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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?

Activity 1: Is more always better?

Students will learn about the Green Revolution and technology using short readings containing maps and graphs. Students can see that increased agricultural production may not benefit hungry people or poor farmers.


· To become aware of changes that have occurred in two countries after the introduction of new agricultural technologies
· To interpret graphs and tables concerning the Green Revolution
· To stimulate discussion on the effects of agricultural change on the lives of people


· Student handouts:

The Muda Valley of Malaysia
Muda Before and After
The Green Revolution Comes to India

· Wall map


Fifty minutes if class works as a group to analyze and discuss graphs. This activity may be done as a homework assignment.


Study questions can be turned in.


agriculture, biotechnology, fertilizer, harvest, irrigation, production, technology, traditional varieties, underdeveloped country, yield


1. Introduce the topic of technology to the class. What is it? Can the students think of examples of technological change that they have seen? Computers, spy technology, and artificial hearts are examples they might name. Is technology always a good thing? What are examples of positive and negative outcomes of technology? (Students may name pollution and higher prices as negative outcomes. Why does technology sometimes have negative outcomes? Ask for examples.)

2. Explain that the Green Revolution refers to the introduction of new agricultural technologies to underdeveloped countries to increase agricultural production. You can develop your own introduction to this topic based on the background material or have the class as a group read the student handout The Muda Valley of Malaysia. If students have participated in lesson 2, Is Scarcity the Problem?, they might point out that in many countries enough food already exists and that just an increase in food will not end hunger.

3. Distribute the handouts. You may decide to give each student both sets of handouts or divide the tasks among two groups, giving each group one set of handouts. The India example requires much greater math and graph-reading skills, so you may wish to give it to students who can more easily handle that sort of analysis. Give the students thirty minutes to read and complete their handouts.

Note: If time is short, have students complete one or two handouts as homework.

4. Have the entire class discuss their handouts by referring to the particular countries studied. Consider the following:

a. Do greater crop yields always decrease hunger in a country?
b. What are some changes that might occur in an area when a new technology is introduced, especially a new seed developed under different geographic conditions?
c. What might happen to farmers and farmworkers who can't afford the new technologies?

5. Wrap up by listing problems students discovered in each of the countries where new technology was introduced.



· Cornucopia Project (organization)
· Design for the Real World (book), by Victor Papanek
· Farming with Nature (film), Thomas Putnam Productions
· Land Institute (organization)
· Small Is Beautiful (book), by E. F. Schumacher
· Sustainable Agriculture (slide show), International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture
· Women Involved in Farm Education (organization)


You and your students can organize an alternative technology display at your school. This could be part of an all-school science fair. Design and build working models of new technologies and describe how they might be made available to people.


Students can volunteer at a recycling center. Recycling is one way we can make the products of technology have less impact on the environment.

The Muda valley of Malaysia

Find Malaysia on a world map. Look at the handout Muda Before and After, showing a valley along the Muda River before and after a major dam was built

In northern Malaysia, the Muda River area reveals what can happen when a new technology is introduced. A $90 million dam was built in the 1960s to make a lake for the irrigation of rice paddies. Builders of the dam promised that the dam and the new irrigation technology would increase Malaysia's ability to grow food for its people. They said that all farmers' incomes would increase.

The irrigated rice paddies could grow two crops of a new variety of rice every year, compared with only one crop of the traditional varieties. The traditional varieties, however, needed no irrigation.

The Muda valley of Malaysia

By the early 1970s, yields of rice had almost tripled in the valley. Before the dam was built, this valley grew about 30 percent of the country's rice; now it grew 50 percent. In the past, Malaysia had only been able to produce about half the rice it needed to feed its people; it now produced about 90 percent of the rice needed.

In this time of growth, the incomes of the richer farmers in the valley rose by 150 percent (that is, they more than doubled their income), while poorer farmers' incomes increased by only 50 percent. Even though their income increased, poorer farmers could not afford to continue to pay for irrigation pipes, new seeds, and fertilizers, so their yields did not increase as dramatically as the yields of richer farmers.

Poorer farmers had to borrow money to continue with the new rice, or go back to growing the traditional variety. The gap between rich farmers and poor farmers increased from 900 to 2,350 Malaysian dollars each month.

Then in 1974, the harvests stopped increasing. The land had reached its highest producing potential. The more fertilizer farmers applied to their crops, the less profit they made. Yields would not go any higher no matter how much fertilizer was added. At this time, incomes fell for farmers, but especially for the poor. The cost of growing the crops kept increasing while the market price fell. By 1979 poor farmers' incomes had fallen below levels of the 1960s.

Often the poor farmers did not have enough money to buy seeds or even food for their families. The richer farmers began to buy up land from the poorer farmers. The poorest farmers had to sell all of their land to survive and were forced to take up tenant farming (renting land from the richer farmers) or move to cities.

- Adapted from Norman Myers, Gala: An Atlas of Planet Management (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1984)

Muda before and after


1. What are some changes between the Muda Valley before and after maps? Name 5 differences you see.


2. How do you think the changes you listed affected the people living and farming in the area? Explain some positive and negative aspects of change that may have occurred.

3. What were the promises of the Green Revolution for Malaysia?

4. Do you think that the Green Revolution lived up to its promises? Why or why not?

The green revolution comes to India

The green revolution comes to India

India was one of the first countries where new plant varieties and fertilizers were introduced.
Find India on a world map.


1. How did the percentage of farmers trying new varieties of wheat change from 1960 to 1980?

2. How much did wheat production change in India during that time?

3. Even though India has areas of very fertile soil, the new varieties of wheat required added fertilizer. Graph 3 shows how much fertilizer had to be imported from 1955 to 1975. In the past, farmers used animal manure or let the fields rest for a year. How will having to buy imported fertilizer affect the pocketbooks of poor farmers? From 1955 to 1975, insecticide use also increased. Can you think of some problems with using more insecticides?

4. How did the percentage of hungry people change in India during the early 1970s?

5. Can you think of several reasons why more wheat production does not always mean more food for everyone?

Activity 2: Technology on trial - One person's story

The teacher will take the part of a farmworker from Mexico who has been arrested for crossing the border without a visa and working without a permit in the United States. Students, acting as reporters, will learn by interviewing the teacher how the Green Revolution has had far-reaching effects on the lives of individual people. This activity is best used along with activity 1 of this lesson.


· To develop interviewing and questioning skills
· To analyze the effect of new agricultural technology on ordinary people
· To investigate the many events that may lead up to a particular action such as immigrating to the United States
· To discuss short-term and long-term consequences of technology on society


· Teacher background sheet: Ra>· Student handout: Mexican Peasants and the Green Revolution (optional)


One class period


Written statement for step 8 of procedure can be turned in.


alien, herbicide, immigrant, monoculture, pesticide, undocumented worker


1. Prior to class, read Rad Mexican Peasants and The Green Revolution. Ra a farmworker who has been arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, as an undocumented worker. He is facing deportation from the United States. You will take the role of Rad be interviewed by students who will be acting as reporters for a magazine doing a story on undocumented immigrants.

This sort of reverse role play can be an interesting classroom technique. Often, as teachers, we assign role plays to be performed only by our students and forget how difficult it is to assume the character of another person. This technique puts us in the hot seat. It also allows the students to be the ones asking the questions.

2. If you have not used activity 1 of this lesson, begin by discussing technology. What is technology? (One definition is "the practical application of knowledge.") What are examples of technology familiar to students? How does new technology affect people's lives? How do students think that improving agricultural technology can help improve the lives of hungry people?

Tell students that they will be learning about how the life of one person has been changed by technology and how events have led to actions that weren't predicted when the technology was introduced.

The class will be looking at the life of Ra poor man from northern Mexico. In the 1950s many new agricultural technologies were introduced to Mexico by scientists at technical research centers in the United States and Mexico. In many areas in Mexico, wheat yields became as high (on a per acre basis) as those of breadbasket countries such as Canada. Yields of other crops increased also. Soon the area was growing feed crops, as well as fruits and vegetables for export. We need to ask if this food helped to feed hungry people. Were all farmers able to benefit from this technology?

Students are going to look backwards at Ralife. They will discover how changes in Ravillage thirty years ago affect the decisions Rast make today.

3. Introduce the situation to the class. Ra an undocumented worker who has been picked up in Arizona. He has been scheduled for deportation after a short hearing before the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the U.S. Government. Indicate to the students that they will play reporters interviewing an undocumented immigrant (RaTheir job is to try to understand why Ra in the United States and how the events of his life have led him to cross the border. You may wish to introduce the activity prior to the day of the interview and ask students to go to the library and read a magazine or newspaper article on the topic of immigration, farmworkers, Mexican agriculture, or pesticides.

4. If you have a large class, you can divide the students into groups of three. In a smaller class, each student can develop questions independently.

5. Give students five minutes to develop at least one question per student or group. Remind students that they are trying to find out as much as they can about Ralife.

If students have difficulty with developing questions, here are some you can write on slips of paper for students to randomly pick:

Why are you here?
Do you have a family? Are they here?
What sort of work do you do here?
Isn't there work for you in Mexico?
What was your life like in Mexico?
What did your father do?
Do you want to stay in the United States?
How are your living conditions here? In Mexico?

6. Once students have their questions written, you will take the role of Rad attempt to answer them.

7. At the end of the question/answer session, discuss as a group the following points:

a. How did the new technology affect Ralife?

b. Why did Racide to come to the United States?

c. Could agricultural technology have helped Rad his family? How? Under what

d. How do you feel about Mexican farmworkers who come to the United States looking for work? Has your opinion changed after hearing the story of Rao you think Raould be deported? Why or why not? (This question could be difficult for the students to answer and back up without some outside reading, but an emotional response could be constructive.)

e. What is your solution to Raproblems?

8. (Optional) You can also give students the handout Mexican Peasants and the Green Revolution. The three pie charts point out the inequalities that existed in Mexican agriculture during the 1960s. We see that the vast majority-84 percent - of farmers were poor, but that those same farmers owned only 34 percent of the farmland. We can also see that these farmers had only 2 percent of irrigated land. Irrigation was used predominantly by the wealthy farmers.

9. If you wish to give a written assignment, you can ask each student to write (and illustrate if desired) a one-page article about Rahe articles can be read to the class the next day or posted on a bulletin board.



· Circle of Poison (book), by David Weir and Mark Schapiro
· North American Congress on Latin America (organization)
· Pesticide Education and Action Project (organization)


Students can become involved with local groups that work to protect the rights of undocumented workers. Social service agencies may be able to refer students to these groups.

Students can join groups working to help people gain a greater voice in decision-making about technology, such as citizens" utility boards. Some areas also have public interest research groups, which study the effects of industry on people.

· Public Interest Research Group (organization)

Rap ALIGN="LEFT">Ras born in the northern desert state of Sonora, Mexico, in 1955. His father owned a small plot of ground on which he grew corn, beans, and vegetables and grazed a cow. He also did carpentry work in villages around their farm. The family was poor, but almost always had enough food.

When Ras very young, farming in his area began to change. A government experiment station was established and began promoting new types of seeds to local farmers. Most of the seeds were for wheat, which local people had little experience growing. These wheat seeds could produce huge harvests if they were given enough water and fertilizer. The government of Mexico also spent millions of pesos in constructing huge irrigation networks to supply the area with water. Along with wheat farming, the production of irrigated vegetables for export began to dominate the agriculture of the area. Those farmers with the most wealth and political connections were able to take advantage of the irrigation technology, expanding their landholdings. Rich farmers used other names to buy titles to land in order to get around the government's land reform laws, which limited the amount of land one person could own. The actual average size of farms owned by rich farmers increased dramatically.

Rap ALIGN="LEFT">Rafather refused to give up his land for many years. The family's small farm was soon surrounded on all sides by large farms. These large farmers had access to more irrigation water, to credit on better terms, and to farm supplies at cheaper prices than Rafather. So they were getting wealthier, while Rafather was going deeper into debt. Rafather, wanting to improve conditions for his family, decided to sell the farm.

The family moved to a local village, hoping to get a chance to buy land again in the future.

Rafather made some money for the family by doing carpentry, and his mother worked as a part-time maid and laundry person for a wealthy farmer. During a few months a year, when farm labor was needed, both parents and children worked on other people's farms.

The huge mechanized monoculture farms of new varieties of plants were more susceptible to weeds and to damage by insects than the old, small farms growing a variety of foods. Large farmers in the area began increasing their use of herbicides and insecticides during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the pesticides were declared illegal in the United States and Europe during the 1970s, but they are still in use in many underdeveloped countries.

On many occasions, members of Rafamily were exposed to pesticides while they worked in the fields. Sometimes planes would fly overhead and spray the fields even though workers were present. Rametimes had to mix the pesticides without using a protective mask or gloves. He and others often had to apply the pesticides to the fields on dry, windy days when the mist from the sprayers would blow into their faces.

The health of Raparents deteriorated. All members of the family experienced problems from the pesticides, ranging from rashes to asthma to severe headaches. They suspected that the pesticides were the cause of many health problems, but they had no proof. By now the increased amount of mechanization had decreased the number of working days for each worker, and no one felt that they could risk losing their job by complaining about the pesticide problems.

When Rat married, he and his wife Ana worked together in the fields. After their first child was born, they realized that it was going to be hard to support a family in Sonora. They worked all the hours they could near their village and would go by bus to other areas when harvests came in. There was absolutely no security for them or their children.

Six months ago, Rade the difficult decision to go to the United States to look for work. Friends and relatives told him that many farmers and factory owners in the United States would hire workers from Mexico even if they did not have work permits. Racided to find work in the United States for a period of time, save money, and then return to his family in Sonora.

He crossed the border into Arizona in the middle of the night so as not to be spotted by immigration authorities. After a three-day trek through the Arizona desert, Rarived in Phoenix. He felt very isolated with no family or friends to turn to, and he was frustrated by his inability to communicate in English.

A Mexican compatriot helped him find work in a factory, where he worked twelve hours a day for two weeks. When payday arrived, the boss announced that immigration authorities were on the premises. Ras forced to run and hide until it was safe to look for another job and hope for better treatment.

Finally he found a dishwashing job and began to earn what appeared to be good money when compared with the average Mexican salary. He missed his family and hoped to be able to return to them with something to show for all his hard work and sacrifice.

While riding in a truck near Phoenix, Arizona, one afternoon, he was picked up by a member of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told that he was an illegal alien in the United States, and scheduled for deportation.

A friend gave him the phone number of a legal services agency where he could go for advice and help.

- Based on Roger Burbach and Patricia Flynn, Agribusiness In the Americas (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980); J. P. Dickenson, et al., A Geography of the Third World (London and New York: Methuen, 1983); Mark J. Kurlansky, "Jammed in Mexico's Teeming City,' International Wildlife, January-February, 1986; and personal Interviews.

Mexican peasants and the green revolution

The following graphs are for your background. The three pie charts point out the inequalities that existed in Mexican agriculture during the 1960s. We see that the vast majority (84 percent) of farmers were poor farmers, and that those same farmers owned only 34 percent of the farmland. We can also see that these farmers had only 2 percent of irrigated land. Irrigation was used predominantly by the wealthy farmers.

The bar graphs indicate the decline in the number of people working in agriculture during Rayouth. If people in a rural area do not work in agriculture, what are their choices?

Mexican peasants and the green revolution