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
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
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
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.
BACKGROUND FOR THE TEACHER
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
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
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.
QUESTIONS TO EXPLORE
1. Is there a relationship between increased food production and
improvement in the lives of hungry people? Has technology improved conditions
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