The Green Revolution Saved Lives? A Killer Meme That Just Won’t Die

Norman Borlaug’s 95th birthday has occasioned some increased attention to his thought, particularly in a 2000 interview with Reason Magazine’s Ron Bailey.

In the interview, Borlaug dismissed organic farming as “ridiculous,” adding that “this shouldn’t even be a debate.” But he displayed an almost total lack of awareness of what the available organic techniques actually are.

For example, he claimed it was impossible to get enough nitrogen from organic material. Reproducing existing nitrogen inputs organically, he said, “would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure.” This would require enormous sacrifices of wild land for forage. “There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.”

Indeed there is. Apparently Borlaug, a professor of agronomy, has never heard of green manuring with nitrogen-fixing cover crops.

Borlaug also asserted that, if all agriculture were organic, “you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.”

In fact, small-scale agriculture is almost universally more productive than large-scale agriculture. The prevailing techniques of American-style agribusiness were not introduced to economize on land. After all, in most parts of the country the largest agribusiness operations have had privileged access to large tracts of land, going back in many cases to land grants at the time of first European settlement. For example, in California many of the largest operations were built on expropriated haciendas dating from Mexican or Spanish colonial times. Rather, agribusiness substituted capital for labor, to increase output per man-hour—even at the cost of reduced output per acre. Small-scale operations, accordingly, tend to have both lower outputs per labor-hour and higher outputs per acre.

It’s incontrovertible that the most intensive organic techniques produce far more per acre than conventional agribusiness. John Jeavons’ raised bed technique can feed one person on a minimum of 4000 sq. ft. And it’s done, by the way, without cattle manure or additional land for foraging them. Of course, it’s a relatively spare diet—about 80% legumes, cereal grains and starchy tubers, and only 20% green vegetables and fruits—but that only demonstrates the theoretical limit. We’re not, in fact, limited to anything near as low as a tenth acre of arable land per capita. And where there are genuine constraints on access to land, they’re generally political: e.g., the more than half of arable land enclosed in Latin American haciendas and latifundia that are held out of cultivation.

Borlaug stated that “if we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares…”

But that assumes the only available choice is Borlaug’s preferred method in use today, versus “the technology of 1960.” In his cramped intellectual schema, there was only one technologically determined path for advancement; the only choice was to take the one correct path or to remain static.

There is no such thing as neutral or generically “efficient” technology, and very few technological imperatives that remain constant independent of institutional and power considerations. The most “efficient” farming methods depend on who will be using them. At any given time, there are numerous alternative paths of technical advance. The main selective factor determining which one is adopted is the power needs of the dominant political and economic institutions.

The proper comparision, therefore, is with the path not taken.

“Green Revolution” seeds and technology were developed to be usable primarily under the conditions prevailing in large-scale cash crop production on land from which peasant subsistence farmers had been evicted: i.e., heavily subsidized irrigation water and other large-scale inputs like expensive chemical fertilizer.

Frances Moore Lappe uses the term “high-response varieties,” because they only have high yields under the artificial conditions prevailing in politically privileged and subsidized, large-scale cash crop production. Under the conditions prevailing for peasant small-holders, the most productive varieties are often traditional native varieties: drought-hardy, and otherwise adapted to local conditions.

The very claim that Borlaug “saved a billion lives” falsely assumes the main cause of Third World starvation was economic. It assumes that starvation resulted mainly from insufficient production, from a lack of land, or from the inadequacy of technique. In fact, the main cause of Third World starvation was what Franz Oppenheimer called “political appropriation of the land”: great landlords and landed oligarchs holding fertile land out of cultivation altogether, or tractoring off peasant smallholders so the land could be used to grow cash crops for export. The hundreds of millions of people living in shantytowns, who might otherwise be supporting themselves on their own land, can’t afford the “more efficient” crops produced on their former land at any price.

Lappe showed the caloric value of Third World food output sufficient to provide a protein-balanced diet of 2000 or 3000 calories per capita. The problem was that so much of that output was used as livestock fodder to raise meat for export, rather than domestic consumption: in other words, who owned the land and whose interests it served.  You can make your own comparison to the Irish potato famine, when the great landlords were actually exporting wheat.

The problem is the state and its enablement of political appropriation of the land by privileged classes. Restore the land to its rightful owners, the people whose ancestors worked it time out of mind, and the Green Revolution will be a “solution” to a non-existent problem.

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