Green Revolution: Winners or Losers?


Green Revolution (GR) has been a tremendous global experiment that institutionalized a successful working model primarily with government sponsorship to enhance livelihoods and reduce poverty. With all its achievements, GR has had serious pitfalls in either conceptual context or its application. I have attempted to evaluate its (GR’s) impact at the village level wherein winning and losing has been an evolving incidence based on GR’s impact on sustained livelihood.

Background of on-setting Green revolution:

The global agriculture value chain has witnessed significant over-all optimization post 2nd world war. In the 20th century, government spending on research and infrastructure, and public participation led to a dramatic increase in crop productivity. Wheat yield took 1000 years to grow from 0.5 to 2 metric tons per hectare but only 40 years to jump from 2 to 6 metric tons per hectare1. Most industrialized countries have sustained food surpluses by the use of hybrid plan breeding, mechanized farming methods, synthetic fertilizers, modern pesticides, and a network of irrigation facilities. While the above description presents a tremendous view of human development on the food security front, it doesn’t adequately highlight severe and sustained food shortages in many parts of the world which needed systemic intervention. The green revolution was envisaged in these contrasting circumstances to leverage proven technology and a systemic approach in bringing social well-being to improve sustained livelihoods in the global south.

Green Revolution Case Studies and its implications

There has been a number of studies on the Green revolution’s impact on the rural poor. An initial study from IFPRI’s Dharam Narain2 found Green revolution increasing crop productivity leading to cheaper food and increased income which, jointly, helped reduce the hunger and support physical and social aspects of livelihood. Peter B.R. Hazell found Green Revolution contributing significantly in Southern India in income, nutrition, and living standard for both small and large farmers. In Tamilnadu (South India), he noted technology adoption by small farmers had a lag of 3-5 years after being introduced in the market2. Advantages of technology diffusion benefitted small farmers hugely as its application was already tested and increased adoption meant cheaper prices. In addition to Hazel’s notes on infrastructural support by the Indian government to sustain Green Revolution, Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Mark Svendsen specifically highlighted the need for an irrigation system’s revamp to benefit small farmers3. This point is also validated by Amy Kazmin wherein she highlights urgent attention needed to be paid at the policy level by providing integrated water solutions to avert the looming crisis. Sirhind canal (Punjab, India) runs at 50%-70% of its capacity during monsoon crisis which encourages farmers to enhance the use of groundwater triggering a vicious cycle4.

A team from King’s College (UK) and University of Nottingham (UK) assessed the impact of the Green revolution in three villages in Bulandshahr District, Western Uttar Pradesh, North India’ across 35 years in the Green Revolution continuum. The assessment was conducted on a range of objective and subjective parameters e.g. crop yields, prosperity, and well-being. Researchers also analyzed the change in the landholding concentration to evaluate the rich-poor divide with the findings that crop yield had increased significantly and hunger was almost eradicated as positive implications on one hand but poorer farmers didn’t have similar yield results because of lack of access to water, fertilizer, and land; and increased income divide5. The latter, combined with a smaller plot size because of the pressure of increasing population, has caused a significant transition of land-less farmers towards agricultural labor or migration to urban centers. Pinstrup-Andersen and Hazell (1985) present a similar view that the landless labor did not share equitable benefits of the Green Revolution because of lower wages attributable to migrant workers, who again were landless farmers, from other regions3. On one side, it made the livelihood of a section of landless farmers fragile especially during volatile weather conditions; and put women under extended pressure to provide support in subsistence farming and potential role-reversal in case menfolk migrated to urban centers looking out for employment avenues on the other.

Some won and some lost

Per the details above, large farmers with access to resources were the winners compared to small farmers / landless laborers but there are contexts wherein ‘South’ seems to have lost. Some of those contexts are sterile offspring seed (as an outcome of hybridization to maximize the yield, improved crop disease control) leading to cyclical seed purchase in the open market, environmental degradation due to chemical pollution in the Indian state of Punjab causing cancer and other diseases, and ‘Slash and Burn’ method of farming in African states which denies the organic matter to return to the soil which in turn depletes its productivity. These issues develop a North-South argument around Intellectual Property and Research on long-term health implications.  We have compared and contrasted village residents on the socio-demographic level and discussed geographic implications as well (between Punjab, North India, and South India, Tamilnadu) but there is another important aspect around GR’s impact on gender.

Also, some of the government policies have been very limiting especially for small farmers. Quoting Financial Times, James Lamont writes about indirect negative implications in government-regulated crop guidance value being a limiting factor for the farmers of Punjab (India), the breadbasket of North India, and posture boy of Green Revolution success.

Closing remarks:

Analyzing the above case studies, we find that Green Revolution has definitely positively impacted the baseline livelihood quality in general. However, small farmers and landless laborers have been relative losers primarily because of lack of access to resources and policy outcomes. The green revolution was constructed to increase crop productivity which it did but supporting systems to distribute well-ness were lacking which caused a serious income divide and livelihood fragility to the poor in the global south.  Green Revolution model needs local customization, build supporting infrastructure, and equally importantly line up stakeholders in the socio-politico-economic arena, in addition to R&D teams, to envisage more rounded plans in the future.


  4. Amy Kazmin, 2009; Politics of water’ leaves Punjab in deep trouble
  5. Sarah Jewitt and Kathleen Baker, 2007; ‘The Green Revolution re-assessed: Insider perspectives on agrarian change in Bulandshahr District, Western Uttar Pradesh, India’, Geoforum 38, 1, pages 73-89, by id21 Research
  8. Prabhu Pingali and Terri Raney, 2005; From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution: How will the Poor Fare; ESA Working Paper No. 05-09
  9. Financial Times