the UN, its numbers are expected to continue to swell, reaching 1.67 billion – more than China and the US combined – by 2050. So, how will it continue to feed its citizens?  

Large-scale wheat and rice farming has primarily replaced the cultivation of various cereals and pulses. Although people are consuming more food, they often lack nutrition. India still has some of the highest stunting and wasting rates among children under the age of five. 

For Shiva, the answer is to go local.

“When I go to eastern India, every village has a market. When you are selling locally, you sell what that community likes, the vegetables they eat in their cuisine. So, farmers grow it, and the people eat it. It’s a closed cycle, 100 percent moving within the community. Rural areas don’t get impoverished. They prosper.”

She believes India could transform its agriculture systems if the resources that are currently put into creating mega-farms are instead used to promote ecological organic methods.

“Good seeds, ecological agriculture and decentralized market systems: that’s the magic wand,” Shiva concludes.

“And if we really wanted to change not only India but the world, we could transition in 10 years.”

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