“Green revolution” not so green?

From Tom Philpott, in Mother Jones:

“In 1968, India’s farmers cranked out a record-setting wheat crop at a time when many observers feared the nation would plunge into famine. That triumphant harvest represented the culmination of decades of work by a group of foundation-funded US technocrats. Their effort, which became known as the “green revolution,” still casts an imposing shadow more than four decades later.

Its technological architect, the Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, was all but beatified upon his death in 2009. In its obituary, Reason Magazine proclaimed him “the man who saved more human lives than anyone else in history,” while The New York Times wrote that he “did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself.”

Meanwhile, the powerhouse funding institution most associated with the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller Foundation, has joined forces with today’s richest funder, the Gates Foundation, to recreate Borlaug’s magic in Africa. Their “Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa” push got a de facto endorsement from President Obama when he tapped Gates’ chief ag-development man, Rajiv Shah, for a top research job at USDA. Today, Shah serves as director of United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Thus the “green revolution” idea still percolates in high-level development policy circles. But if our top foundations and development policymakers are pushing to recreate the green revolution for an entire continent, than it’s worth figuring out precisely what led up to that famous bumper crop nearly half a century ago—and what it means for the future. In his 2010 book The Hungry World, the University of Indiana historian Nick Cullather does just that.

Cullather’s book amounts to a thorough, gracefully written debunking of what might be called the green revolution master narrative, which goes something like this: In the 1940s, US foundations and policymakers became concerned about population growth and hunger in Mexico, so they sent Borlaug and other ag wizards south of the border to help farmers ramp up food production; Borlaug and crew succeeded dramatically; and then took their innovations to south and central Asia, where they averted a massive famine in the late ’60s and set the table for food security thereafter.

Like the Bible, the canonical Green Revolution account turns out to be holey. Cullather’s brilliant, concise early chapter on the Green Revolution’s birth in Mexico anchors his broader argument. In 1941, when the Rockefeller Foundation sent its first set of ag technologists south of the border, Mexico was hardly a seething hotbed of population overshoot and food scarcity, Cullather shows. Quite the opposite, it was a net food exporter, sending vegetables, fruit, cattle, and coffee to the United States. The USDA had deemed it “largely self-sufficient” in food and fiber, he reports; and population, while growing, was less dense than than that of its would-be savior, the United States….”

Read more in Mother Jones.

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