It saved one billion people from starvation. It won a Nobel peace prize for its founder, and it transformed India, all by discovering new varieties of high-yield rice and wheat, and new ways of growing them.
Yet today, 50 years later, the Green Revolution is sputtering. Those high-yield crops have touched off ecological disasters, and the countries that were saved from hunger are now struggling with dietary deficiencies.
But perhaps the revolution will get a second chance, if developing countries change their agriculture policies.
“The next Green Revolution has to preserve our natural resources,” says Dr. Rajan Aggarwal, soil and water specialist at the Agriculture University of Punjab (PAU). “We have achieved yields of wheat and rice of six tonnes per hectare, but at the cost of our water table.”
It takes eight hours driving north from India’s capital, New Delhi, to reach Ludhiana. The city is home to the world-famous Agriculture University of Punjab (PAU), often called the Mother of the Green Revolution.
The university is linked into an international group of plant breeders and agronomists called the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Together, starting in the 1960s, they produced a kind of space race of their own, doubling and tripling the yields of wheat and rice in developing countries, based on work at research centres in Mexico, U.S., India, Pakistan and Philippines.
Eventually known as the Green Revolution, this scientific effort was largely financed by the American government and by private foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation. But there was never any doubt that it was political too. During the years of war in Viet Nam, the West did not want to see India topple into communism and into the arms of China.
Despite all those good intentions, after two generations, the problems are becoming clear.
Those high-yielding cereal varieties can only produce their yields if they’re matched with dangerously high fertilizer rates and unsustainable quantities of water.
As a consequence of the revolution, more than 12 million pumps now suck up so much underground water during the region’s paddy season, they effectively make Punjab the world’s largest artificial lake.
At the start of the revolution, Dr. Aggarwal tells me. the water table was 10 metres down. Today it is a perilous 30 metres.
Unless something changes, the outlook is bleak. Rice cannot be grown without water.
For Aggarwal and his colleagues, it has set off a push to grow earlier varieties of basmati rice that would mature in 100 days, down from 130 to 140 days for conventional rice varieties. The change would save a substantial quantity of water.
Plus, for about C$27,000, farmers can buy a laser-guided grader to level their fields, cutting their water needs by 15 to 25 per cent. The effect, the researchers say, has been “miraculous” and already, a third of the state’s paddy acreage has been levelled with the locally made machine.
Irrigation technology is evolving too, with more farmers turning to drip systems.
The numbers, however, quickly get very large. The university’s ultimate goal is to reduce water consumption so that monsoons will recharge the aquifers, but with 40 per cent of the Punjab’s arable land being irrigated, an even more radical change may be needed.
According to former PAU dean Dr. S.S. Johl, the Green Revolution achieved its goals by transforming the Punjab into a rice producer. Until then, its big crop was wheat.
Now Johl, an internationally known and respected agro-economist, is denouncing government subsidies that make rice production possible by encouraging what he calls “the pillage of underground water.” Producers don’t pay for the water, he points out, and they also get heavy subsidies for urea and diesel, as well as having guaranteed prices for wheat and rice.
The result, Johl says, is an artificial economy with insane competition to build bigger and faster pumps.
Last March, I drove the road from Ludhiana to Bathinda and on to Punjab’s capital, Chandigarh, with wheat fields changing from green to gold. In three weeks, thousands of combines would harvest the precious grain.
But as I drove by, I regularly saw huge circles of flattened wheat, as if herds of elephants had slept in the fields. In Canada, this would be a sign of severe rain or hail, but I’m told that nothing of the sort has happened here.
“The lodging is due to overapplication of urea,” explains Sukhdev Singh Bhangu, marketing manager for the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative (IFFCO).
The Green Revolution wheats were bred with short straw to resist bad weather, but excess nitrogen can overpower that dwarfing trait, so the stalk can become too weak to hold the head.
Again, if we were talking about Canada, the concern would be grain quality, and how to get those heads into the combine. Here in India, however, the problem is rats, plus birds too. A lot of the crop will be lost before the farmer can get to it.
IFFCO controls a quarter of India’s fertilizer market, Bhangu tells me, and the giant co-op does try to educate its 50 million members on urea rates. But the fertilizer is so heavily subsidized by New Delhi, it costs less than salt.
Narendra Modi, India’s acting prime minister, has tried to re-structure the subsidies. Instead of giving the money to the fertilizer companies so they can lower their prices, he wants to give the money directly to farmers, who can then choose whether to spend the funds on fertilizer or on other farm expenses.
You might think farmers would jump at this. Instead, they’re nervous about whether they’d ever actually see the money.
“I am against it. I prefer that the subsidy stays with the manufacturers because I don’t want to wait a month or more before being reimbursed by the government,” says Haridenyat Gill, a grain producer I met on his farm near Lidhuana.
Just back from Israel, the 36-year-old entrepreneur was building a brand new greenhouse to produce organic cucumbers and tomatoes under drip irrigation.
Gill is investing C$100,000 in this project, and he says he knows this means he is taking a huge risk to produce these perishable products. But, with the subsidies he gets for the cereal side of his operation, it’s a reasonable risk, he says. Without them, the risk would simply be too great.
Yet the problem runs deeper. In this climate, the decades of big, urea-driven crops have burned the soil’s organic matter and depleted other nutrients all over the country. In fact, India now returns even less grain per unit of applied nitrogen than China, getting only half the yield bump that farmers in North America would see.
This is why, last February, Narendra Modi launched a vast program called the National Soil Card, with 2,000 dealerships being equipped with soil labs in the next three years.
Under the plan, each producer will get an individualized soil card, showing their need for nitrogen, phosphorus, potash and micro-nutrients, together with a ranking of the soil’s organic matter.
“It is a win-win situation as producers will use less urea and help soil health recovery, and the government will save huge amounts of subsidies,” says P.K. Joshi, director South Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), based in Delhi.
Some 140 million soil cards have already been issued by the Ministry of Agriculture of India.
A sustainable revolution?
“Just testing soil is not enough! We need to figure out ways to improve soil fertility without excessive dependence on chemicals,” says Vibha Varshney, editor of the magazine Down to Earth published by the Centre for Science and Technology, in Delhi.
Crop rotation, building up organic matter, and growing nitrogen-fixing crops are some of the ways to do this, Varshney says.
In other words, in order to preserve the gains of the Green Revolution, it’s time for farmers to ease up on their use of the revolution’s biggest successes.That won’t be easy, says Varshney, who says it will take government policy to get farmers to put more of their land into lentil crops, which he calls the all-time champions in the field of ecology and climate change.
Easy on water, lentil crops would regenerate the soil with fixed nitrogen and diminish the use of urea.
Even though India is already the world’s largest lentil producer, the droughts of 2014 and 2015 cut production. This was good news for Canada, which supplies 40 per cent of India’s lentil imports.
But Indian soils need lentils, and so does India’s population, especially since lentils are rich in iron and would help solve the iron deficiency in the national diet that has been exacerbated by the Green Revolution.
“This sustainable or second Green Revolution must also consider the food deficiency of India’s population. Nearly 90 per cent of pregnant Indian women suffer from anemia,” says A. Kishore, director of sustainable agriculture and climate change, IFPRI.
Will Narendra Modi’s government push these changes? How far will it go? How fast? And how much of the Green Revolution’s benefits will still be left?
It remains to be seen.
India quick facts
- India population will outnumber China in 2050, reaching 1.3 billion.
- India has almost as much cultivated land as the U.S.
- India has more than 120 million farmers. Three-quarters own less than one hectare.
- Agriculture accounts for 17.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.
India, an agriculture powerhouse
- India is the world’s largest dairy, lentil and spice producer.
- India is the world’s second-largest producer of wheat, rice, cotton, sugar cane, aquaculture, goat and sheep meat, and fruits and vegetables.
- India is the second-largest exporter of beef after Brazil.
(Source: FSUSDA, World Bank)