Cover Image
close this bookBlending of New and Traditional Technologies - Case Studies (ILO - WEP, 1984, 312 p.)
View the documentChapter 1. Blending of new technologies with traditional economic activity*
View the documentChapter 2. Experience of the Green Revolution*

Chapter 2. Experience of the Green Revolution*

* Prepared by Bart Duff. International Rice Research Institute. Los Ba Philippines.

THE RAPID GROWTH in agricultural output, principally foodgrains, in developing countries of South and Southeast Asia during the past 15 years has been unprecedented. Popularly known as the Green Revolution, this achievement was founded on three factors: (i) the very heavy emphasis placed on foodgrain self-sufficiency by national governments; (ii) the large resource commitment of national governments and international donor agencies to construction of new and the improvement of existing irrigation facilities; and (iii) the development, diffusion and adoption of modern high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat coupled with increased use of inorganic fertilisers. Each factor was in itself not sufficient to foster the output changes which have occurred, but when bundled in a complementary fashion, it provided the conditions for the high growth rates of the recent past.

The agricultural performance for countries in the region is found in the data contained in Table 2.1. Food production weighed heavily in the gains, with the cereal grains fueling a significant portion of total growth. As a whole, average rice yields increased by about 40 per cent from 1960 to 1980 and total production increased by 60 per cent during the same period.1 Modern wheat varieties were estimated to cover 44 per cent of the total wheat area by 1977. and a much higher percentage in India, Nepal and Pakistan. Despite these impressive gains, food supplies just kept ahead of the 55 per cent growth in population during the same period.

Rapid growth in rice and wheat output also produced other desirable effects, which are summarised below:

(a) Net imports of all cereals for the ten developing countries of the Asian region declined from 4.6 million tonnes (1970-72) to 1.9 million tonnes (1979-80);

(b) Agricultural raw materials and export crops such as cotton, jute, sugarcane and coconut showed a boost in production;

(c) With the relatively easy supply of cereals and crops in general, other agricultural subsectors such as fishery, forestry and animal husbandry received greater attention than in the past; and

(d) Reduced agricultural imports, on the one hand, and increased agricultural exports, on the other, led to a much larger contribution to the balance of payments. The net annual balance of agricultural trade for the ten countries listed in Table 1 which stood at US$ 1,900 million in the early 1970s jumped to US$ 8,400 million by the end of the decade.2

Table 2.1 Annual growth rate of agricultural production, food production and cereal production and per capita availability of cereals from domestic sources

Average annual growth rate (percentage)

Agricultural production

Food production

Cereals production

Population growth rate (per cent per annum)

Average per capita availability of cereals from domestic sources tonnes/year































































Sri Lanka














Source: FAO Production Yearbook, Vol. 35, Rome, 1981.


In the ten-year period from 1966 to 1976, over 70 per cent of the wheat area in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, was planted to modern varieties (Figure 2.1). Growth rates have been somewhat less pronounced in other parts of the developing world (see Table 2.2). Diffusion of the improved rice varieties was somewhat slower but, during a comparable period, over 30 per cent of the rice area in selected countries of Asia were sown to these varieties (Figure 2.2). This figure would be higher if China were included. To add perspective to this achievement, one need only contrast it with the spread of hybrid corn varieties in the United States, a process which took nearly twice as long to reach a similar level of acceptance as the modern wheat varieties in India. On a global basis, the acceptance of the modern rice varieties has been less pronounced for rice than for wheat in terms of area, although, as will be shown, the impact in value terms has been equally significant (Table 2.3).

Adoption of the modern varieties has not been uniform across countries or among regions within countries. The contrast of North and South India with East India is very apparent (Figure 2.3). Poor water control in East India severely restricts the use of improved varieties which have diffused rapidly in the irrigated areas of North and South India.

A similar comparison can be made between irrigated and rainfed rice-producing areas in the Philippines (Figure 2.4). The yield potential of the improved rice plant exerts itself most strongly in irrigated areas and it is there that the adoption was most rapid. However, in both rainfed and irrigated areas, traditional varieties have largely been replaced by modern plant types. The area in upland rice has remained nearly constant, as have yields during the period 1967-68 to 1981-82. Traditional varieties remain dominant in this environment. This finding hints at the limitations of the current range of new technologies.

Table 2.2. Estimated area of high-yielding wheat varieties in developing countries (1976-77)



Wheat area
(per cent)




Near East






Latin America






Source: P. Pinstrup-Anderson. Agricultural research and technology in economic development, Longman, New York, 1982.

Table 2.3. Estimated area of high-yielding rice varieties in developing countries (1976-77)



Rice area
(per cent)




Near East






Latin America






Source: P. Pinstrup-Anderson. Agricultural research and technology in economic development, ibid.

Figure 2.1. Percentage of total wheat area planted with modern varieties in selected countries

Figure 2.2. Percentage of total rice area planted with modern varieties in selected countries (1966-82)

Herdt and Capule have calculated that total output in the major rice producing countries of Asia increased by 120 million tonnes between 1965 and 1980. By partitioning this growth, they indicate that approximately 23 percent or 27 million tonnes was accounted for by modern varieties alone and an equal amount from fertiliser. The remainder is attributed to irrigation and other complementary factors. It is apparent the Green Revolution in rice has had a major impact on food production in Asia.

Figure 2.3. Rice yield trends in three regions of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, (1960-61 to 1982-83)

Figure 2.4. Rice area and yield by irrigation and variety type Philippines (1967-68 to 1982-83)

a. This figure excludes the area planted to modern varieties in China for which data are not readily available although the area covered is large (Herdt and Capule, op. cit.).

b. It is likely the areas in modern varieties in the Near East, Africa and Latin America has expanded since 1976-77. but reliable data are not available upon which to base revised projections (Pinstrup-Anderson, op.cit.).


It is apparent that the Green Revolution in rice has had a major impact on food production in Asia. How does this relate to world rice production and what is the value of that incremental increase in production? Data developed by Pinstrup-Anderson4 indicate that, in 1976-77, the annual increase in production attributable to modern rice varieties was a little over 10 million tonnes or approximately 5.4 per cent of total world production. The value of the increase from the modern varieties for that year was estimated at US$ 2,700 million. While this is at best a very rough approximation, it does accentuate the very high returns to investments in rice research.


In the first half of the 20th century, agricultural growth in the countries of South and Southeast Asia was based on expansion in cultivated area. As land became less accessible, the sources of growth shifted to innovations to raise the productivity of land either through increased cropping intensity or higher yields. Increasing demand for food soon exhausted the stock of easily accessible and irrigable land focusing attention on yields as the chief source of future increases in production. These factors set the stage for the scientific breakthroughs of the 1960s and 70s.

Why were the modern rice varieties accepted so readily? Clearly the higher yields made them more productive. What makes them yield more? There are three dominant features which contribute to higher yields. First is the capacity of the plant to effectively utilise high rates of nitrogen fertiliser. When fertilised, traditional rice varieties tend to develop more vegetative growth and longer stems. As grain yields increase, the architecture of the plant is unable to support the added weight: the stems collapse, resulting in extensive lodging. The improved varieties have shorter and stiffer stems with upright leaves which can support the increased yields at relatively higher fertiliser rates.

A second feature was the ability of plant breeders to genetically alter the makeup of the plant to increase its resistance to many pests and diseases. This inherent resistance combined with the high yield potential of the improved plant type is found in all new releases. A third major factor conditioning adoption was the “non-photoperiod-sensitive” nature of the new varieties. They have a much shorter growing season compared with traditional varieties. This reduces the risk of prolonged exposure to pests and adverse environmental factors. It also increases the possibility of growing a second crop following earlier harvest of the first and economises in the use of inputs such as irrigation water.

In all cases of widespread acceptance of improved biological materials, major support from the national governments to extend and promote their use has also been important. Efforts to expand the availability and use of irrigation water were made wherever feasible. In addition, extension and institutional assistance was mobilised to teach the farmer about the improved varieties and ensure that he was provided with adequate amounts of the complementary inputs, such as fertiliser, necessary to realise their yield potential.

The Masagana 99 Programme in the Philippines contained provisions for training, credit and subsidised inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides. Rice prices were also supported to provide the farmer an assured return. Similar programmes were found in Burma, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea.

In the introductory stages of the Green Revolution, there was a conscious effort to integrate the complementary elements of the technology into a comprehensive package. In several important ways, this meant significant changes in the traditional manner in which farmers grew rice. Perhaps the most important modification was the greater use of inorganic fertilisers. Employment of herbicides and pesticides also increased. Each represented an off-farm resource which must be purchased with cash. Other adjustments were made in irrigation, planting and weeding practices. The new varieties also tended to increase the demand for labour with a concomitant demand for better management.


The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the oldest of the international agricultural research centres, and began operation in 1960. As of 1980, IRRI had spent a total of US$111 million - approximately US$33 million for capital development and US$78 million for operating expenditures. While its nominal budget has increased in the recent past, most of this growth is to offset the effects of inflation. The Institute’s budget has remained nearly constant in real terms.

The economic returns to investments in agricultural research are an important indicator of the benefits to be derived from expenditure of scarce public funds. In a review of 50 national research programmes, Pinstrup-Anderson found that annual returns averaged slightly less than 50 per cent.5 This can be contrasted with rates of return in other public investments, which typically yield 10 to 15 per cent. How does IRRI compare in its use of public resources? Estimates presented by Pinstrup-Anderson range from 46 to 71 per cent. A later attempt by Evenson and Flores6 raised this range to 82 to 100 per cent. Put differently “Investments in IRRI of about US$20 million per year generate an added value of about US$1,500 million per year of increased rice production”.7

A limitation with this type of analysis is its disregard for the contributions to output made by the national programmes in adapting and extending the technology and the importance of complementary inputs such as fertiliser and investments in irrigation. However, these limitations should not be overstressed as the returns to research are clearly high and favourable.


The first generation of improved varieties exemplified by IR8 were successful in establishing a yield benchmark. Inherent problems were: poor grain quality and, as time passed, a growing degree of susceptibility to insects and diseases. A second generation of varieties emerged in 1969 with the release of IR20, which had much higher resistance to diseases and insects and found wider consumer acceptance, although grain quality still remained poor compared with many native varieties. In 1976, a milestone was reached with the release of IR36, the most widely planted variety of any food crop covering almost 11 million hectares in 1982.8 These developments highlight one of the major limitations of the modern varieties - the difficulty of reaching an equilibrium with the insect/disease complex, which also responds dynamically to changes in growing conditions. New insect biotypes which are able to overcome the inherent resistance of the modern varieties and, over time, appear to develop immunity to chemical control measures, which leaves no room for complacency in producing a continuing stream of improved varieties to meet future needs.

A second major constraint in the use of modern varieties has been their lack of adaptability to diverse environmental conditions. The largest share of adopters are now found in irrigated areas, giving rise to the complaint that the new technology favours those who are already relatively better off. The observation is correct, but it fails to recognise that it was in areas with assured water control that the greatest potential for major increases in output was found. Output growth of a similar magnitude could not be achieved in the short run in rainfed environments. Increased attention is now being given to the development of improved technologies for adverse environments, of which water control is but one consideration.

The rice research community is often cited for its lack of sensitivity to the problems of the small farmer and the landless poor. The evidence available from IRRI and other sources does not support this conjecture. In a recent survey of conditions in India, Blyn found no distinction between small and large farmers in the sharing of prosperity from the new technology.9 Table 2.4 summarises data from 36 rice-growing villages in six countries. Adoption of labour-saving technology, such as tractors, threshers and mechanical weeders, showed a clear association with farm size whereas the modern rice varieties did not. Modern varieties tend to significantly increase the demand for labour compared with traditional systems10, particularly if multiple cropping is introduced. Even in those instances where mechanisation is used for land preparation and threshing, the machines have their greatest impact on the redeployment of family labour.

Increased demand for hired labour has provided more employment for the landless poor, although in some areas this advantage has been partially offset by a decline in rural real wages. There is no evidence, however, that lower real wages are associated with the use of the modern varieties. Increased output has helped to reduce price instability and to maintain rice prices at a level which benefits the consumer.10

Table 2.4. Use of specified practices and farm size: thirty-six villages in six Asian countries (1971-72)

Farms using (percentages)

< 1 hectare

1 - 3 hectares

> 3 hectares

Modern varieties


























Hand weeding




Rotary weeding








Mechanical thresher




Source: IRRI. Changes in rice farming in selected areas of Asia, Los Ba Philippines, 1975.

Lastly, there has been increasing concern with the need for high levels of purchased inputs to provide the benefits from the modern varieties. Fertiliser represents the major cash cost in the package of complementary inputs. It is also an input whose use is elastic with respect to both the price of paddy and the price of fertiliser. Increases in fertiliser price result in a decline in the use of the input, while a rise in the rice price has the opposite effect.

The close relationship between these prices and the fertiliser dependency of the modern varieties is of concern to rice scientists. Several avenues are being explored to reduce the need for fertiliser. The first is an effort to increase the efficiency with which the rice plant uses fertiliser. Through precision placement of fertiliser, it is possible to reduce application rates with no sacrifice in yields. An engineering breakthrough in placement equipment is needed to make this option attractive to farmers. A second promising area is the development of less expensive forms of fertiliser such as blue-green algae and Azolla as a source of nitrogen. A third source of decreased dependency is through improvements in grain varieties which increase the efficiency with which plants convert fertilisers to grain and dry matter. IR42, a recent release, exhibits relatively higher yields under zero fertiliser conditions than either traditional or early modern varieties. Similar work is under way to select insect and disease-resistant varieties which reduce the need and outlay for pesticides.


The following were the five key elements in the early success of the modern rice technology:

(i) scientists were able to quickly and correctly assess the constraints limiting yields and develop varieties to overcome them;

(ii) research was well supported and tightly focused to take advantage of IRRI’s strong comparative advantage;

(iii) developing the research capabilities of scientists working in national agricultural research programmes was recognised early as a key element for the long-term success of the modern rice technology;

(iv) administration of research was flexible and able to respond quickly with new initiatives as they were needed. A balanced research “portfolio” containing both applied and basic research objectives was developed to ensure long-term continuity and success;

(v) there was a strong commitment by national governments to agricultural development. This was a necessary condition for vigorous and productive rice research.

Accelerated agricultural growth has fostered rewards for the research community. Spending on agricultural research in the developing countries showed an average annual growth of 10.5 per cent during the 1970s: it now exceeds the target of 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product recommended by the 1974 World Food Conference.12 During the past decade, the number of agricultural scientists in the developing countries has almost doubled, from 18,500 to 34,000. This number is much higher than that in either Western Europe or the United States.

On November 28, 1966 the Green Revolution in rice began with the release of IR8. In the intervening years, there has been a remarkable increase in rice production which has benefited farmers and consumers alike and has contributed to the resource requirements and stability necessary for sustained economic growth in many countries. While 30 per cent of total world rice output is derived from modern varieties developed at IRRI and through national rice research programmes, it is estimated that over 70 per cent of the world’s rice farmers do not use or have access to the emerging technology.13 For reasons specified earlier, existing improved varieties are not adaptable to the conditions in which these farmers subsist. An overwhelming feature of these environments is lack of controlled water supplies. A majority of the world’s rice farmers depend exclusively on rainfall to meet crop moisture requirements. While the decision to focus scarce research resources heavily on the needs of irrigated agriculture during the past two decades was undoubtedly the right one, a reallocation of these resources to address the needs of farmers in harsher environments is under way. Conversely, there will be a continuing need for maintenance research to sustain and increase productivity gains already made in irrigated areas.

In planning for IRRI’s third decade, multidisciplinary and national collaborative dimensions of the research effort have been strengthened. Particular emphasis is being placed on overcoming the following constraints in rainfed and dryland areas:

(i) diseases and insects,
(ii) drought, flooding and deepwater submergence,
(iii) adverse soil conditions,
(iv) adverse temperatures,
(v) weeds,
(vi) grain quality and nutrition,
(vii) socio-economic constraints - credit, labour and power, risk and uncertainty and institutional impediments.

Since the mid-1970s, there has been a recognised need for these adjustments. With a “no growth” budget, this has primarily meant a reallocation of resources within IRRI itself, although, through the strengthened national programmes, it has beer possible to expand the coverage and depth of research at the individual country level Table 2.5 provides estimates of the current and future IRRI staff efforts and the projected benefits of this redeployment.

Table 2.5 Past and projected balance of IRRI senior scientific staff efforts aimed at major rice-growing environments, compared with anticipated economic returns from production increases in each area (percentages)


Average distribution

Projected* distribution

Projected benefits





Rainfed wetland




Rainfed dryland




Deepwater and floating







* The projections are based on the intention to shift some activities from irrigated to rainfed rice as the national programmes overcome their own limitations for research on irrigated rice. Provided that some expansion of total staff occurs, the research effort on dryland and deepwater and floating rice will increase, although the relative input remains constant.

Source: IRRI, A plan for IRRI’s third decade. Los Ba Philippines. 1982.

Work to overcome many of the above constraints is already under way. Examples include use of biotechnology in the development of hybrids and use of tissue and another culture to accelerate and broaden incorporation of desirable characteristics into future varieties.14 Application of the concepts of integrated pest management to control pests and diseases and the use of biological sources of nitrogen such as azolla, will help to reduce the cash input requirements of the farmer.

Through technical assistance, collaborative agreements and research networks linked with national programmes, IRRI will continue to address specific issues and complement the work of rice scientists working in individual country programmes.

The institute itself will continue to serve a number of unique roles, namely:

(i) basic research to increase knowledge about rice;
(ii) rice genetic resources, conservation and dissemination;
(iii) developing and verifying methodologies for rice research;
(iv) organising international cooperative rice research programmes;
(v) training researchers and educators concerned with rice and related crops;
(vi) documentation and dissemination of rice research findings;
(vii) research on technology adoption and transfer to farmers.

Clearly, the emerging technology of the rice revolution during its first two decades had a profound impact on traditional agriculture in most rice-producing countries. The future challenge is to further extend the benefits of science and improved technology to the disadvantaged sectors of rural society.


1. M. R. Vega,: The Green Revolution reconsidered, Seventh Course on Population and Development Reporting sponsored by Press Foundation of Asia, Los Ba Philippines, 1983.

2. V.S. Vyas,: Asian agriculture: The abiding issues, Asian Development Bank Distinguished Speakers Programme, Manila, 1983.

3. R.W. Herdt and C. Capule: Adoption, spread and production impact of modern rice varieties in Asia (Los Ba Philippines, IRRI, 1983).

4. P. Pinstrup-Anderson,: Agricultural research and technology in economic development, Los Ba Philippines, 1983.

5. ibid.

6. R.E. Evenson, and P.M. Flores,: “Social returns to rice research”, in Economic consequences of the new rice technology, IRRI, Los Ba Philippines, 1978.

7. International Rice Research Institute: A plan for IRRI’s third decade, Los Ba Philippines, 1982.

8. International Rice Research Institute: IR36 - the world’s most popular rice, Los Ba Philippines, 1983.

9. G. Blyn,: “The green revolution revisited”, in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 31, No. 4, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

10. International Rice Research Institute: Economic consequences of the new rice technology, op. cit.

11. ibid.

12. International Development Research Centre: The fragile web: the international agricultural research system, Ottawa, Canada, 1983.

13. International Rice Research Institute: Beyond IR8: IRRI’s second decade, Los Ba Philippines, 1980.

14. W. Rockwood,: New biotechnology in international agricultural development: Horizons, United States Agency for International Development, September 1983.