Policy Papers

Development policy and history: lessons from the Green Revolution

Jonathan Harwood |

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Executive Summary

  • Despite its success in increasing agricultural production, the Green Revolution largely failed to alleviate rural poverty.
  • Major development agencies agree that the key to ameliorating poverty is technical assistance targeted at smallholders and establishment of institutions capable of delivering agricultural development programmes
  • State-funded 'peasant-friendly' plant breeding in Central Europe and Japan around 1900 was very effective in assisting small farmers. Key to this success was strong support from regional governments, and knowledgeable staff at plant breeding stations who understood small farmers' concerns.
  • Unfortunately, however, the European episode is virtually unknown in today's development community, and what was once known as 'the Japanese model' largely disappeared from the development literature after about 1980.
  • By insisting upon sharp cutbacks in public expenditure since the 1980s, therefore, the 'Washington Consensus' has ignored the historic success of publically funded agricultural research in general and plant breeding in particular.


In recent years the economist, Ha-Joon Chang, has argued that development policy needs to pay far more attention to history. For the policies promoted by donor agencies since the 1980s are diametrically opposed to those which were successful in Europe a century or so ago. While the general features of that argument are undoubtedly correct, in respect of agriculture Chang's focus has been upon state policies concerning credit, price supports, input subsidies, tariffs, provision of infrastructure, and land tenure. Almost nothing is said about the role of state-funded agricultural research. This is surprising given widespread agreement that such research was absolutely crucial for the successes of the 'Green Revolution' (GR).

GR refers to a series of agricultural development programmes in the global South introduced by Western agencies from the 1940s. Established initially by the Rockefeller Foundation, in Mexico, they spread during the 1950s and 1960s elsewhere in Latin America and to South Asia, attracting additional support from the US government and the Ford Foundation. The principal aim was to increase the productivity of maize, rice and wheat cultivation using the methods which had proved so successful in North America and Europe: improved seed, fertiliser and pesticide. Although the GR succeeded in boosting cereals production substantially, however, many farmers gained very little, and rural poverty persisted largely unchanged. The main reason, now widely recognised, was that the GR's technology was more appropriate for large commercial farmers than for small resource-poor ones. Over the last decade reports from several major development agencies - for example, the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO) - agree that the key to alleviating rural poverty in the global South lies in providing technical assistance and institutions suited to the needs of small farmers. Since the GR was unable to do this during the 1950s and 1960s, however, the question remains: is this possible now and if so, how?

In this policy paper I draw upon my recent study of major agricultural transformations around 1900 in Europe and elsewhere in order to demonstrate that strong state support for agricultural research and extension, as well as policy and institutions tailored to the needs of peasant farmers, were highly effective. The first section outlines the problems which the GR encountered. The second describes the character of 'peasant-friendly' research and institutions in Central Europe and Japan around. 1900.

In the final section I discuss the implications of this history for current development policy.

The Green Revolution and its limitations

In aiming to boost agricultural production, the GR programmes of the 1950s and 1960s were undoubtedly successful. By contrast, planners gave little thought to the social impact of their interventions, with the result that rural poverty and malnutrition declined very little in most regions and worsened in some areas. Since the GR had been sold to Western politicians and taxpayers as a 'war against hunger', as Nick Cullather has recently shown, this disappointing outcome prompted a wave of criticism from the late 1960s.

Reacting to the criticism, many experts associated with the GR began to reflect upon the characteristics of past programmes in order to understand which features had contributed to failure (and occasionally to success). In this 'diagnostic' literature from the 1970s to the 1990s there are three recurring themes. First that programmes needed to be properly organised. Because both the ecological and economic conditions of farms in many areas of the developing world are so diverse, for example, it was deemed important that research and development activity be decentralised. Equally important was that the intended beneficiaries of programmes should be organised. Unlike large commercial farmers, peasant farmers were rarely well organised, thus less able to voice their needs and lobby government for resources or demand better terms from commodity distributors and processors.

Second, the degree of impact of programmes was seen to hinge upon the knowledge and attitudes of those experts who dealt with farmers day to day. Arrogance - i.e., a boundless confidence in Western science and an inclination to dismiss local knowledge, whether from scientists or farmers - was not uncommon and had often hampered programmes. In addition, sometimes it appeared that experts were ignorant of the problems faced by small farmers. Where experts came from abroad, intending to return home after a project's completion, their decisions upon which technology to use were sometimes affected more by their desire to impress future employers than by the needs of their resource-poor clients. Where experts running projects were locals, they often came from relatively well-off urban backgrounds and thus had neither first-hand experience of agriculture nor much sympathy with the needs of peasants

Third, a few commentators drew attention to a more fundamental weakness: the failure of many programmes to take into account the political dimensions of development. They argued that the most serious limitation of most development programmes in the 1970s was their failure to consider what was politically feasible. For example, since it was known that projects aimed at resource-poor farmers were typically captured by local elites, planners should have paid more attention to how existing administrative arrangements or political institutions could be changed (or outflanked) if GR programmes were to have any chance of succeeding.

This literature was rich in insights, revealing where the early GR programmes had gone wrong. But the odd thing about it is that for the most part it did not uncover anything new. Virtually all the problems which this literature identified in early development programmes had already been encountered (and solved) in Central Europe and Japan around 1900.

Peasant-friendly development in Europe & Japan around 1900

Had the GR planners of the 1950s and 1960s paid more attention to history, what might they have found? From the late nineteenth century, governments in several Central European countries systematically promoted programmes of what was then often called agricultural 'modernisation' but which can be seen, in many respects, as 'green revolutions'. Unlike the GR after 1945, however, the European programmes aimed not just to increase production overall but specifically to help peasant farmers become more productive. Various regions - in Switzerland, lower Austria, Alsace-Lorraine, and Germany - did so by establishing state agricultural experiment stations whose mission was to bring the advantages of modern plant breeding to the small farms which predominated in these regions. The stations sought to do this in several ways. Considerable effort was devoted to testing available plant varieties in order to advise the region's small farmers which of these were suitable for the prevailing growing conditions, both ecological and economic. Many stations also undertook the development of new varieties, taking as their starting material local farmers' varieties because these were well-adapted to local conditions. The new improved varieties were then distributed to local farmers at little or no cost. Several stations also offered courses in plant breeding so that interested local farmers could learn how to carry out basic procedures. And at least one station spent considerable time helping small farmers organise themselves into local crop improvement associations so that they could strengthen their position in the marketplace as well as vis a vis the state. By the 1920s some of these stations were making a substantial impact upon their regional economies, producing varieties which were so popular with smallholders that commercial breeders began to complain that the stations constituted 'unfair competition'.

Significantly, some of these stations had nearly all the hallmarks of success which the diagnostic literature of the 1970s was later to identify. In south Germany, for example, the stations' breeding and varietal-testing work was decentralised. Most of the staff were neither ignorant of peasant agriculture nor arrogant in their dealings with smallholders because they had usually grown up in the region in question and often were the sons of peasants. Moreover, unlike so many GR projects, the south German stations enjoyed strong political support from their regional governments. Indeed, they owed their very existence to decisions by state governments to set up institutions that would invigorate peasant agriculture. And since large farms were quite rare in south Germany, the stations' work could not be subverted by estate owners as has so often occurred in the global South since 1945.

Another context from which lessons might have been learned was the remarkable agricultural development of Japan from about 1880 to 1920 as outlined by Penelope Francks among others. At the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1911) Japan sent agricultural experts abroad who brought back the technology used on large American and British farms, but most of this - including imported high-yielding plant varieties - failed. From the 1880s, therefore, the government decided to develop new technologies which would be better adapted to Japanese growing conditions. Since Japanese farms were very small, there was no point in investing large sums in machinery; draft power was instead supplied by animals. When it came to choosing which varieties to plant, the state encouraged local farmers' organisations to test a range of native varieties, the best of which were then distributed throughout the relevant region. After 1900 the breeding of rice and wheat was taken over by state experiment stations. As in Germany, Japanese breeders took the best of the improved native varieties as their starting material, and the breeding process was organised in a decentralised manner. Unlike the GR after 1945, breeders took into account the circumstances in which farming actually took place, aiming not just to increase yield under the most favourable growing conditions but also to develop rice varieties suited to marginal conditions, including regions previously thought to be unsuitable for rice cultivation. Some of these varieties were very successful and soon became known abroad. Japanese dwarf wheat varieties, for example, were used by breeders in the Mexican Agricultural Program, the first of the GR programmes.

As the designers of GR programmes eventually recognised, a successful programme required not only high-yielding crop varieties but also institutions and policies which would promote the use of these varieties. Interestingly, the Japanese did just this. In addition to a wide-ranging irrigation system inherited from the nineteenth century, the government introduced state subsidies for fertiliser purchase, built an extension service (whose task was to show farmers how to use the new technology correctly) and promoted a network of local cooperatives with which extension agents could work. The result was substantially increased productivity using methods which did not require expensive imported technology and which absorbed large amounts of rural labour. The agricultural economy grew rapidly, generated the capital necessary for industrialisation, supplied raw materials for some industrial sectors and met the growing urban demand for food.

Despite their relevance to agricultural problems in the global South today, however, both these episodes still appear to be largely unknown within the development community. Indeed, if one looks at recent reports from the World Bank, IFAD or FAO on the problems of agricultural development in the global South, one finds them recommending a variety of approaches to assisting small farms which were already well-known a century ago.

The implications for development policy

What can one conclude from this history? From one point of view, it merely confirms what has often been said by agricultural economists: that public expenditure on agricultural research - in both the global North and South - has proved an extraordinarily good investment, yielding annual returns through increased production of at least 20-30 per cent and often much more. And this is true not just for agricultural research in general but for plant breeding in particular. Moreover, there is substantial agreement that (publicly funded) national agricultural research systems (NARS) in the developing world have been and are likely to be important in addressing the needs of smallholders. Where properly organised and funded, they can be more responsive to small farmers' needs than the private sector, and they are also essential for adapting international agricultural research to local conditions, both ecological and economic.

Nowhere is the necessity of state-funded research clearer than in the recent debate over whether agricultural biotechnology is the key to alleviating rural poverty in the South. Most informed observers agree that solving this problem is going to require public funding since the giant multinational seed companies - unsurprisingly - see no profit to be made from selling to poor farmers.

For the last thirty years, however, development policy seems to have turned a blind eye to this evidence. In parts of Europe and North America, for example, public-sector breeding has come under heavy pressure - from giant corporations as well as governments - to leave the development of new varieties to the private sector and concentrate instead on fundamental research in plant sciences (which seed companies want to see done but do not wish to pay for). The most striking instance of this kind took place in the UK when the Thatcher Government decided that state-funded research institutions such as the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Cambridge should be sold off. Within a few years one prominent British plant-breeder had concluded that this process would eventually be seen as a disastrous error. He may well have been right. More recently the British plant biotechnologist, Denis Murphy, has argued that this policy is seriously hindering the development of important new plant varieties. Moreover, in 1996 an interim assessment of the impact of privatisation suggested that the sell-off of the PBI had not saved the government very much money, nor have the corporations which bought it made much money from it since. By 2006, accordingly, several research councils and advisory bodies were voicing concern at the undesirable impact of privatisation upon British plant breeding.

A comparable process has taken place in the developing world over the same period as major donors, embracing the market-based approach of the 'Washington Consensus', insisted upon cutbacks in public expenditure as a condition for countries receiving aid. The effects of this policy upon agriculture in many countries have been serious. National agricultural research systems were particularly hard hit because they lost funding not only from national governments whose budgets were much reduced but also from donors such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), upon which many had come to rely between the 1950s and the 1970s. Inevitably, this has had a severe impact upon plant breeding; in some African countries between 1985 and 2001 funding for public-sector breeding was slashed more than tenfold. Many observers agree that extension systems are also in poor condition, and most countries in the global South cannot afford to fix them.

A year ago, the administator of USAID, Rajiv Shah, told The New York Times:

We are never going to end hunger in Africa without private investment. There are things that only companies can do, like building silos for storage and developing seeds and fertilizers.

He could not be more mistaken. For the historical record is clear: state-funded plant breeding, supported by appropriate institutions and policy, has been highly effective in assisting the productivity of small farms in Central Europe and Japan. More generally, the payoff from publically funded agricultural research in many countries has been huge. One can only wonder, therefore, why major development agencies have elected to run down the state sector since the 1980s. This hardly qualifies as 'evidence-based policy'.

How, then, might development policy be reformed? History, to be sure, cannot provide a recipe since conditions in the global South today are not replicas of those in Europe or Japan around 1900. But historical experience does provide a vantage point from which current problems can be reconsidered and available solutions reassessed. The most obvious lesson one might extract from the history of peasant-friendly plant breeding is that Western development agencies would do well to focus upon repairing the damage suffered by NARS in the global South since the 1980s. That would mean increasing research budgets, strengthening extension systems, and supporting staff training. And to judge from historical experience, this will only be worthwhile in countries whose governments are fully committed to alleviating rural poverty.

Further Reading

Chang, H.-J. Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. London: Anthem, 2002.

Chang, H.-J. 'Rethinking Public Policy in Agriculture: Lessons from History, Distant and Recent.' Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 3 (2009): 477-515.

Cullather, Nick. The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Francks, Penelope. Technology and Agricultural Development in Pre-War Japan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Harwood, Jonathan. Europe's Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant-Breeding. London: Routledge, 2012.

Murphy, Denis J. Plant Breeding and Biotechnology: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Strom, S. 'Firms to invest in food production for world's poor', New York Times, 17 May 2012.

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