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close this bookExploding the Hunger Myths - High School Curriculum (FF, 1987, 173 p.)
close this folderLesson 4: Is technology the answer?
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentActivity 1: Is more always better?
View the documentActivity 2: Technology on trial - One person's story


COMMON ASSUMPTION: Exporting our food-producing technology to hungry countries will help the hungry people of the world.


Many of us have been brought up to believe there is a technological solution to every problem or, at the very least, that technology can buy us the time necessary to solve difficult social and environmental problems. We are also taught that major problems can only be solved by experts and that the activities of these experts are beyond our understanding or criticism.

This lesson asks students to investigate how agricultural technology changes people's lives and to consider whether or not technical advances ultimately benefit hungry people if they have no control over this technology.


Is More Always Better? introduces students to different aspects of what has been known as the Green Revolution, by presenting graphs and a short reading about changes that have occurred in Malaysia and India since the introduction of new agricultural technologies. It examines whether the Green Revolution has really helped poor farmers or decreased hunger in these countries.


Technology on Trial - One Person's Story examines some of the long-term effects of technological change. In a reverse role play, the teacher takes the part of an undocumented immigrant to the United States, and students learn how this person's life has been affected by the introduction of new agricultural technologies. This activity helps students see how changes that occurred thirty years ago can affect events today. It helps students develop empathy with the immigrant Rad begin to see immigrants as real people, not degrading stereotypes or nameless statistics.


Newspaper articles and television programs frequently announce new wonder crops or agricultural breakthroughs that will help bring an end to world hunger. We see images of hard-working scientists and technicians (mostly from the United States and Europe) who seem to be solving the problem. These images can lull us into a sense of complacency (the problem is being solved already) or lead us to believe that we in the industrialized countries can provide the answers.

Yet when we look critically at the assumption that increased agricultural production through new technology will end hunger, several questions arise. First of all, is it really increased production that is needed? (See lesson 2.) What is the economic, social, and environmental price of a new technology? Does it require additional supplies of water, fertilizers, pesticides, or equipment? Is the technology available to everyone? Is it within the means of poor farmers? Is the technology used to grow food for hungry people, luxury foods for well-off people, or products for export? If for export, who benefits from the export earnings? Is the technology used to reinforce unfair economic conditions; do rich farmers benefit more? Does the new technology displace traditional culture and agriculture?


Many major changes have occurred in agricultural technology since the 1930s. The development of new agricultural equipment; discoveries in the areas of genetics and breeding; and the formulation of pesticides, fertilizers, and growth regulators are among the many technological breakthroughs that have taken place. These new technologies began to be implemented in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Europe.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers from industrialized countries began working with researchers in underdeveloped countries (especially Mexico, the Philippines, and India) to develop new improved varieties of wheat and rice that could be grown in those countries.

The new crop varieties and the technology for growing them were hailed as the Green Revolution. The new seeds had potential for high yields, but they required large inputs of fertilizers and water. In the Punjab region of India, for example, six times more fertilizer had to be imported in 1975 than in 1955 in order to support the increased growth of new varieties of wheat.' The fertilizer had to be purchased, as did the seeds, irrigation water, and pesticides. Poor farmers who had little cash or access to reasonable credit were less able to take advantage of the Green Revolution. As wealthy farmers' yields increased, they were able to use their profits to buy up poor farmers' land.

Many new crop varieties are more susceptible to pests, and farmers have to purchase pesticides. This is another drain on their budgets - especially for the poorest farmers.

Often the poor farmers and farmworkers suffer the greatest exposure to pesticides in the field since typically they are not instructed about safety precautions when using these products. A number of pesticides used in third world countries are outlawed in the United States and Europe. In Circle of Poison, authors David Weir and Mark Schapiro point out that at least one-quarter of the pesticides shipped from the United States to the third world are either banned or restricted here.

To look at the effects of the Green Revolution, we can also turn our eyes back to the United States to see the effects of technological change on farmers. Improved seeds, chemical fertilizers, more powerful pesticides, and new equipment have helped increase crop yields as much as threefold. The yield-increasing inputs are not cheap, though. Farmers are caught in a cost/price squeeze - costs go up while crop prices stay the same or decline as production increases. Profits per acre have dropped to one-third their pre-1950 levels.


This helps to explain why the number of farms in the United States has dropped by over one-half since World War II. Rural communities have withered. Urban areas have grown, and unemployment has increased. Small, independent family farmers are a dying breed. Just as in the third world, the majority of U.S. farms that survive today are large-scale operations, often owned by corporations, banks, or other investors. These large farmers have the wealth to invest in the advantages of new technology and can make up for low profit margins with sheer volume of production. We return to this theme in lesson 5.

While many large farmers have prospered, by far the greatest benefits of the Green Revolution in the United States have gone to the manufacturers of inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and equipment) and to the large corporations that export U.S. grain. The fortunes of these large grain traders have soared while increasing numbers of family farmers face bankruptcy.

In third world societies, where the gap between the big and the small farmers is even greater, larger farmers receive the bulk of the benefits. Then poor farmers leave the land, and rural unemployment increases. Under these conditions, food production can go up while more people go hungry. In fact, the two countries in the world that today have the greatest number of hungry people India and Indonesia - have both experienced dramatic increases in grain production as a result of Green Revolution technology.

People argue that we simply need to scale down the technology to make it within reach of the poor. But even small-scale, locally oriented technology can widen the gap between rich and poor. When a biogas project was begun in India, cow manure (the raw material for gas production) became a valued commodity. Poor people who used manure as fertilizer or as cooking fuel suddenly found it in short supply. The owners of the biogas digestors had collected available manure to convert to methane, which was then sold at a profit. Poor people had to either gather or buy manure in competition with the digestor owners or buy methane from them. What had once been available to many was now available to few. Small-scale technologies, when out of the reach of the poor, cannot be described as appropriate technology


Now we are entering an age of biotechnology and are asked to put our faith in genetically engineered solutions to the problem of hunger. This new "gene revolution," based on technologies such as recombinant DNA, is occurring primarily in the laboratories of industrialized countries and is financed by transnational corporations. Much of the research is not focused on crops commonly eaten by hungry people. Many of the new processes and biotechnological products are patented, thereby denying poor people and small, local seed companies the chance to use the new technology to meet their own needs. Some new seeds are genetically engineered to be dependent upon a specific pesticide or growth regulator manufactured by the same corporation that produced the seed. How can a peasant in Indonesia afford patented, genetically engineered soybean seeds (with their correct growth regulators and pesticides) if she or he cannot even afford to rent or buy a garden plot to raise food for a family?

Of course, technology need not always have negative consequences. Sean Swezey and Rainer Daxl document how integrated pest management, a technology of pest control based on a variety of techniques (biological control, use of natural enemies, minimal and specific use of pesticides, insect-trapping) has reduced the need for expensive and dangerous pesticides in Nicaragua. The government is committed to making this technology available to the smallest farmers through free training programs. In the United States, the Center for Rural Affairs organizes an annual Innovator's Technology Fair at which farmers share their expertise in low-cost technologies. In other areas, cooperatives have formed to give poor farmers and workers access to new information, equipment, or materials.

Technology can help people casing the burden of farm work and increasing yields - depending on who controls it. Clearly technology cannot help poor people if they have little access to it or if its products are out of reach of their income.


1. Is there a relationship between increased food production and improvement in the lives of hungry people? Has technology improved conditions for everyone?

2. If technology is introduced into a community in which resources are inequitably distributed, what are the results?

3. Under what conditions could the introduction of a new technology be beneficial to everyone, including the poorest people?