Echoes of Colonization, from Starvation to Suicide
“You see there, on the other side of the road. That land is owned by a very big upper caste farmer whose name I will not mention. Now that land is as good as mine. But he grows only one crop. And he is getting five to six -- a maximum of eight -- quintals of wheat in an acre -- which is the lowest one can get. We are getting twenty. The difference is that on the other side of the road it is India, and on this side it is America.” -Mohinder Sing, rich farmer (quoted by Kusum Nair, In Defense of the Irrational Peasant, p31)
“Science makes progress funeral by funeral” -Max Planck
Millions of pages fill shelves all over the world about the Green Revolution in India. And yet it is still not at all clear what happened, why it happened, and what is happening now. Decades later, hundreds of different authors marshal reams of statistics that point to totally opposing conclusions about what the Green Revolution meant for the people of India. Hindsight in this case is decidedly not 20-20. Rather, it is schizophrenic. Today, forty years after the Green Revolution began, the whole gamut of experts; historians, economists, agronomists and anthropologists, seem further from consensus than ever before. Having turned thousands of pages on the subject, it’s my own impression that no amount of writing will bring this discourse closer to consensus. The differences of opinion are ideological, not empirical. I will not attempt here to “settle” the debate. If and when any such debate is settled, it will be the farmers who settle it. My humble aim in this paper is to show how the Green Revolution, on a variety of levels, revised and reconstituted a particular colonial process that began with the East India Company several centuries ago.
To begin with, there is a fair amount of confusion as to what the Green Revolution actually was. “The term ‘Green Revolution’,” writes G. B. Singh, was “coined and used for the first time by William Gaud -- the administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development in a speech before the Society for International Development, Washington in 1968.” (p401) Specifically, it referred to a massive agricultural reform adopted by India in the mid-1960s. This consisted of the widespread adoption of a higher-yielding variety of wheat grain from Mexico, and the transition from traditional South Asian agriculture to mechanized monocultures with high inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, characteristic of Western (and particularly United States) agriculture. “Collectively,” writes Kusum Nair, “the changes in farm practices, production and productivity were considered so remarkable that the phenomena earned the title of a revolution... Twenty million acres were covered within two years or so.” (p43) Years later, Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for his work promoting the Green Revolution, wrote that “Never before in the history of agriculture has a transplantation of high-yielding varieties coupled with an entirely new technology and strategy been achieved on such a massive scale, in so short a period of time and with such great success.” (Singh, p411) This, empirically, was the Green Revolution. There is much much more to be said, however, about its causes and consequences.
The Green Revolution arrived amidst and in response to an immense agricultural crisis. C. Subramaniam, India’s minister for food and agriculture during the implementation of the Green Revolution, explained the conditions in which it arrived: “We had on hand a worsening inflationary spiral with demand for food going up as a consequence of increased incomes and population and the supplies growing but not fast enough. Even with an abundant crop, there was an imminent shortage of food.” (Nair, p41) By promising to drastically increase yields, proponents of the Green Revolution promised to stave off the specter of starvation that haunted the subcontinent. The savior was to be fertilizer, and a foreign species of wheat that could produce more than the Indian varieties. “The tall Indian variety gave an average yield just below fourteen bushels an acre, while the average yield of the [Mexican] semidwarf varieties was above thirty bushels an acre.” (Bickel, 313) Over the next decade, the higher-yielding Mexican varieties swept the country, exceeding most expectations and revolutionizing agricultural practices throughout the subcontinent. In 1968, India had a record harvest of 16 million tons. (Bickel, 312) Only a year earlier, the government had declared the North East a disaster area as a result of famines (Bickel, 298) Wheat harvests were approximately doubled (Pringle, p151). Writing in 1999, G.B. Singh summarized the successes of the Green Revolution:
“India’s biggest achievement is self-sufficiency in foodgrains despite the fact that population has shot up from 359 million in 1950-51 to 845 million in 1990-91 (now 940 million). This obviously has saved millions of people from starvation. The very fact that now we have a sufficient buffer stock to offset the negating effects of floods, droughts and other calamities is indeed very satisfying.” (p413)
Thus presented, the narrative of the Green Revolution in India appears quite rosy; a triumph of science over starvation, a legacy of famine vanquished by a legion of fertilizers. But all has not been told. While averting the threat of famine, the Green Revolution has had far reaching adverse consequences. The costs of high yields loom in a variety of sectors: human health, the environment, employment and inequality.
Singh again is concise in summarizing: “[T]he Green Revolution has not helped reduce poverty and generate employment at desired levels. Overall degradation of environment has also emerged.” (p412) The adverse effects of the Green Revolution on overall human health are numerous. Massive application of chemical pesticides and herbicides has had massive consequences. “In India,” writes Peter Pringle in Food, Inc., “chemically treated areas expanded from 15 million acres in 1960 to more than 200 million acres in the mid 1980s. There were hundreds of thousands of accidental human poisonings... and several thousand deaths.” (p52) The Green Revolution filled bellies, yes, but with what? “The pain of all pains,” writes Singh, “is that most of the food including cereals pulses, oilseeds, vegetables and fruits are pesticide-contaminated today, which is directly contributed by Green Revolution technology.” Moreover, Michael Perelman writes that “higher yields are bought at the cost of a lower protein content.... Thus the Green Revolution might actually lower the protein production of Asia.”
Environmental degradation has also emerged as a potentially catastrophic result of the Green Revolution. Beyond high levels of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc, that contaminate soils and watersheds, high-intensity ‘exploitative” agriculture exhausts the soil. Many organizations, experts and texts warn of increasing desertification as a result of Green Revolution technology and practices on the subcontinent. Something like this happened in the MidWest United States not so long go. John Steinbeck wrote a relevant story about it.
Employment levels have also taken a turn for the worse since the Green Revolution. “One study,” cites Perelman, “shows that mechanization of farms reduces the need for labor by 50 percent.” Studies also show that income inequality has been exacerbated by the effects of the Green Revolution. “[E]ven at the end of five years following 1970-71,” writes Nair,
“when the Green Revolution was at the height of its glory, the agricultural income per head of the rural population as a whole had declined below the 1960-61 level... Nevertheless, because of the increase in relative prices in favor of farm products, rich farmers... became much richer. But the real income of the lower strata, of small, subsistence cultivators with little or no marketable surplus, became still lower.” (p92)
Despite high yields which have stemmed starvation and sustained a degree of food sufficiency, Singh asks us to remember that, decades after the Green Revolution, “one fifth of the Indian population is chronically malnourished”. (p412) However, the intention of this paper is not to make a roster of all the painful consequences and inadequacies of the Green Revolution. This has been done already at length (see in particular The Violence of the Green Revolution, by Vandana Shiva). Instead, I cite these perspectives by way of introduction to begin to explain how the Green Revolution, which began with the best of intentions, shows undeniable continuities with colonialism.
Any good intentions aside, colonial agricultural policy was a disaster from start to finish. Colonial rule was framed in famine: “The British Colonial rule began with drought and famine in Bengal in 1770 during which one third of the population of the province perished. The Colonial period also ended with great Bengal famine of 1943 in which over three million people died of hunger.” (Singh, p402) To better understand the Green Revolution in India, it is enlightening to investigate the history of agriculture in South Asia. “The process of agricultural change in India,” continues Singh, “has its roots as far back as the colonization schemes of Punjab and Sindh, introduced during the British Period in response to food shortages being experienced in the country at the time.” (p402) Norman Borlaug and M.S. Swaminathan, revered as the fathers of the Green Revolution, were not the first to introduce new varieties of wheat to South Asia in the attempt to avert widespread starvation. Kusum Nair writes that “[t]he Secretary of State for India called for a complete report on Indian wheats as early as 1877. And in 1889, John Augustus Voelcker, Consulting Chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society, was sent to advise on how best to improve the colony’s agriculture.” (p103) In the 1920s, British agronomists introduced new varieties of wheat in an attempt to increase yields. “By 1926, the Pusa No.4 and Pusa No.12 varieties had spread to every wheat-growing tract in the country... Further work to improve the strains continued... And so, within half a century, the ‘traditional’ wheats of India were twice transformed.” (Nair, p104) Intensive application of fertilizers is also a continuity from the colonial era. “[T]he importance of nitrogen was clearly understood,” continues Nair: “By 1925, India was manufacturing around 15,000 tons of sulphate of ammonia.” (p105) Recognizing these continuities takes us closer to understanding the Green Revolution. While intentions have varied over the centuries, the trajectory hasn’t so much. While the Green Revolution is not colonialism per se, it replicates and reconstitutes colonial relations in several specific ways. In particular, the land reforms, economic dependency, geopolitics, and ideology of the Green Revolution are all highly reminiscent of the colonial era.
Land Reform. Colonialism was all about land revenue. To help facilitate the extraction of these revenues, the colonizers undertook a process of manufacturing a loyal native ruling class of landowners to serve them as middlemen. Thus, colonization sparked off a massive redistribution of land. “The very first settlements in the 1850s,” writes Nair,
"...produced tens of thousands of owner-cultivators with new legal rights of sale, mortgage, and hereditary transfer of land. That along with new laws, civil court procedures, and lower but more rigorously collected taxes than had been customary under the Sikhs resulted in a ruinous expansion of peasant indebtedness. For the first time, land that had been practically unsaleable became a valuable asset and an attractive investment. Also for the first time, it became easy for the urban and professional classes with capital to acquire land.” (p81)
The institutional legacy of colonial agricultural policy was the zamindari system. A zamindar was basically a feudal estate; dozens or hundreds of tenant farmers would work the land and pay tribute and service to the non-working zamindar. In the days of the Raj, this zamindar would in turn pay tribute to the British. In the years and decades following independence, the Indian National Congress officially abolished the zamindari system. But zamindars have no more disappeared than caste has in postcolonial India. “A galaxy of land reforms followed the abolition of zamindari in Bihar and the rest of the country.” writes Nair. “They did not materially alter the degree of concentration of agricultural land, or the caste and class composition of its owners.” (p88) The Indian National Congress, itself composed of many wealthy landowners, never implemented rigorous land reforms, and the colonial land distribution remained mostly intact. “The policy was to ensure that the bigger zamindars,” writes Nair,
“...were not hurt by the landmark reform meant to remove their stranglehold on agrarian property and power structure. Thus compounding the original error of the colonial administrators in conferring zamindari rights on nonagriculturists, hundreds and, in many cases, several thousand acres of land were handed over gratuitously to the same ‘feudal’ or ‘parasitic’ landlords, with absolute freedom to utilize it as they wished. In addition, handsome rates of compensation were paid to the zamindars, without any discrimination on the basis of accumulated wealth, size of property, or how the title to it had originated.” (p86)
Instead of conferring property rights directly on tenant farmers, and giving the land to those who worked it, the post-independence land reforms gave zamindars the option of selling their land. [M]ost of it was sold and not surrendered,” writes Nair. (p12) In many cases, the only difference was that tenant farmers became landless agricultural wage-laborers.
Zamindars were notoriously poor agriculturists. Insulated by accumulated wealth, these large landowners had no particular incentive to be efficient farmers. This, along with inadequate distributional mechanisms, is the primary cause of the famines that were the trademark of colonial agriculture: The majority of land was not owned by those worked and knew it. Even the greater profits that would result from harder work on average aren’t sufficient to incentivize harder work by those who already have more than enough. “[T]hey chose not to strive for larger profits because they... did not need to,” writes Nair:
"They have sufficient wealth and income to meet their familial and social obligations, and do not aspire for more. Besides, it is both economic and legitimate for farmers in Bihar and the country to be grossly inefficient -- the floor is a bottomless pit -- and yet retain possession of the land.” (p90)
So then. What was the effect of the Green Revolution on land distribution in India? Essentially, it let the wealthy landowners off the hook. Nair writes that
“their transparent lack of will to work and proven ineptitude in farming -- 200 years of reckless waste, neglect, and abuse of land -- were forgiven and forgotten. Wiped out. On the contrary, the erstwhile nonworking and rack-renting landlords were expected to transform themselves into “owner-cultivators” and substantially step up agricultural production!” (p86-87)
Furthermore, while the Green Revolution takes the blame off of the wealthy landowners and indeed proposes them as become the saviors of the nation by producing the high yields that will prevent famines, the capital-intensive farming that the high yielding crops necessitate further privilege the already wealthy. “[I]t costs a lot of money to become a Green Revolutionary,” writes Perelman.
“...as better-off farmers mechanize they will have an incentive to buy up neighboring farms until their holdings reach a size that gives them the full advantage of their machines. Average farm size will increase and machines will replace people on the land; these small farmers will join the landless in the cities to wait for employment... while a few rich “farmers” accumulate their land monopolies.”
In other words, the Green Revolution effectively reverses the meagre land reforms that were implemented since independence. The International Development Economics Associates elaborate:
“with the advent of the capital-intensive Green Revolution technology and mechanised farming, the efforts at redistributive land reforms were reversed...The technology could have benefited the poor farmers if land reforms, and subsequently land consolidation, was completed before the introduction of the technology, and co-operativisation was encouraged by the government through offers of easy credit and expertise to the small peasants to enable them to make the switch to collective farming... In the absence of such support the small landowners simply found it uneconomical to cultivate and often sold their plots back to the richer farmers. These small landowners joined the stream of landless labourers, ensuring a steady supply of cheap agricultural labour to work on the lands of the richer farmers. With international donor agencies, including the World Bank, backing and funding Green Revolution technology, whatever success the countries depending on these agencies had achieved in the area of redistributive land reforms was overturned. These countries then started witnessing what may be called reverse land reforms, meaning increasing concentration of land holdings in the hands of big farmers.”
The miracle of the Green Revolution was that it was able to momentarily prevent the consequences of inequality while simultaneously (even if unintentionally) exacerbating inequality. The long term solution to the threat of famine is land reform. In aiming to eliminate the necessity for land reform, the Green Revolution was not only an attempt to fight hunger, but a ploy to protect and preserve capital.
Economic Dependency. Another way in which the Green Revolution represents of continuity with the colonial era is the way in which it has established a situation of economic dependency. What’s new this time around is scientific agriculture. Enter biotechnology. In the colonial era, the British destroyed Indian textile industries, and turned India into a market for their own cloth. Today, Indian varieties of seeds in many places have all but vanished, and farmers are buy their seeds from U.S. corporations. Nair quotes a rich farmer:
“Desi is practically finished. Cannot find desi seed any more even in a village. I wanted to sow some this year, of the old variety. Had to bring the seed from Patna -- could get very little. Everyone says the new varieties are better. They give higher yields.” (p16)
To grow the high-yielding varieties, Indian farmers must buy not only seeds, but fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, all from the companies who own patents on them. The arrival of biotechnology is a definite novelty in the colonial narrative. In his essay Tomorrow Is Too Late, Fidel Castro writes that “the possession and control of genetic resources constitutes a new way of plundering the Third World.”(p32) Several centuries ago, South Asian peasants grew indigo and opium for the East India Company. Today, they purchase their seeds and fertilizers from Monsanto. “In effect,” writes Perelman, “the Green Revolution makes the Third World dependent on the United States.”
We shouldn’t be too hasty in drawing broad conclusions. Again, the Green Revolution is not colonialism per se. But we would be foolish not to see the continuities. It has re-established and reconstituted the dynamics of economic dependency that characterized the colonial era. And the implications of are almost essentially the same. “The most serious question,” writes Castro, is at the bottom, the same as it was centuries ago: “with the extension of market forces to the problems of conservation of biological diversity, we could be setting out on a path toward the loss of national sovereignty over natural resources.” (p3)
Geopolitics. “The Green Revolution,” wrote Harry Cleaver,
“is usually thought of narrowly as the current, accelerated growth in Third World grain production which results from combining the new seeds ... mostly wheat and rice ... with heavy applications of fertilizer and carefully controlled irrigation... Yet... the Green Revolution is far more than one of plant breeding and genetics. It is woven into the fabric of American foreign policy and is an integral part of the postwar effort to contain social revolution and make the world safe for profits.” (quoted by Perelman)
The geopolitics of the Green Revolution devolve upon the world. The Green Revolution has arrived in Asia, Latin America, and is currently being pushed on Africa. The goal, to reiterate, is, whether intentionally or not, to preserve capital by preventing upheaval. The methodology is to make land more productive without redistributing it. In the process, whether by default or design, relations of economic dependency are established between farmers and the owners of the new technology (ie, patented seeds and fertilizers, in addition to the usual moneylenders, landlords, etc). “In the end,” writes Pringle, “the Green Revolution was more a triumph of American technology than of science.” If farmers were to triumph over technology instead of technology ruling farmers, it could potentially be a massive threat. None said it better than Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution: “Don’t people realize we are dealing with potential social and political chaos that can affect every system of government in the world?” (Bickel, p359)
Ideology. Norman Borlaug and M.C. Swaminathan were not colonizers, they were scientists, and saw themselves as hunger fighters. They were not beholden to power and authority, and they were not motivated by personal profit or fame. And yet there is a definite continuity between the ideology of the Raj and the ideology of the Green Revolution.
The ideology of colonialism in South Asia was liberalism. An important aspect of liberalism is utilitarianism; it is the belief that all people everywhere, at all times and places, are essentially the same, that all societies can be transformed for the better through the workings of education, private property and individualism, and that the greatest good is whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. While interpreted and made use of by the colonizers and the hunger fighters in different ways, there is a definite ideological continuity. In his biography of Borlaug, Lennard Bickel recounts an anecdote from one of Borlaug’s many visits to South Asia: “One senior government man said he thought Borlaug would have trouble getting acquainted with India’s customs and need. Borlaug was blunt: he said that he understood all human bellies to be constructed on the same blueprint.” (p261) This is liberal ideology at work. Nair also invokes this continuity: “[L]ike Adam Smith, who believed that ‘there was a Scotchman inside every man,’... [they] visualized the Midwestern corn farmer inside every peasant.” (p44)
Like liberal colonizers before them, the pioneers of the Green Revolution in India believed that the society they saw as backwards (incapable of preventing famine without the advanced scientific help of the “developed world”) could be wholly and completely transformed. Edward Woolf writes that “[a] report by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee warned in 1966 that ‘the very fabric of traditional societies must be rewoven if the situation is to change permanently.’” (p24) And finally, the ideology of utilitarianism holds that the greatest good is the highest aggregate happiness of society. Borlaug and Swaminathan were utilitarian to the core. They saw hunger and its supreme unhappiness to the exclusion of everything else. Their intentions and convictions as hunger fighters were highly admirable, but their myopia of hunger alleviation drove them to promote policies that would do anything to feed the hungry. Was it worth it? If statistics are to be believed, millions (some even say billions) of lives were saved as a result of their efforts. The costs, however, were environmental degradation, severe health risk, regressive land reform, economic dependency and generally reconstituted colonial power relations.
Was it worth it? Liberalism is a colonial ideology, and we must beware of where it leads us. Is it better to die on our feet, or live on our knees? Is aggregate happiness the greatest good? Or do we live not by bread alone?
What is at stake in this question? The problems that the Green Revolution set out to solve are back to haunt us again. “The Green Revolution has come and is practically over,” wrote Nair almost thirty years ago. In many parts of the world, we are confronted with the same problems India faced in the mid-1960s, only on a larger scale. The specter of famines and food riots has returned, and this time the technology probably will not save us. “After 20 years of research,” writes Lester Brown in The Agricultural Link,
"biotechnologists have not yet produced a single high-yielding variety of wheat, rice, or corn. ...plant breeders using traditional techniques have largely exploited the genetic potential for increasing the share of photosynthate that goes into seed. Once this is pushed to its limit, the remaining options tend to be relatively small... The one major option left to scientists is to increase the efficiency of the process of photosynthesis itself -- something that has thus far remained beyond their reach.” (p48)
Thomas R. Sinclair, from the United States Department of Agriculture, corroborates:“except for a few options, which allow small increases in the yield ceiling, the physiological limit to crop yields may well have been reached under experimental conditions.” (Brown, p49) Pringle also chimes in on this: “Increased yields have depended in the past on additional fertilizers, but in the fantastic yield increases of the Green Revolution, fertilizer is approaching its limit.” (p201) And on top of all the same problems (now in greater magnitude) that the Green Revolution temporarily alleviated, we are now faced with the incalculable damage that has been done to the environment. Desertification and the poisoning of soils and watersheds will have ramifications that we can’t imagine. Brown warned some time ago that “the food system is likely to be the sector through which environmental deterioration eventually translates into economic decline.” (p6)
Once again, the questions of the Green Revolution; economic, ecological and ideological, devolve upon the world. The time is running out for us to answer. Two specters now haunt both local and transnational capital: famine and ecosystem collapse. Both portend upheaval. “What begins as environmental degradation,” writes Brown, “eventually translates into political instability.” (p6) The Green Revolution has reaped momentary reprieve for politicians and sown chaos in the future. The Green Revolution temporarily delivered farmers from starvation -- and into suicide. As more and more farmers are driven into odious debts and off the land, as deserts grow and cancers spread, the grapes of wrath, as they have elsewhere, will grow ripe on the vine. The solution -- that the land belong to those who work it -- is simple. Capital and its ideologies stand in the way. As Nair concludes, “there cannot be an agricultural revolution -- without a revolution.” (p101)
In Defense of the Irrational Peasant, Indian Agriculture after the Green Revolution, by Kusum Nair, 1979
Green Revolution in India: Gains and Pains by G.B. Singh, 1999, from Voice of Concern, edited by Anu Kapur, 2002
Facing Starvation, Norman Borlaug and the Fight Against Hunger by Lennard Bickel, 1974
Food, Inc. Mendel to “Monsanto -- The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest by Peter Pringle, 2003
The Green Revolution: American Agriculture in the Third World by Michael Perelman, from Radical Agriculture, edited by Richard Merrill, 1976
Land Reforms: An Evaluation of World Bank Strategies, from the website of the International Development Economics Associates: http://www.networkideas.org/feathm/may2002/ft03_Land_Reforms.htm
Tomorrow Is Too Late. Development and the environmental crisis in the Third World by Fidel Castro, 1992
Beyond the Green Revolution: New Approaches to Third World Agriculture, by Edward C. Woolf, Worldwatch Paper 73, October 1986
The Agricultural Link: How Environmental Deterioration Could Disrupt Economic Progress by Lester R. Brown, Worldwatch Paper 136, August 1997
The Violence of the Green Revolution, Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics, by Vandana Shiva, 1991