In the narrowest sense, the Green Revolution was the adoption and spread of a very specific agricultural technology that allowed farmers to substantially increase food production per unit of land and per unit of labor. Successful implementation depended on a series of supporting institutional and infrastructural arrangements, however, and the Green Revolution in a larger sense is this entire package. Finally, this package also embodies a very general view of society, and the Green Revolution in the largest sense includes this as well. Although Green Revolution technologies have been adopted on large-scale corporate farms in developed countries, their primary purpose was to serve the needs and interests of small-scale independent farmers in underdeveloped countries. In this sense, the Green Revolution was not only a technological or agricultural revolution but a full-scale social revolution, a true democratic alternative to the centralizing “Red Revolution” promoted during the same period by the Soviet Union.
The Green Revolution has assured that for the present and the immediate future, total world food production exceeds world food needs. Many countries formerly facing famine are now self-sufficient. At the same time, however, it has permanently changed the way the world’s farmers relate to their social and technological contexts.
Producing the Core Technology
The core of the Green Revolution is a series of cultivars, mainly grain crops, called “High Yielding Varieties,” or HYVs. HYVs differ from normal crop varieties in that they will not maintain their desirable characteristics by normal on-farm reproduction. The seeds are created under in highly controlled off-farm environments. Farmers then buy them and plant them for the usable crop. The farmers may be able to gather seeds from this crop and repeat the cycle a few times, but the quality of the crop declines and after a few cycles it is necessary to return to the off-farm seed source. High Yielding Varieties are capable of giving substantially higher yields of desired crop materials than conventional varieties because they are designed to be much more responsive to increased inputs than conventional varieties. These inputs are primarily fertilizer and water, but may also include insecticides.
The development of HYV food crops began in Mexico in 1943, when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Government of Mexico established a cooperative research program to improve the yields of wheat and maize. Mexico was an original center in which maize had been developed, but its yields in the 1940s were among the lowest in the world. Wheat was its second most important food crop, but it was a net importer.
The first director of the Mexican research program was Dr. George Harrar, a plant pathologist from the University of Washington. In 1944 Dr. Norman Borlaug joined him. In 1961, Dr. Harrar became president of the Rockefeller Foundation itself. Their strategy was genetically based but holistic. Borlaug’s aim was to produce the most “efficient” plant possible for the production of food. One important aspect of this concept of efficiency was the ability of the plant to respond positively to very high doses of fertilizer.
The method was to view the Mexican crop populations genetically and think in terms of ways to alter the balance of genes for more desirable characteristics. To do this, the program built up an extensive “gene bank” from crop varieties around the world. For wheat, one of their most important achievements was to cross wheat from Japan with genes for short stature with Mexican and Colombian wheats to obtain the first dwarf HYV wheats, released in 1961. By 1965, these were the most important wheats in Mexico, giving yields up to 400% of those of 1950 (Randhava 1986, 365).
The second major thrust of the research was to examine the growing conditions for the various genetic strains and make institutional and