23 March 2010
Rice and wheat strains
Artificially created high-yielding wheat and rice
varieties that are helping food producers in developing countries
keep pace with population growth
The people behind the invention:
Orville A. Vogel (1907-1991), an agronomist who developed
high-yielding semidwarf winter wheats and equipment for
Norman E. Borlaug (1914- ), a distinguished agricultural
Robert F. Chandler, Jr. (1907-1999), an international agricultural
consultant and director of the International Rice Research
William S. Gaud (1907-1977), a lawyer and the administrator of
the U.S. Agency for International Development, 1966-1969
The Problem of Hunger
In the 1960’s, agricultural scientists created new, high-yielding
strains of rice and wheat designed to fight hunger in developing
countries. Although the introduction of these new grains raised levels
of food production in poor countries, population growth and
other factors limited the success of the so-called “Green Revolution.”
Before World War II, many countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin
America exported grain toWestern Europe. After the war, however,
these countries began importing food, especially from the United
States. By 1960, they were importing about nineteen million tons of
grain a year; that level nearly doubled to thirty-six million tons in
1966. Rapidly growing populations forced the largest developing
countries—China, India, and Brazil in particular—to import huge
amounts of grain. Famine was averted on the Indian subcontinent
in 1966 and 1967 only by the United States shipping wheat to the region.
The United States then changed its food policy. Instead of contributing
food aid directly to hungry countries, the U.S. began working to help such countries feed themselves.
The new rice and wheat strains were introduced just as countries
in Africa and Asia were gaining their independence from the European
nations that had colonized them. The ColdWar was still going
strong, and Washington and other Western capitals feared that the
Soviet Union was gaining influence in the emerging countries. To
help counter this threat, the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID) was active in the ThirdWorld in the 1960’s, directing
or contributing to dozens of agricultural projects, including building
rural infrastructure (farm-to-market roads, irrigation projects,
and rural electric systems), introducing modern agricultural techniques,
and importing fertilizer or constructing fertilizer factories in
other countries. By raising the standard of living of impoverished
people in developing countries through applying technology to agriculture,
policymakers hoped to eliminate the socioeconomic conditions
that would support communism.
The Green Revolution
It was against this background thatWilliam S. Gaud, administrator
of USAID from 1966 to 1969, first talked about a “green revolution”
in a 1968 speech before the Society for International Development
in Washington, D.C. The term “green revolution” has
been used to refer to both the scientific development of highyielding
food crops and the broader socioeconomic changes in a
country’s agricultural sector stemming from farmers’ adoption of
In 1947, S. C. Salmon, a United States Department of Agriculture
(USDA) scientist, brought a wheat-dwarfing gene to the United
States. Developed in Japan, the gene produced wheat on a short
stalk that was strong enough to bear a heavy head of grain. Orville
Vogel, another USDA scientist, then introduced the gene into local
wheat strains, creating a successful dwarf variety known as Gaines
wheat. Under irrigation, Gaines wheat produced record yields. After
hearing about Vogel’s work, Norman Borlaug, who headed
the Rockefeller Foundation’s wheat-breeding program in Mexico,
adapted Gaines wheat, later called “miracle wheat,” to a variety of
growing conditions in Mexico.
Success with the development of high-yielding wheat varieties
persuaded the Rockefeller and Ford foundations to pursue similar
ends in rice culture. The foundations funded the International Rice
Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, Philippines, appointing as director
Robert F. Chandler, Jr., an international agricultural consultant.
Under his leadership, IRRI researchers cross-bred Peta, a tall variety
of rice from Indonesia, with Deo-geo-woo-gen, a dwarf rice from Taiwan,
to produce a new strain, IR-8. Released in 1966 and dubbed
“miracle rice,” IR-8 produced yields double those of other Asian rice
varieties and in a shorter time, 120 days in contrast to 150 to 180 days.
Statistics from India illustrate the expansion of the new grain varieties.
During the 1966-1967 growing season, Indian farmers planted
improved rice strains on 900,000 hectares, or 2.5 percent of the total
area planted in rice. By 1984-1985, the surface area planted in improved
rice varieties stood at 23.4 million hectares, or 56.9 percent of
the total. The rate of adoption was even faster for wheat. In 1966-
1967, improved varieties covered 500,000 hectares, comprising 4.2
percent of the total wheat crop. By the 1984-1985 growing season,
the surface area had expanded to 19.6 million hectares, or 82.9 percent
of the total wheat crop.
To produce such high yields, IR-8 and other genetically engineered
varieties of rice and wheat required the use of irrigation, fertilizers,
and pesticides. Irrigation further increased food production
by allowing year-round farming and the planting of multiple crops
on the same plot of land, either two crops of high-yielding grain varieties
or one grain crop and another food crop.
The rationale behind the introduction of high-yielding grains in
developing countries was that it would start a cycle of improvement
in the lives of the rural poor. High-yielding grains would lead to
bigger harvests and better-nourished and healthier families. If better
nutrition enabled more children to survive, the need to have large
families to ensure care for elderly parents would ease. Ahigher survival
rate of children would lead couples to use family planning,
slowing overall population growth and allowing per capita food intake
The greatest impact of the Green Revolution has been seen in
Asia, which experienced dramatic increases in rice production, and
on the Indian subcontinent, with increases in rice and wheat yields.
Latin America, especially Mexico, enjoyed increases in wheat harvests.
Subsaharan Africa initially was left out of the revolution, as
scientists paid scant attention to increasing the yields of such staple
food crops as yams, cassava, millet, and sorghum. By the 1980’s,
however, this situation was being remedied with new research directed
toward millet and sorghum.
Research is conducted by a network of international agricultural
research centers. Backed by both public and private funds, these
centers cooperate with international assistance agencies, private
foundations, universities, multinational corporations, and government
agencies to pursue and disseminate research into improved
crop varieties to farmers in the Third World. IRRI and the International
Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (IMMYT) in Mexico
City are two of these agencies.
Expectations went unrealized in the first few decades following
the green revolution. Despite the higher yields from millions of
tons of improved grain seeds imported into the developing world,
lower-yielding grains still accounted for much of the surface area
planted in grain. The reasons for this explain the limits and impact
of the Green Revolution.
The subsistence mentality dies hard. The main targets of Green
Revolution programs were small farmers, people whose crops provide
barely enough to feed their families and provide seed for the
next crop. If an experimental grain failed, they faced starvation.
Such farmers hedged their bets when faced with a new proposition,
for example, by intercropping, alternating rows of different grains
in the same field. In this way, even if one crop failed, another might
feed the family.
Poor farmers in developing countries also were likely to be illiterate
and not eager to try something they did not fully understand.
Also, by definition, poor farmers often did not have the means to
purchase the inputs—irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides—required
to grow the improved varieties.
In many developing countries, therefore, rich farmers tended to be
the innovators. More likely than poor farmers to be literate, they also
had the money to exploit fully the improved grain varieties. They
also were more likely than subsistence-level farmers to be in touch
with the monetary economy, making purchases from the agricultural
supply industry and arranging sales through established marketing
channels, rather than producing primarily for personal or family use.
Once wealthy farmers adopted the new grains, it often became
more difficult for poor farmers to do so. Increased demand for limited
supplies, such as pesticides and fertilizers, raised costs, while
bigger-than-usual harvests depressed market prices.With high sales
volumes, owners of large farms could withstand the higher costs and
lower-per-unit profits, but smaller farmers often could not.
Often, the result of adopting improved grains was that small
farmers could no longer make ends meet solely by farming. Instead,
they were forced to hire themselves out as laborers on large farms.
Surges of laborers into a limited market depressed rural wages,
making it even more difficult for small farmers to eke out a living.
The result was that rich farmers got richer and poor farmers got
poorer. Often, small farmers who could no longer support their
families would leave rural areas and migrate to the cities, seeking
work and swelling the ranks of the urban poor.
The effects of the Green Revolution were thus mixed. The dissemination
of improved grain varieties unquestionably increased
grain harvests in some of the poorest countries of the world. Seed
companies developed, produced, and sold commercial quantities of
improved grains, and fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers logged
sales to developing countries thanks to USAID-sponsored projects.
Along with disrupting the rural social structure and encouraging
rural flight to the cities, the Green Revolution has had other negative
effects. For example, the millions of tube wells sunk in India to
irrigate crops reduced groundwater levels in some regions faster
than they could be recharged. In other areas, excessive use of pesticides
created health hazards, and fertilizer use led to streams and
ponds being clogged by weeds. The scientific community became
concerned that the use of improved varieties of grain, many of
which were developed from the same mother variety, reduced the
genetic diversity of the world’s food crops, making them especially
vulnerable to attack by disease or pests.
Perhaps the most significant impact of the Green Revolution is
the change it wrought in the income and class structure of rural areas;
often, malnutrition was not eliminated in either the countryside
or the cities. Almost without exception, the relative position of peasants
deteriorated. Many analysts admit that the Green Revolution
did not end world hunger, but they argue that it did buy time. The
poorest of the poor would be even worse off without it.