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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderAgriculture in crisis
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe soil and water crisis
View the documentThe productivity crisis
View the documentThrough the looking glass
View the documentThe hidden harvest
View the documentThe problems not addressed
View the documentBiotechnology, the solution?

Through the looking glass

The impact of the Green Revolution can be explained only in part by looking at national and international production statistics. The real impact took place at the local level, and it is precisely there where the production crisis becomes most apparent. This has been the level that has often been overlooked by the Green Revolution scientists, who are more used to turning their magnifying glasses on plants than on people's communities.

Staying with our example of the Philippines, ACES, a Filipino NGO focusing on community organization, conducted a survey among small farmers in four different villages on their experience with the Green Revolution varieties of rice developed by IRRI. The survey was in an area which had been a special focus of the Green Revolution: all interviewed farmers had shifted completely from traditional to IRRI rice varieties between 1970 and 1981. The results showed that despite yield increases of over 70%, the farmers' real income had dropped by as much as 50%. (19) This dramatic decrease in income was caused on the one hand by the price farmers got for their rice being cut in half and on the other by a tremendous increase in the amount and the cost of the inputs required for IRRI varieties. Graph 2.2 shows that between 1970 and 1981 the cost of manual weeding doubled, the use of herbicides jumped from zero to 10% of all input costs and the use and costs of pesticides and fertilizer more than tripled. All together this meant an increase of the cost for inputs of no less than 360%! The falling income, combined with the ever-growing need for external inputs, resulted in the farmers' increasing indebtedness. ACES later broadened its research into other areas of the Philippines with comparable results.

The green revolution in the Philippines - Rise in farm expenses 1970-1981

Looking at local communities and their agricultural production systems, one starts realizing that national production statistics of individual crops completely overlook a substantial part of production that is important at the local level. Vandana Shiva, in her study on the role of women in Indian ecology, perhaps best explains this:

In the context of diverse outputs from the farm, the HYVs were not really high yielding even under the best conditions. They appeared high yielding because a whole system of cropping that provided diverse food to man, animals and the earth was reduced to the output of a single crop. (20)

She continues to explain how many local farming practices, based on centuries of experience with the local situation, evolve around a complex system in which plant and animal production are inherently tied together and in which soil and water management are a crucial part of sustained production. In the Green Revolution's focus on single commodity output, such balanced systems are disturbed, resulting in productivity collapses, soil degradation and over-exploitation of water and mineral resources.

In many countries of the Third World, multiple cropping, in which several crops are produced together on the same field, has proved to be a highly efficient and sustainable way of producing food and a whole series of other products. In India, farmers intercrop sorghum and wheat with different pulses, and mixtures involving up to eight crops are not uncommon. (21) Farmers in Latin America grow maize and beans together, in a system where the maize functions as a stalk for the beans. Different systems of intercropping provide for a balanced use of soil fertility and often increase the humus content of the soil. Also, multiple cropping patterns provide for greater protection against pests and diseases as the variability in the field reduces the likelihood of the massive pest outbreaks that occur in the uniform single crop systems of the Green Revolution. In chapter 9 such farmers' practices are discussed in more detail.