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sustainable options for ending hunger and poverty

Food problems have haunted mankind since time immemorial. With few technological breakthroughs to increase yields, the food needs of growing populations were historically met by expanding the cultivated area. As the most fertile land became scarce, further expansion meant bringing poorer and loweryielding land into cultivation. By the 19th century, there was growing pessimism about the possibility of feeding ever-growing populations, as exemplified in the writings of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). The task seemed even more daunting as advances in medicine and public health led to longer life expectancies and more children born.

In the 20th century, massive public investments in modern scientific research for agriculture led to dramatic yield breakthroughs in the industrial countries.The story of English wheat is typical. It took nearly 1,000 years for wheat yields to increase from 0.5 to 2 metric tons per hectare, but only 40 years to climb from 2 to 6 metric tons per hectare. Modern plant breeding, improved agronomy, and the development of inorganic fertilizers and modern pesticides fueled these advances. Most industrial countries achieved sustained food surpluses by the second half of the 20th century, and eliminated the threat of starvation.

These advances were much slower in reaching developing countries.The colonial powers invested little in the food production systems of these countries, and by independence, their populations were growing at historically high rates. By the mid-1960s, hunger and malnutrition were widespread, especially in Asia, which increasingly depended on food aid from rich countries. Back-to-back droughts in India during the mid-1960s made the already precarious situation worse, and a 1967 report of the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee concluded that “the scale, severity and duration of the world food problem are so great that a massive, long-range, innovative effort unprecedented in human history will be required to master it.”

In response, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations took the lead in establishing an international agricultural research system to help transfer and adapt scientific advances to the conditions in developing countries.The first investments were in research on rice and wheat, two of the most important food crops for developing countries.The breeding of improved varieties, combined with the expanded use of fertilizers, other chemical inputs, and irrigation, led to dramatic yield increases in Asia and Latin America, beginning in the late 1960s. In 1968, U.S.Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator William S. Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution” to describe this phenomenal growth in agriculture.

To achieve higher yields for rice and wheat, scientists needed to develop plants that were more responsive to plant nutrients and that had shorter, stiffer straw to support the weight of heavier heads of grain.They also needed to develop varieties that could mature quicker and grow at any time of the year, thereby permitting farmers to grow more crops each year on the same land. New varieties also needed to be resistant to major pests and diseases, which flourish under intensive farming conditions, and to retain desirable cooking and consumption traits.

Borrowing from rice-breeding work undertaken in China, Japan, and Taiwan, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines developed semi-dwarf varieties that met most of these requirements. Similar achievements were made for wheat after Norman Borlaug (later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work) crossed Japanese semi-dwarf varieties with Mexican wheats at what is now known as the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

Although the term Green Revolution originally described developments for rice and wheat, high-yielding varieties (HYVs) have since been developed for other major food crops important to developing countries, including sorghum, millet, maize, cassava, and beans. Moreover, a full-fledged system of international agricultural research centers now works on many aspects of developing-country agriculture (the Future Harvest Centers that make up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research).


The adoption of HYVs occurred quickly. By 1970, about 20 percent of the wheat area and 30 percent of the rice area in developing countries were planted to HYVs, and by 1990, the share had increased to about 70 percent for both crops. Yields of rice and wheat virtually doubled. Higher yields and profitability also led farmers to increase the area of rice and wheat they grew at the expense of other crops. And with faster-growing varieties and irrigation, they grew more crops on their land each year. These changes more than doubled cereal production in Asia between 1970 and 1995, while population increased by 60 percent. Instead of widespread famine, cereal and calorie availability per person increased by nearly 30 percent, and wheat and rice became cheaper.

Latin America experienced significant gains as well, but the impact in Sub-Saharan Africa was much more modest. Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa.


The Green Revolution led to sizable increases in returns to land, and hence raised farmers’ incomes. Moreover, with greater income to spend, new needs for farm inputs, and milling and marketing services, farm families led a general increase in demand for goods and services.This stimulated the rural nonfarm economy, which in turn grew and generated significant new income and employment of its own. Real per capita incomes almost doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995, and poverty declined from nearly three out of every five Asians in 1975 to less than one in three by 1995.The absolute number of poor people fell from 1.15 billion in 1975 to 825 million in 1995 despite a 60 percent increase in population. In India, the percentage of the rural population living below the poverty line fluctuated between 50 and 65 percent before the mid-1960s but then declined steadily to about one-third of the rural population by 1993. Research studies show that much of this steady decline in poverty is attributable to agricultural growth and associated declines in food prices.

The Green Revolution also contributed to better nutrition by raising incomes and reducing prices, which permitted people to consume more calories and a more diversified diet. Big increases occurred in per capita consumption of vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, and livestock products in Asia.


Planting Rice A revolution of this magnitude was bound to create some problems of its own. Critics charged that the Green Revolution resulted in environmental degradation and increased income inequality, inequitable asset distribution, and worsened absolute poverty. Some of these criticisms are valid and have been or still need to be addressed. But there is a tendency today to overstate the problems and to ignore the appropriate counterfactual situation: what would have been magnitude of hunger and poverty without the yield increases the Green Revolution and with the same population growth?


The Green Revolution in Asia stimulated a large body of empirical literature on how agricultural technological change affects poor farmers. Critics of the Green Revolution argued that owners large farms were the main adopters of the new technologies because of their better access to irrigation water, fertilizers, seeds, and credit. Small farmers were either unaffected or harmed because the Green Revolution resulted in lower product prices, higher input prices, and efforts by landlords to increase rents or force tenants off the land. Critics also argued that the Green Revolution encouraged unnecessary mechanization, thereby pushing down rural wages and employment. Although number of village and household studies conducted soon after the release of Green Revolution technologies lent some support to early critics, more recent evidence shows mixed outcomes. Small farmers did lag behind large farmers in adopting Green Revolution technologies, yet many of them eventually did so. Many of these small-farm adopters benefited from increased production, greater employment opportunities, and higher wages in the agricultural and nonfarm sectors. Moreover, most smallholders were able to keep their land and experienced significant increases in total production. In some cases, small farmers and landless laborers actually ended up gaining proportionally more income than larger farmers, resulting in a net improvement in the distribution of village income. Development practitioners now have a better understanding the conditions under which the Green Revolution and similar yield-enhancing technologies are likely to have equitable benefits among farmers. These conditions include:

  1. A scale neutral technology package that can be profitably adopted on farms of all sizes;
  2. An equitable distribution of land with secure ownership or tenancy rights.
  3. Efficient input, credit, and product markets so that farms of all sizes have access to modern farm inputs and information and are able to receive similar prices for their products.
  4. Policies that do not discriminate against small farms and landless laborers (for instance, no subsidies on mechanization and no scale biases agricultural research and extension).

These conditions are not easy to meet.Typically, governments must make a concerted effort to ensure that small farmers have fair access to land, knowledge, and modern inputs.

Another shortcoming of the Green Revolution was that it spread only in irrigated and high-potential rainfed areas, and many villages or regions without access to sufficient water were left out.Although evidence suggests that even in these cases villagers obtained important indirect benefits through increased employment and migration opportunities and cheaper food, the benefits were rarely sufficient to prevent further widening of income gaps. In India, for example, poverty in many low-potential rainfed areas has improved little even while irrigated and high-potential rainfed areas have progressed. Regional inequalities have worsened in China as well.

The Green Revolution has also been widely criticized for causing environmental damage. Excessive and inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides has polluted waterways, poisoned agricultural workers, and killed beneficial insects and other wildlife. Irrigation practices have led to salt build-up and eventual abandonment of some of the best farming lands. Groundwater levels are retreating in areas where more water is being pumped for irrigation than can be replenished by the rains.And heavy dependence on a few major cereal varieties has led to loss of biodiversity on farms. Some of these outcomes were inevitable as millions of largely illiterate farmers began to use modern inputs for the first time, but inadequate extension and training, an absence of effective regulation of water quality, and input pricing and subsidy policies that made modern inputs too cheap and encouraged excessive use also created negative environmental impacts.These problems are slowly being rectified without yield loss, and sometimes with yield increases, thanks to policy reforms and improved technologies and management practices, such as pest-resistant varieties, biological pest control, precision farming, and crop diversification.

Often ignored, however, is the positive impact of higher yields in saving huge areas of forest and other environmentally fragile lands that would otherwise have been needed for farming. In Asia cereal production doubled between 1970 and 1975, yet the total land area cultivated with cereals increased by only 4 percent.


Overall, the Green Revolution was a major achievement for many developing countries and gave them an unprecedented level of national food security. It represented the successful adaptation and transfer of the same scientific revolution in agriculture that the industrial countries had already appropriated for themselves.The Green Revolution also lifted large numbers of poor people out of poverty and helped many nonpoor people avoid the poverty and hunger they would have experienced had the Green Revolution not occurred.The largest benefits to the poor were mostly indirect, in the form of lower food prices, increased migration opportunities, and greater employment in the rural nonfarm economy.The direct benefits to the poor through their own on-farm adoption, greater agricultural employment, and empowerment have been more mixed and depend heavily on local socioeconomic conditions. In many cases inequalities between regions and communities that adopted Green Revolution technologies and those that did not also worsened.At the same time, the Green Revolution had many negative environmental impacts that have still to be adequately redressed.

Agricultural research remains a potent force for good in the developing world and is the key to increasing yields further to meet the continuing growth of food needs in developing countries. This need is especially urgent in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has yet to experience an agricultural revolution of its own. But simply adding to the pile of food will not be enough.The indirect benefits for the poor are likely to be weaker in the future as globalization and trade make food prices less responsive to local production and as agriculture becomes less important to the livelihoods of the poor. Policymakers will need to target the poor more precisely to ensure that poor people receive greater direct benefits from new technologies. New technologies will also need to be more environmentally sustainable. By building on the strengths of the Green Revolution while seeking to avoid its weaknesses, scientists and policymakers can take significant steps toward achieving sustainable food security for all the world’s people.

Further Reading

Hazell, P., and C. Ramasamy, The Green Revolution Reconsidered:The Impact of High-yielding Rice Varieties in South India (Baltimore, Md., U.S.A.: John Hopkins University Press for IFPRI, 1991).

Hazell, P., and L. Haddad, Agricultural Research and Poverty Reduction, 2020 Vision Discussion Paper 34 (Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001).

Lipton, M., with R. Longhurst, New Seeds and Poor People (Baltimore, Md., U.S.A.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

Mosley, P., A Painful Ascent:The Green Revolution in Africa (London: Routledge, forthcoming in 2003).

Rosegrant, M., and P. Hazell, Transforming the Rural Asian Economy:The Unfinished Revolution (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press for the Asian Development Bank, 2000).

Tribe, D., Feeding and Greening the World:The Role of International Agricultural Research (Wallingford,U.K.:CAB International, 1994).

This brief is a slightly altered version of an article by Peter B.R. Hazell that will appear in J. Mokyr, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2003).

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