The Green Revolution and Famine

By Grace Wilber

The green revolution is widely regarded as the technological advancement that pushed agricultural development onto a new frontier, one where the mass increase of product was the miraculous result.  One might think, as many scholars have, that this would solve a great deal of widespread famine throughout the world; however, there are those that would argue otherwise.  In particular, studies provide evidence that these technological advancements have only helped very specific areas, and done little for many impoverished and malnourished communities.

Amartya Sen wrote on the subject of starvation that it is, “the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat.  It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.”  This perspective has guided many authors regarding the views surrounding the green revolution, as it points out the exact issue behind the assumption that more food means less hunger.  Those who find issue with Sen’s arguments, such as Mark B. Tauger, who wrote an entire amendment in disagreement with Sen’s work, rely heavily on the data and numbers in support of the green revolution’s positive effects.

In Tauger’s article, titled “Entitlement, Shortage, and the 1943 Bengal Famine:  Another Look”, he disassembles Sen’s arguments about widespread food production, and argues his own views on what this meant for the world’s population.  On page 48, he states, “The International Rice Research Institutes, one  of the research and development institutes set up as part of the Green Revolution, bred high-yielding rice varieties from the 1960s onward that allowed world rice production to double in the 25 years from 1966 to 1990, which allowed 700 million people to be fed.”

Another author who would disagree with Sen’s statements Gurdev S Khush, whose article “Green Revolution:  the way forward” is more of a glowing review towards the scientific advancements made by the green revolution’s technology.  “Fortunately, large-scale famines, and social and economic upheavals, were averted,” he asserts on page 815, “thanks to the marked increase in cereal-grain yields in many developing countries that began in the late 1960s.”  Khush goes on to argue that the increase in food product has met the needs of the growing population of the earth, by outlining the genetic changes in “yield potential” (the ability to produce a certain amount) within several products such as rice and other grains.  Although Khush takes a highly scientific approach, his views on the green revolution’s effect are very common, in that when the product increased, instances of famine decreased.

Gordon Conway describes the relationship between the green revolution and famine prevention most accurately when he states it is “uneven”, referring to his detailed research of undernourished populations in countries, years 1970 through 1990 (67, 69).  “At best,” he claims, “under-nutrition in the non-green revolution lands has been prevented from growing; at worst, many poor farm households in these lands may be getting less food, since their grain yields have increased little and they are receiving lower prices” (67).

Conway also states that “Potential famines, as would have occurred following the 1987 drought, have been averted, but the overall impact on chronic under-nutrition has been small” (68). This sort of view favors heavily on the side that Sen took, and seems to be the general data collected on the green revolution’s impact on famine.  Ultimately, there is no conclusive evidence to push the argument in either direction, only claims that substantiate both sides in various perspectives.  One claim that can be decided upon, however, is that the green revolution was not the magical cure to famine, as was originally thought.  As Sen was getting at, simply having enough food is not going to end hunger worldwide.  But it does go to show in works such as Tauger’s and Khush’s that the new technology brought about by the green revolution did improve conditions and prevent many cases from starvation.

Work Cited

Bowbrick, Peter (May 1986). “A Refutation of Professor Sen’s Theory of Famine”.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines : An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

Conway, Gordon. The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the Twenty-first Century. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Pub. Associates, 1998.

Dreze, Jean. “Famine Prevention in India,” in The Political Economy of Hunger. Ed. by Jean Drèze, Amartya Sen, and Athar Hussain. Oxford : Clarendon Press 1995.

Rathindra, Nath Roy. “Trees: Appropriate tools for Water and Soil Management.” The Green Revolution Revisited: Critique and Alternatives. Ed. by Bernhard Glaeser. London: Allen & Unwin 1987.

Tauger, Mark B. “Entitlement, shortage, and the 1943 Bengal Famine:  Another Look.”  The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 31, NO. 1, October 2003, pp. 45 – 72

Khush, Gardev S. “Green revolution: the way forward.”