18 September 2009

Borlaug and the Green Revolution

Norman Borlaug passed away on 12th September. Newspapers have carried eulogies and criticism for his work towards ensuring food self sufficiency in India in the sixties.
From the Hindu
Norman Borlaug’s association with India began in the late 1960s. India was then importing 10 million tonnes of wheat and “we lived a ship-to-mouth” existence. The introduction of the dwarf variety of wheat developed by him in Mexico was a turning point in India’s food production pattern.
And the Hindustan Times carried this piece on ‘The American who helped India conquer hunger’
Borlaug had been criticised by environmentalists for his innovation of genetically modified food (food developed by altering gene structures) and advocating the use of fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. “It is better to die eating genetically modified food instead of dying of hunger,” he remarked at PAU.
There is a sharp attack in the Business Standard by Sadanand Menon
Within three decades, the pattern was to lead to a new kind of devastation — extreme rural indebtedness on the one hand and high levels of soil salinity on the other. The unprecedented levels of rural migration to urban areas in the 1990s, was only one of the consequences. The other was the rapid decline in the productivity of cereal farming and a wholesale turnaround to cash crops. Cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, bananas, coconuts, etc. replaced rice, wheat and millets in many pockets. This was to lead to further experiments in hybridisation of production and an invasion of Indian agriculture by multinational giants like Monsanto, who could exercise long-distance control over the entire process.
And a defence of Borlaug in the Mint
To be sure, agricultural productivity has declined, but that drop is due to a complex set of reasons: Nothing, not even population, rises at the same rate over a period of time. The drop in the size of a farm due to inheritance leads to a drop in productivity. Politicized subsidies encourage waste of water and power, as well as overuse of fertilizers and pesticides by the well-connected farmers, skewing distribution of resources. Warehouses are poorly managed, and a chunk of what is produced gets wasted in transit, or consumed by rats. Insufficient and inefficient irrigation means Indian agriculture remains a gamble with monsoon. Borlaug wanted poor farmers to be paid remunerative prices; governments avoided that, in order to placate the influential urban constituencies.
There is a lot that needs to be fixed in Indian agriculture. But don’t blame Borlaug for these problems. His legacy is the gift of life for millions.

It is true that our problems as they exist today need an overhaul in many existing systems and Borlaug is not responsible for them. However, one of Menon’s points needs to be stressed:
The Vishnu Mitter Institute of Paleo-Botany in Lucknow, for example, has studies showing that while there were over 127 varieties of rice alone being cultivated in the Indian subcontinent during the first two decades of the 20th century, these were steadily dropping and had reduced to 18 within the first two decades of the Green Revolution period. Along with everything else, the idea of agricultural and food diversity too was receiving a knock. Mono-culture and the idea of single-point control systems, so important for designing market strategies, became the norm.

Even as we continue to wage the battle against hunger in India today (another post on that later) somewhere along the way the ecological balance has been lost and we are all the worse off for that.  


  1. Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest lasting lifestyle in
    human history. In contrast, we're still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has
    tumbled us, and it's unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who
    had visited us from outer space where trying to explain human history to his fellow
    spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a twenty-four hour clock on
    which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. It the history of the human
    race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We
    lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day,from midnight through dawn,
    noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p.m., we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight
    approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will
    we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture's glittering
    facade and that have so far eluded us?

  2. That previous comment is an excerpt from Jared Diamnd's piece at:

  3. Thanks Harshu, for that interesting excerpt.