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Green revolution

The green revolution, spearheaded by Norman Borlaug, has helped to improve food security in previously impoverished countries.
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

Malthus underestimated human ingenuity. It produced new solutions to feed the growing population. The Green Revolution is the prime manifestation. The 1960s to 1980s saw a period of rapid advancement in agricultural processes and technology allowing for unprecedented levels of crop yield.

These advancements included the new high-yield varieties of crops known as Modern Varieties (MVs) and improved irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide technologies. The Green Revolution thus allowed millions of people to escape starvation.

Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist, is famously known as the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’. He originally worked on developing breeds of wheat with stronger resistance to diseases, and later focused on finding ways to increase the yield potential of crops while ensuring high disease resistance. His research led to strains of staple grains such as rice, wheat, and corn with high yield and disease resistance. He devoted a big part of his life to bring these improved crops to nations struggling to feed their people due to poor agricultural production. Norman’s research was based in Mexico as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s project to fight hunger in the region. In the 1940s, when Norman just started his work, Mexico was reliant on food imports to feed its growing population.

One of his key breakthroughs was successfully developing a high-yield wheat variety, the Norin 10-Brevor hybrid, that could grow in highly fertile soil without toppling over like conventional breeds. After Norman introduced his new MVs along with the other advancements in agricultural production, wheat production grew from 464,000 tons in 1940 to 2.7 million tons by 1970, reaching a peak of 5.2 million tons in 1985. During this period, Mexico shifted from importing food to feeding itself to exporting agriculture for profit.

In the 1960s, Norman began looking to other countries to improve their agricultural production. In 1966, India imported 18,000 tons of seeds developed by Borlaug. From 1966 to 1968, annual wheat yields increased dramatically from 10.4 million tons to 16.5 million tons. Similar results were found in Pakistan as well. When he brought a similar project to China in 1979, China’s annual wheat production shot from 62.7 million tons in 1979 to 87.9 million in 1984. Advancements were also made with other crop varieties such as corn, rice, and sorghum. In 1962, Peter Jennings, working at the International Rice Institute in the Philippines, developed a new breed of rice, known as IR8, which had twice the yield potential of existing varieties of rice.

Ultimately, the Green Revolution helped to improve food security in previously impoverished countries in Asia and Mexico, with Borlaug popularly credited with saving over 1 billion lives.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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