Unpacking the epic narratives of the Green Revolution

by Lidia Cabral, Poonam Pandey and Xiuli Xu

Nearly 50 years since its apex, the Green Revolution – a chapter in history associated with rapid expansion in agricultural production driven by science and technology – retains the power to inspire. In spite of the criticism emphasising its social and environmental costs, there is talk about unleashing an evergreen revolution and African governments aspire to a Green Revolution-type of transformation that turns their agricultural sectors into the engine of growth and prosperity (pdf).

exploring the Green Revolutions of the global South

At a recent IDS colloquium, hosted by the Rural Futures Cluster and the STEPS Centre on the 26 March, we debated history and the many narratives and contestations about the Green Revolution. We introduced a new research project on the Green Revolution epic narratives, which connects the experiences of Brazil, China and India, regarding science and technology and their role in agricultural development throughout modern history, with contemporary South-South cooperation involving these three countries in Africa.

This project seeks to explore the historical dynamics of technological development and the complexity of technology transfer across countries in order to inform current policy and practice on South-South cooperation.

Challenging the persistent “one size fits all” mindset

At the colloquium, we also recalled IDS’ long-term engagement with studying and debating this topic. Back in the mid-1970s, Robert Chambers, alongside a team of researchers led by B.H. Farmer at Cambridge University, travelled to rice-growing areas in India and Sri Lanka, to investigate the impact of Green Revolution technology on rice farming. This work exposed prejudices and misperceptions on the achievements of the widely promoted high-yielding varieties, including the misrepresentation of irrigation in narratives about the Green Revolution and the many factors (not just yields) driving technology adoption by farmers, including labour relations, government support and subsidies and management of water access.

A decade later, in 1989, Michael Lipton and Richard Longhurst published the seminal book ‘New Seeds and Poor People’ where they too exposed the multifaceted impact of ‘modern varieties’ of grains, this time in South Asia and Africa. They argued that although these varieties meant more employment and cheaper food, the reduction in crop diversity increased vulnerability to pests and the poor could not afford to buy them. They concluded that technical breakthroughs alone could not solve deep-rooted social problems and new policies and research priorities to increase the choices, assets and power of the rural poor were needed.

More recently, in 2008, the Future Agricultures Consortium in partnership with the Salzburg Global Seminar hosted the conference ‘Towards a Green Revolution in Africa?’, asking questions such as whose vision should this be and what could be learned from the impacts – positive and negative – of the Green Revolution in Latin America and Asia? The late Kofi Annan, then Chairman of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), opened his keynote speech with a plea for a ‘uniquely African Green Revolution’. This meant moving beyond a ‘one size fits all’ recipe for the continent and seeking instead context-tailored solutions.

In spite of the wealth of rigorous research and reasonable policy debate on the subject of the Green Revolution (the above examples are just some illustrations), the myth of epic yields-centric transformation based on technological packages perseveres. Standardised recipes of success fit all too well the technocratic and prescriptive mindsets of government and aid agency bureaucracies – North to South. It is therefore important to revisit history in order to be mindful of the many layers of the Green Revolution and the limits to transferability.

Unpacking epic narratives

Our research does not intend to dwell on the achievements and failures of the Green Revolution per se (much has been written on this already), but to examine how narratives about the Green Revolution get assembled and reproduced within and across countries, and for what purpose. The assemblage and deployment of a narrative is not a neutral act but performs a role – to justify, to explain or to influence change. For example, the narrative of the ‘miracle of the Cerrado’ has been used by Brazilian businesses and government players to advance a model of large-scale export-oriented agriculture in Mozambique (albeit with limited success).

The narrative on the failure and violence of the Green Revolution in India has been transposed into debates on biotechnology and nanotechnology to challenge corporate interests in agricultural science and technology and highlight the social values of equity, sustainability and participation in relation to technological change. The Chinese narrative of scientific farming represents China’s unique take on modernisation and has been deployed in cooperation relations with Africa to highlight the centrality of technology and of sharing technocratic solutions so as to abide by the principle of ‘no interference’ in the political affairs of partner countries.

The focus on narratives of the Green Revolution should allow us to unravel the politics in agricultural science and technology and, crucially, its context specificity. For the prioritisation of particular scientific lines and technologies is not a neutral act but one that is shaped by the interests of actors involved and has a non-trivial impact in society, producing winners and losers, privileged and marginalised.

Our research project will, therefore, engage with questions of politics and power in relation to science and technology, and the role played by discursive constructions of history. This should equip us with the evidence needed to challenge prescriptive mindsets that condition and distort development thinking and practice, and therefore, as Robert Chambers advised, lead us to ‘know better’ about the Green Revolution and its place in development history – of Brazil, China, India as well as Africa’s.

Our research project is a three-year effort that is only just beginning. We kick-off with a series of four blogs, each one of them capturing a particular historical moment and perspective on the Green Revolution’s long, contested and multi-layered trajectory.