Economy, Jobs and Business

Short-term gains with long-term losses in agricultural development

5 min


Jonathan Harwood

The Green Revolution since the 1940s has solved several global food-supply issues. However, it has also given rise to serious social and environmental problems – prompting the sustainable agricultural movement in the 1970s. Here’s why I believe modern agricultural development policy has yet to learn from the mistakes of the past.

At the annual conference of US agricultural economists in 1970, a well-known academic, Walter Falcon, gave a paper in a panel entitled ‘The Green Revolution: Second-generation problems’. The paper was in response to what he called the ‘recent flood of literature’ on the Revolution.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, the Green Revolution enabled a huge rise in the production of food grains (especially wheat and rice) through new high-yielding cereal varieties. But it did not come without problems.

Falcon’s presentation gave a sober account of what he took to be the Revolution’s successes and failures. His analysis is interesting because it was not organised as a balance sheet, identifying what worked and what didn’t. Instead, he presented a temporal sequence of three ‘generations’ of the Revolution.

The first generation, characterised by the development of high-yielding cereal varieties, he deemed a qualified success. A second generation was defined by problems, however. These included transportation bottlenecks, marketing problems and inadequate government subsidies. While these problems were substantial, Falcon argued, they were nonetheless matters with which economists were familiar and were, thus, solvable.

By contrast, third-generation problems had received little attention from agricultural economists and were apt to prove very difficult. These included problems of unemployment, growing income inequality, and the uneven regional impact of the Revolution’s technology.

Calling for policy changes to distribute gains from the technology more evenly, and to help small farmers in particular, Falcon acknowledged that agricultural economics had little to offer in the way of effective measures.

The Green Revolution, he concluded, had provided only a ‘limited technological solution’ which was no panacea for the serious social problems it had unleashed.

A pre-occupation with short-term increases

Although Falcon did not make clear just why the second and third generation of problems arose, it is significant that he conceived the three kinds of problems as a temporal sequence, implying that later problems had arisen out of earlier ones.

The second generation of problems, he remarked, had arisen due to a ‘preoccupation with production’ during the first phase of the Revolution. Although he did not elaborate, others at the conference were more forthcoming. In the discussion following the paper, one commentator remarked that those who had bred high-yielding rice varieties ‘gave little thought to the complexities of the physical and socioeconomic environment… The research objective was seen largely as one of raising rice yields…by the most expedient method’.

Advisors to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program during the 1940s had taken the same view: the main aim of the Program should be to increase food supplies ‘as quickly as possible’. Years later, when asked about the political unrest in India following introduction of his new wheat varieties, the breeder Norman Borlaug responded ‘I wasn’t worried a damn bit about equity at that point… I just wanted to provoke shock [through very large yield increases]’.   

Here, indeed, was the ‘preoccupation’ to which Falcon had referred. Moreover, since Falcon had conceded that agricultural economists were already familiar with second-generation problems, their decision to focus narrowly upon raising yields was evidently a conscious choice.

But what about third-generation problems? Falcon claimed that these were entirely new to economists and, by implication, could not have been anticipated. Another commentator on the panel agreed, saying that ‘…we are scarcely prepared by background and training to undertake research in some of the basic socioeconomic issues of the developing countries’.

But not all economists were prepared to excuse the profession. A year earlier, for example, Clifford Wharton had argued that increasing production would ‘automatically produce a whole new set [of marketing and political problems]’. And, as I have documented elsewhere, a wide range of third-generation problems (including high-input agriculture’s damaging impact upon the environment) had been recognised already as an object of concern as early as the 1920s and ‘30s.

There is, thus, little basis for claiming that the social and environmental impacts of the Green Revolution could not have been anticipated. They appear, instead, to have been ignored.

The cost of ignoring longer-term consequences

Besides its forthright account of the difficulties with which Green Revolutionaries were wrestling around 1970, Falcon’s paper is interesting for what it inadvertently reveals about the mentality of the Revolution’s promoters: namely, their choice to focus upon a small number of relatively soluble problems which promised success in the short-term, and to leave serious social and environmental problems – many of them predictable – until later.

The cost of ignoring these longer-term consequences, however, is becoming increasingly clear. Recently, the director of Agricultural Global Practice at the World Bank pointed out that, although the value of world food production is about 8 trillion dollars, the costs of such production (e.g., problems of nutrition, food loss and waste, greenhouse gas emissions) are at least 6 trillion (without taking ecosystem losses fully into account nor public subsidies to farmers). Such costs, he suggested, are simply not worth it.

Commentators on the state of the economy often draw attention to the damaging consequences of short-termism in the financial world (e.g., corporate executives who are more concerned with maintaining share-price than with investing in the firm). Observers of the political scene are similarly critical of governments’ short-term perspective for failing to address long-term problems.

One would like to think that agricultural development policy-makers were equally concerned about this issue. Despite routine invocations of ‘sustainability’ and the importance of addressing the needs of small farmers, however, recurring references in policy discussions to ‘closing yield-gaps’ and the promises of new ‘productivity-gains’ suggest that short-termism is alive and well.

Jonathan Harwood
Emeritus Professor, University of Manchester