Labor and Economic Effects of the Green Revolution Through History

By Peter St.Jean

Theories of Urbanization

Since the industrial revolution, the movement of the labor force from rural areas into cities, now known as urbanization, has been a major force in the economic landscape of almost every country. Because of the enormous impact that this massive migration of labor has had on the world economy, there has been a huge amount of hypothesis and debate over the causes of urbanization. Early scholars looked primarily at the economy of Great Britain during the 1800s, and attempted to divine what exactly was causing the mass migration of workers from rural to urban environments, and from their former agricultural roles into the production and service sectors.

These early scholars came up with two primary and opposing theories to explain why urbanization happens. Many favored the theory that innovation in manufacturing techniques, and inventions that allowed the mass production of goods by unskilled laborers that had previously been the sole territory of skilled craftsmen, were the primary causes of urbanization. These came to be referred to as “pull” conditions, in which urban centers acted as magnets, drawing in rural laborers with a massive new demand for warm bodies to work the mechanisms of production. (Chenery et al. 426)

The other prevailing theory that attempted to explain the urbanization phenomenon was that there was simply no longer enough work in rural areas to go around. These scholars argued that exponential growth in population, coupled with scarcity of agricultural land caused at least in part by the ruling class practice of enclosure, led to a situation where there was simply not enough work in rural areas to support the populations that lived there. These were referred to as “push” conditions, where the least fortunate in rural areas were literally forced to migrate in order to survive. Studies showing that large groups of low wage, informal sector workers existed in urban centers seemed to support this view. It seemed that people were migrating from rural areas and eking out whatever living they could in urban areas. (Chenery et al. 426)

More recent cases have borne out the theories of Mayhew, who documented the existence of informal sector workers and postulated that this sector’s existence was due in large part to “push” urbanization. Studies in 3rd world countries experiencing urbanization today have shown that there is a large amount of “informal sector” work being performed by urban workers, suggesting a situation where these individuals have given up seeking employment and resorted to whatever small earnings they can scrape together on their own:

Employment in urban “informal” or “murky” sectors, composed predominantly of own-account workers and employees of small-scale, labor-intensive enterprises, was growing rapidly, often faster than wage employment in medium- and large-scale enterprises (Berry and Sabot 106)

More recent scholarship has suggested that the true causes of urbanization may be a combination of push and pull, or perhaps that push factors may win out in some geographic regions while pull factors are more impactful in others. With well over a century of data to examine in some cases, modern scholars have identified regions where urbanization has brought with it an unqualified improvement in the well-being of the region. The United States, China and India for example, all saw a huge increase of per capita GDP that accompanied the urbanization of the region. (Spence et al. 4-5) Other results are more ambiguous. Brazil, for example, saw an initial rise in GDP per capita, but subsequent years of continued urbanization were accompanied by a stagnation of GDP. (Spence et al. 6) Finally, there are results like those in Kenya, where urbanization rose rapidly, from 6 to 20% in a few decades. Income per capita remained completely unchanged. (Spence et al. 7)

The Green Revolution and Regional Effects

In our overview of the history of the Green Revolution, we have limited ourselves to looking at specific geographical areas to get a deeper look at the impact that Green Revolution technologies have had on those areas. In this introduction, I will examine the work of each of my classmates, with an eye to providing a frame for their work. As we dive in and look in depth at the examples of Malawi, Cuba, India and Pakistan it will be helpful to keep the effects of Green Revolution technologies and policies on the labor force of each country in mind.

In some cases, such as that of Malawi analysed by Connor Brassil, we may see great success and potential. In others, such as India, there are questions raised about whether the Green Revolution has had net positive effects, as Aman Parikh examines effects on hunger and Erika Roberts discusses primarily economic disparities. Dustin Dwyer and Ben Aaron give us opposing views of the impact that Green Revolution techniques have had on Pakistan, Mr. Aaron arguing that  small hold farmers were greatly disadvantaged by them, while Mr. Dwyer argues that peasants and other rural poor may have benefited even more from the Green Revolution than large landowners. Finally, Frank Muraca gives us an overview of Cuba, a country whose politics serve to perfectly counterbalance the primarily market-driven approaches of our previous studies. Cuba’s failings serves to show that wealth redistribution may not be an easy fix to the increased inequality that the Green Revolution has created in other regions.

Malawi: A Green Revolution Success Story

Our first historical overview covers the southeastern African country of Malawi. Malawi’s entrance into the Green Revolution narrative is a relatively recent one. As with many countries in Africa, Malawi was late to adopt Green Revolution technologies, due in large part to the inability of farmers to invest in technological advances necessary to increase productivity. When agriculture work makes up 40% of your GDP and over 90% of your labor force, as was the case in Malawi as recently as 1995, subsistence farming is rampant. (Sahn 219) Such subsistence farming leaves virtually no room for accumulation of capital or investment, as any surplus that may remain after the harvest must be saved to ensure survival during the dry months.

Mr. Brassil notes that the conditions in Malawi led to what is referred to as a poverty trap in the region. Population densities increased in rural areas, and concurrent nutrient depletion in the soil meant that it would take more labor to produce the same crop yields. As a result, the rural labor force was trapped in a downward spiral. There was no way out of the agricultural sector, as over 90% of the country’s labor force were employed as agricultural workers, there was no other industry to flee to. This hard economic reality, coupled with the fact that land fertility was being ravaged by over-farming led to a crisis in which more and more labor output was required to produce the same results, and agricultural laborers had no other options but to keep doing the same work for diminishing returns.

The only solution to this problem that Malawi saw was to subsidize technological advancement in agriculture. The results of this, in the short term, have been a great boon to the Malawian people. Today, less than 85% of Malawi’s labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and agriculture as a percentage of GDP has also been slightly reduced (Droppelmann 7). Still a huge percentage to be sure, but evidence that the inevitability of subsistence agricultural work for Malawi’s labor force is not quite as daunting as it once was. Still, Droppelmann’s work suggests that Malawians have bet everything on Green Revolution technologies. If these technologies do not continue to produce the kinds of miraculous results that Malawi has seen in the first few years of their experiment, there may yet be hard days ahead. As our study of other regions who have had a longer history with Green Revolution technologies suggests, such diminishing returns may be in the cards.

India: Regional and Socioeconomic Disparities

If Malawi’s history gives us hope that the transforming economic power of Green Revolution technologies will lead to a dramatic reduction in poverty levels in developing countries, the history of India may serve to temper our expectations. As one of the most populous nations in the world, with a high population density, varied climate and high poverty levels, India’s case serves as a prime example of the mixed blessing that Green Revolution technology has proved to be.

India’s history with Green Revolution technologies is much longer than that of Malawi. Beginning in the 1960s, India began a massive program to restructure the way that agricultural work happened in the country. Broken down by state, the government picked prime candidates for infrastructural and technological investment, and began promoting agricultural modernization in many different ways (Harriss). Both Miss Roberts and Mr. Parikh note that the Indian government heavily favored the Punjab province in northern India, which may have sown the seeds for serious economic disparity in years to come.

Miss Roberts notes the disparity between large and small farmers that was accentuated in this time period. New technologies allowed all farms to be more productive, but the capital required to invest heavily in these new technologies belonged exclusively to large farms with significant land holdings. These new technologies allowed for a significant reduction in labor, as well. In particular, mechanized solutions that directly replaced manual labor slashed labor requirements by a huge margin. Introducing tractors alone reduced the labor requirements for wheat, the most productive crop in the region, by 30%. Although workers in Punjab were relatively unaffected by this, landless workers who made up a large percentage of the labor force in other states were not so lucky. Reduction in labor requirements for agricultural work resulted in less labor demand from landowners, a classic example of a potential “push” factor for urbanization.

Mr. Parikh focuses his attention on the hunger figures for India during this same time period, but the evidence is just as striking. These figures show that despite heavy investment in agricultural technology, hunger was actually getting worse in India, particularly in those coastal areas furthest from Punjab:

The average per capita consumption of calories in India declined from 2266 in 1973 to 2221 in 1983. It was slightly less than the norm of 2250 calories per capita per day in 1983. Also, in about half the states the average intake was below this level … There is clearly a rather heavy concentration of hunger in the coastal states of India, where, with the exception of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, well over half the population is getting less than 2250 calories (Dayal and Gulati 169)

Mr. Parikh suggests that this reduction in caloric intake is due primarily to the colossal failure of efforts to increase rice outputs (the primary agricultural product of coastal India) using technological means, when compared to the successes in the wheat crop in Punjab and other northern states. As pointed out by Miss Roberts, the disparities in the effectiveness of Green Revolution methods between rice and wheat had very detrimental effects on the economic well-being of rice farmers and their states in the south. Mr. Parikh shows us that these effects are borne out in the hunger statistics as well. Additionally, Mr. Parikh points out that unlike the economic effects measure in Miss Roberts’ work, hunger rates were observed to increase even in states where crop yields were improved by Green Revolution techniques.

Though India did see an initial burst of economic growth from Green Revolution technologies, we can see that it also encountered many problems. The increase in disparity between rich and poor that these technologies caused, demonstrated by Miss Roberts, is not to be taken lightly. The increase in hunger 20+ years after these technologies were implemented is potentially even more worrisome, and casts some doubt on the sustainability of the growth demonstrated in Malawi thus far.

Pakistan: Disparities Debated

Ben Aaron and Dustin Dwyer both examine the history of Pakistan, but with surprising opposing results. Mr. Aaron’s assertions align with those of Miss Roberts, demonstrating quite clearly that large landholders are significantly advantaged when is comes to investing in technological advancement, and reaping the rewards of that investment. Mr. Dwyer on the other hand cites some very solid statistics which show that the the rate of increase in net income for small farmers was actually much greater than for larger farms as a result of these very same technologies.

As it turns out, we find this debate mirrored in the scholarship. A lively debate in the pages of the journal of Economic Development and Cultural Change between Yujiro Hayami and Richard Grabowski sheds some light on these seemingly contradictory conclusions.

Hayami, responding to an initial hypothesis put forward by Grabowski, that large landholders are inherently advantaged by the Green Revolution, responds with evidence that smallholders are actually quicker to adopt modern varieties (MV) of crops (Hayami 170). He contrasts this with the adoption rates of mechanized labor replacement factors, such as tractors, which Miss Roberts considered in depth:

The pattern of MV diffusion paths among different farm-size classes contrasts sharply with the diffusion pattern of tractors, in which large farmers achieved distinctly faster and higher rates of adoption (Hayami 171)

Hayami seems to consider Green Revolution technology to be, effectively, the lesser of two evils. As population growth exerts pressure to increase food production using limited land area, the only solution is to develop and implement technologies without which “both the wage rate and income level of the rural working population would have degenerated further” (Hayami 176)

Grabowski responds to Hayami’s arguments by clarifying his own. He accedes that the evidence does indeed suggest that small and large farms were equally quick to adopt new technologies. However, he contends that follow-up studies have shown that larger farms are advantaged in terms of sustainment:

[Although] initially large and small irrigated farms were equally able to adopt the new innovations in the early years of the green revolution, in later years larger farms were able to increase the percentage of their area cultivated in high-yield varieties much faster than the smaller, irrigated farms.  This has been attributed to the large landholders’ ability to expand his irrigation facilities and use of other inputs because of his privileged access to credit (Grabowski 177-8)

Access to credit, Grabowski argues, gives large landholders the edge in the long term.

This debate goes a long way toward explaining the gap between Mr. Dwyer’s results and Mr. Aaron’s. Mr. Dwyer demonstrates an unequivocal increase in the economic well being of small landholders, even when compared to larger ones. However, Mr. Dwyer’s numbers cover a fairly short period of time. Comparing the 1965-66 and the 1970-71 seasons, Mr. Dwyer shows a 221.6% increase in small farmer income versus a 156.4% increase to the income of large farms. (Ahmad 99) However, we saw demonstrated in the work of Mr. Parikh that it may take much longer to see the true long-run statistical impact of Green Revolution technologies. This coupled with the work of Miss Roberts and Mr. Aaron, and the debate between Hayami and Grabowski, suggests that statistics which demonstrate dramatic short-term benefits due to Green Revolution technologies may not stand up to long term scrutiny.

Cuba: An Alternate Approach

Lastly, we have Frank Muraca’s discussion of the Cuban Green Revolution. Studying the case of Cuba shows us that the problems we discovered in disparity between small and large landholders may actually be inevitable, or at least very difficult to avoid, when implementing this technology.

Mr. Muraca notes that Cuba tried everything to avoid the problem of large landholders dominating the agricultural sector. The government forcibly broke up the large farms, known as latifundios, and poured money into infrastructure. According to Mr. Muraca in the years between 1960 and 1985 “26.1 percent of national revenue was put into irrigation technology, and other production technologies.”

Ultimately, the progress that Cuba made in the 60s and 70s proved unsustainable. After the collapse of the USSR, upon which Cuba depended heavily, agricultural gains were largely lost. Mr. Muraca cites Febeles-Gonzales to support his conclusion that there was simply no infrastructure in place to incentivize producers to innovate. The complete government takeover of the sector had resulted in a sector with no creativity. Although Cuba had explicitly attempted to avoid all the pitfalls spelled out in our findings on India and Pakistan, breaking up large landholdings and mandating labor allocation, they found themselves jumping out of the frying pan and directly into the fire.


The Green Revolution and its associated technologies have proved to be truly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these technologies give us the ability to serve an ever-growing population with the same limited arable land resources. Increasing production per hectare is ultimately the only way to feed a growing population in a world where arable land is a scarce and valuable resource. At the same time, these technologies come at the cost of greater economic inequality between smallholders and own-account workers on the one hand, and large farms and agribusiness on the other. It is unclear if these technologies are even sustainably solving the hunger problem, or only temporarily staving off the inevitable.

With the entrance of Sub-saharan African countries like Malawi into the Green Revolution, it is more important than ever to take seriously the lessons which can be derived from countries that have already gone through this transition. It is vital that these countries avoid the crushing disparities that have surfaced in India and Pakistan between small holders and large farms, while simultaneously avoiding the smothering of innovation that occurred in Cuba. Ultimately, the process of introducing these technologies to a new economy is a balancing act, navigating the straits between government regulation and market innovation. History does not provide a clear map to follow, but it does provide some helpful landmarks to those who take the time to learn from the past.


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