The Historical Effectiveness of the Green Revolution on Reducing Hunger

By Aman Parikh

The Green Revolution has been implemented in dozens of different ways throughout the world, but all of these methods have the same goal: to reduce hunger.  This is particularly important in developing nations where food is often scarce and expensive. To accurately measure the success of the Green Revolution, historians have to ask how effective it has been over the years in reducing hunger in developing nations. In addition, a divide must be drawn between long-term and short-term goals. Just because the Green Revolution appears successful or unsuccessful in a certain area does not mean that it is going to perform at the same level forever. Thus, it is also very important to determine how sustainable the Green Revolution is to either start or continue reducing hunger in the future.  The combination of finding the degree to which the Green Revolution has been reducing hunger, as well as its sustainability, will provide the best perspective of how successful the system has been historically and will be in the future.

In analyzing this effectiveness, it is important to look at India, one of the most well documented countries the Green Revolution has taken place in. Many major studies and trends have been researched within India’s various states that will help indicate the Green Revolution’s overall effectiveness. In addition, it is important to then compare these trends to the studies of sustainability and food poverty in other developing nations that have used Green Revolution technologies (such as China and various nations in Africa). This process will provide a global understanding of how effective the Green Revolution has been in reducing hunger and indicate its future sustainability.

Historical Effectiveness in India

One of the first developing nations to undertake the Green Revolution on a very large scale is India. To properly assess the possible hunger reduction here, a definition of hunger must first be established. Edison Dayal and Chanadara Gulati were some of the earliest researchers to look at hunger in this region. They defined hunger (used interchangeably with the term food poverty) as the condition “in which in an individual does not have the resources to  acquire the  minimum recommended daily caloric requirement” (MRDCR).While they also hypothesized that everyone may have different caloric requirements because they can adapt to eating less food over time, this view has been heavily criticized and should not be included in the definition of hunger for several reasons cited by Dandekar (1981) and Gopalan (1983). They claimed that this was like saying “that the scant clothing the poor wear is an indication that they do not suffer from exposure to winter cold.”  Thus, the definition for hunger should remain as the number of people not meeting their MRDCR.

Between the ten year period from 1973 to 1983, per capita consumption of calories fell from 2266 to 2221 in India (Dayal & Gulati, 1993). While this is not a major drop in consumption, this study cites that this is due to the Green Revolution’s ineffectiveness on rice crops which are heavily concentrated in Indian states. Dayal and Gulati believe that if rice crops were more efficient, the per capita consumption of calories would have greatly increased. Despite this alarming trend, the incidents of food poverty dropped from 63% to 48% in the same ten year period. This would indicate that while people in India may not be eating more calories on average, there are at least more people eating. In trying to weigh the Green Revolution’s effectiveness, Dayal and Gulati complied data on crop yields and hunger levels in various Indian states. A strange trend in these figures is that while some states saw higher crop yields, they simultaneously saw higher hunger rates (measured by average calories consumed per person to help account for population growth). The major implication drawn from this fact is that higher crop yield from Green Revolution technologies does not necessarily result in an equivalent reduction in hunger levels for the poor in developing nations (Dayal & Gulati, 1993).

Raju Das came to a similar conclusion in 1999 regarding the regional unevenness in the effectiveness of the Green Revolution. He hypothesized that this again stems from the reliance of certain Indian states on rice strains, while others rely on wheat. Since the Green Revolution has been particularly effective with wheat strains, it should be no surprise that these states were performing better than those that rely on rice (Das, 1999). Additionally, some states are also more likely to succeed than others because of the intensive capital requirements the Green Revolution requires (Dhanagare, 1987). Wealthier states are more likely to have farmers who can afford the equipment and technology necessary to grow and harvest these crops, leading to a higher chance of success. The combination of the intense capital requirements and reduced relative effectiveness on rice makes some Indian states much more likely to succeed in reducing hunger than others.

Despite the grim evidence that hunger levels may be increasing in some Indian states, there is also evidence that hunger may actually be declining. This is indicated by the fact that in more than half the Indian states, hunger declined during the ten year period from 1973 to 1983. The Dayal & Gulati study found that the trend seemed to be that in states where hunger was rampant it tended to decline, and where hunger was already below 50%, it tended to increase. The conclusion that these statistics point to is that Indian states have finally started seeing more equilibrium in their hunger rates, rather than being dependant on geographic conditions and the crops that can grow there. In this sense, the Green Revolution is certainly helping reduce hunger in India.

Historical Effectiveness Globally

Measuring the success of the Green Revolution in reducing hunger in developing nations outside of India has been even more difficult. Holt-Gimenez argues that overall, the Green Revolution has been unsuccessful in developing nations for a multitude of reasons, mainly leading back to infrastructure. He believes that while hunger levels may be difficult to directly measure with the infrastructure in many of these nations, it clearly has not been a successful endeavor. Between 1970 and 1990, the general trend Holt-Gimenez found was that the total amount of food per person was sharply increasing at 11% worldwide over the course of the two decades. The number of “hungry” people also fell from 942 million to 786 million globally. Despite this, the number of hungry individuals still rose in South America by 19%, while food per capita increased by 8% at the same time. Similarly, he found 9% more hungry individuals in South Asia (mostly in India), where food production also increased by 9%. It seems as though the historical success in India from the 1970s-1980s were only temporary, as the proportion of hungry individuals continued to increase later in the 1980s.

The reason for the disparity between the global decline of hunger and regional failure is likely caused by China’s extreme success with the Green Revolution (Holt-Gimenez, 2008, Conway 1998). Between 1970 and 1990, there was an astounding drop in hungry individuals from 406 million to 189 million in China alone. Removing this country from the equation gives us an actual increase in hungry individuals by 11% worldwide over this span of 20 years. Holt-Gimenez believes that this is a major indication that the infrastructure required for the Green Revolution to succeed is still not present in regions like South Asia, Africa, and South America. This conclusion makes the implementation of the Green Revolution unstable for future hunger reduction in these regions. A prime example of this is the Green Revolution in Africa, which Holt-Gimenez argues has adequate funding for high-yield crops, but remains unsuccessful due to lack of infrastructure in government and economic policy.

The Green Revolution’s Sustainability

The unequal distribution of success with the Green Revolution worldwide calls into question how sustainable the revolution really is. It is clear that the Green Revolution can drastically increase crop yield worldwide, but whether these crops can be used to reduce hunger more evenly and effectively further into the future is yet to be determined. Several external factors that have historically reduced the Green Revolution’s effectiveness will continue to be an obstacle for developing nations, including soil degradation, government infrastructure, and water supplies.

While India has seen a 94% increase in rice and wheat yields since the Green Revolution started, this has not been without ecological damage (Anonymous, 2002). Many local varieties of rice and wheat have been completely destroyed in areas of India, and soil nutrient levels are being rapidly reduced in many states. This reduction in indigenous strains of wheat and rice tends to make crop yield more unstable, since new strains will be more prone to disease and weather fluctuations than the indigenous variety of crops (Singh, 1986-1998). Additionally, water tables have also been lowered in many of these Indian states, representing a major problem for dry areas of the country. The extensive use of pesticides has also deteriorated the environment at historic rates, and studies predict that crop yields may be difficult to sustain without serious changes over the next 50 years (Powledge, 2010; Anonymous, 2002).

Another important ecological factor affecting the sustainability of the Green Revolution is water supply and rainfall rates. Historically, rainfall has been adequate in India to sustain local strains of rice and wheat, but the new high-yield varieties are requiring an increasing amount of water. To reach the 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals, developing nations will need to use 2,200 km3 of additional water relative to 2002 levels of water used to produce food. This is to both keep pace with a growing population in developing nations, and to keep pace with the water requirements of high-yielding crops (Rockstrom et al., 2007). If this is adapted through irrigation methods (referred to as green water), that amount will be an 85% higher freshwater requirement than was needed in 2002. Even if this extra water is acquired, farmland will have to be expanded to keep pace with a growing population. By 2050, this will necessitate about a 50% increase in farmland in developing nations (Rockstrom et al., 2007). Obviously this is dangerous for developing nations since many do not have the land, and others will need to expand into rainforests and other ecological reserves to meet their farming land requirements. This creates much more than just a policy problem, and will directly impact the quality of life and development of these nations as a whole.

A final issue regarding the sustainability of the Green Revolution is the politics and economics impeding hungry people in developing nations from getting food. Holt-Gimenez notes that while the total amount of food per person has been increasing over the years, there are consistently individuals that cannot afford or get access to this food. Clearly, the major issue is not actually producing the food as much as it is to get the crops to the hungry. Until social infrastructure and the inequality of rural incomes are dealt with by the governments in developing nations, there is always going to be a larger hungry population than there could be under ideal circumstances.

While there are numerous problems in regards to the sustainability of the Green Revolution, many researchers have a more positive outlook. Donald Pluckett sees that many regions and countries have found astounding success with Green Revolution high-yield crops since the 1970s, despite poor soil conditions for agriculture (Science, 1993). This has been particularly true for certain areas of Africa, as well as both North and South Korea. The success of these areas implies that soil degradation may not be as large of an obstacle for developing countries as some researchers believe. Pluckett also believes that the short-term fluctuations in crop yield rates will level out over time.  Better equipment and knowledge for rural farmers will develop, leading to further increased crop-yields to boost harvests by up to 50% over future decades (Science, 1993). Combined with an increased focus on distribution networks, agricultural capacity, and financing, Pluckett finds the Green Revolution to be very sustainable for the foreseeable future.

Overall Effectiveness and Sustainability

The major achievement the Green Revolution has attained for developing nations is a dramatic increase in crop yields since the 1970s. With a 94% increase in rice and wheat yields and an 11% increase in food per person worldwide, there is more food available now than ever before. Additionally, the number of hungry individuals has significantly dropped globally, but at an uneven pace. In certain areas of the globe (like China) the Green Revolution has been a resounding success, while in parts of India, Africa, and South America it has failed in effectively reducing hunger. An implication of this is that there are several important factors that are needed to make the Green Revolution stable other than high-yield crops. These factors include soil conditions, water levels, income inequality, and infrastructure. While soil conditions have been steadily deteriorating in developing nations, other nations have seen success with high-yield crops despite poor soil conditions. This indicates that soil conditions may not be the largest factor involved in keeping the revolution sustainable. More likely, it is the distribution channels for food that are keeping it from those in need, as well as the large income gap in rural communities. Finally, a major threat to the sustainability of the Green Revolution is the larger water and land supply that is needed. Developing nations will have to create unique irrigation methods to bring 85% more freshwater to their crops. Additionally, land requirements may increase if global population continues to increase at the same pace that it is currently. Thus, the Green Revolution has been moderately successful at reducing hunger in developing nations. However, water limitations, income inequality, and land requirements should be taken into account to keep the Green Revolution sustainable and allow it to reduce hunger well into the future.

Works Cited

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Dayal, Edison and Gulati, Chandra. “Regional Changes in Food Poverty in India” GeoJournal , Vol. 30, No. 2, Vulnerability, Hunger and Famine (June 1993), pp. 167-177. Published by: Springer
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