The Third Agricultural Revolution, which is commonly referred to as the “Green Revolution,” refers to a set of initiatives in the field of research technologies that began in the 1950s and finished in the late 1960s. The result of this information transfer to the agricultural industries resulted in a significant increase in production around the world, with an emphasis on heightened productivity in developing countries.
The Green Revolution resulted in the creation of high-yielding crops, with notable improvements in rice and wheat, along with the use of controlled water supplies, chemical fertilizers, and agriculture-based chemicals to enhance the growing process. There were also new methods of cultivation introduced during this time, including mechanization, that superseded the traditional technologies that were used in the past.
Although Normal Borlaug is credited with being the “father” of the Green Revolution, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were heavily involved with the funding that helped to get these new technologies off the ground in the first place. Today, the Gates Foundation is attempting to make it work in Africa.
We can certainly feed more people and produce higher yields with greater consistency because of the Green Revolution, but there are some serious and major disadvantages that we must consider as well when looking at this important part of human history.
List of the Advantages of the Green Revolution
1. It may be helping to reduce the number of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States performed a research study in 2013 that looked at the influence of the Green Revolution on greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of the improvements made in crop growth during this time, the level of emissions could have been up to 7.4 Gt higher than what they were observed through 2004. The high-yield approach to agriculture has a dramatic impact on how carbon cycles through the atmosphere.
2. It allows us to produce more food than traditional growing methods.
Thanks to the processes which are present because of the Green Revolution, our planet currently produces about 20% more calories through crop production and livestock support than is necessary to meet the nutritional minimums of the current global population. Although some estimates suggest that we might need 70% more kcal availability by 2050 than what is available today, the techniques we continue to develop because of Borlaug’s work allow us to meet this demand level without creating additional environmental problems.
3. It provides us with consistent yields during uncooperative seasons.
The Green Revolution adds resiliency to our crops because it focuses on varieties that can produce high yields in a variety of environmental situations. Although there is a need for phosphorus and other nutrients when there is a focused on prolonged production, the new strains that came from Borlaug’s work allow for yields to have consistency even when a regular season might wipe out a crop.
In 1993, conditions in the Midwest were so unfavorable for growing corn that some farmers had to plow their fields under to lose the entire crop since the plants were not maturing as they should have been. Those that were able to rescue their fields were the ones who put the practices of the Green Revolution into their farming techniques.
4. It causes a reduction in food prices for the global economy.
The agricultural markets are based on supply and demand. When yields are more consistent, then the supply becomes more available. High-yield crops produce more items for harvest, which means additional food is available to consumers. This advantage helps to lower prices for everyone while farmers gain additional profits because they can produce more on less land. Even consumers in developing countries have better food access because of these technologies.
Some regions were able to triple their outputs because of the technologies and growing practices introduced by the Green Revolution. That means two additional people were able to have their nutritional quotas met using the same land in just 20 years of agricultural reform.
5. It has reduced the issues of deforestation on our planet.
Although there can be issues in some parts of the world with deforestation because the practices from the Green Revolution are depleting the soil of its nutrients, the impact of these modern techniques has helped the world protect itself from the growing need for more food. This advantage allows us to protect the environment while working to meet the needs of individual households.
Since 1961, human population levels have doubled in our world. At the same time, the amount of food that we have grown using our space has tripled. During this period of expansion, natural lands were converted into new cropland at a rate that was just 10% higher than what happened in the 1950s.
6. It hastened the natural evolutionary process for plant resistance.
Because of the techniques introduced by the Green Revolution, crops now have a higher level of natural disease resistance than ever before. We have learned how to create specific strains through genetic modification that allows us to grow items in specific regions without the need to apply heavy loads of chemicals to ensure a harvest is predictable. There is now more access to healthier foods, plentiful choices, and a year-round supply of many items thanks to the modern import-export market.
This advantage makes it possible for the average person to achieve their daily dietary quotas for vitamins and minerals while eating fewer food products. Since a 20% reduction in caloric intake is directly attributed to improved health and a longer lifespan, it is easier than ever before to help people from any part of the world to achieve their full potential.
7. It reduces the need for fallowing regularly.
When local precipitation levels fail to reach 20 inches for the year, then fallowing is a practice which allows the soil to retain more of its moisture. The traditional farming methods may require 1-2 seasons of zero agricultural activities in low-precipitation areas before another harvest becomes possible. Thanks to the advantages of the Green Revolution, we can generate annual yields without the requirement for the fields to stay fallow.
Fertilizer, chemical agents, adds phosphorus, and improved growing methods make it possible to have fields become consistently productive. That means farmers don’t need to be in a continual rotation, allowing them to generate more income since their property can remain in constant production.
8. It allows us to grow crops almost anywhere on our planet.
Thanks to the processes brought about by the Green Revolution, we can now farm in places where the air feels as hot as an oven. It is possible to grow food on icy landscapes where the sun doesn’t always like to shine. You can find plants growing at the depth of the sea, in the deepest canyons, or near some of the tallest summits and alpine regions where snow might be possible all year long.
Nemo’s Garden is an excellent example of this technology. This project, which was created by the Ocean Reef Group, provides 7 biospheres of various shapes and sizes. Each one attaches to the sea bottom and floats at different depths. Then condensed seawater drips onto the plants for the soil-based, substrate, and hydroponic gardens. Suba divers enter the dome to harvest.
9. It creates higher income levels and more jobs in the developing world.
Countries that have yet to go through their version of the Industrial Revolution might have 70% or more of their economy based on agricultural services. When the agricultural sector is that important, the policies and procedures from the Green Revolution make it possible for more job creation to occur. Farmers are growing more, which means they need more harvesters and processors to work their fields. Then more retailers are necessary to sell the items to the general market.
That process creates more money in the economy that people can use for discretionary spending, which often includes an improvement in household eating standards. By growing more food, we can provide more jobs, which means there is more money in the economy to produce even more food the next year.
10. It allows some croplands to produce multiple harvests in a single year.
When you travel to the upper states of the U.S. Midwest, you will find a lot of fields dedicated to the growing of natural grass. This product becomes hay that is fed to the livestock in the region, shipped to different states, or even sent into Mexico or Canada. During a good weather year, you could get 2-3 crops of hay from a single field.
Thanks to the methods of the Green Revolution, you can know get 4-5 good crops of hay during a strong year. This advantage applies to other food crops as well, such as tomatoes, beans, and squash. Even if the growing season starts a little later than normal, the practices introduced by Borlaug make it possible to double or triple the production of the average field or garden.
11. It reduces the levels of poverty in the countries where it is practiced.
Almost every country on our planet has incorporated some type of Green Revolution technology to help the economy in some way. Some nations, like Thailand, have seen a doubling in their critical crop sectors since the methods were introduced in the late 1960s. Not only does the increase in food make it possible to serve domestic hunger needs, but it can also increase the value of the export market each year to give the local economy more cash. That helps people get back onto their feet.
Since the implementation of the Green Revolution techniques in Thailand, the levels of poverty have been cut by more than 50%.
12. It supports other sectors of the economy.
When you don’t get enough to eat one day, then your energy levels can feel sluggish. If it happens for more than a week, then food might be the only thing that you start thinking about each day. Your productivity levels begin to decrease, and then your creativity levels start to tank. By supplying more people with enough food to meet their basic needs, it becomes possible for other industries to see surges in productivity.
The need to support more food or improved growing techniques can also create a forward push of innovation in other sectors. There may be a push to create more effective farming equipment, improve produce transport systems, or even provide better rest to the individual workers after a long day in the fields. All of these activities work to stimulate the economy as well.
List of the Disadvantages of the Green Revolution
1. It created a lack of biodiversity in the global cropland structures.
The spread of the agricultural practices of the Green Revolution may have helped to reduce hunger issues in developing countries, but it also created a significant deficit in agro-diversity and wild biodiversity around the globe. This disadvantage is present because the practices rely on a handful of high-yield crops for production standards, using only a very few, related strains of species and reducing the kind of planting of previously associated crops like the more nutritious grain legumes. This issue has been written about widely, and the reason for this disadvantage is because farmers participating in the Green Revolution can only use the varieties of rice or wheat that have been developed for this purpose.
That means there is greater susceptibility in the food chain to pathogens that we cannot control with chemicals, leading to the loss of valuable genetic traits that were bred into the traditional crops grown for thousands of years. It also means that tasty and nutritious varieties have been abandoned. There has been some effort to bring back some of these varieties, for example, in eastern Cambodia by introducing the System of Rice Intensification (see writings by Dr. Norman Uphoff, Professor at Cornell University).
2. It can be wiped out with one devastating disease.
You might not be familiar with Chatsworth House, but nearly every banana that you have ever eaten comes from a descendent of one plant grown on the grounds of this Derbyshire estate almost two centuries ago. 47% of the banana crop each year comes from this one variety. The reason why this happened is because of Panama disease in the 1950s wiping out the primary variety grown then, the Gros Michel, but we are now facing the same threat with this variety.
Because the Green Revolution uses a handful of selected crops due to their performance, farmers are growing them year-after-year to maintain their profit margins. That means one devastating disease that has resistance to a blight could wipe out the entire food supply for multiple crops in multiple regions.
3. It reduces the quality of the soil used for growing crops.
You will encounter varying opinions about how wild biodiversity is impacted by the results of the Green Revolution. What we do know is that the repetitive use of the same crops on the same land results in a depletion of soil nutrients. This outcome forces farmers, especially in the developing world, to look for new areas to keep up with their production quotas. It is a disadvantage that has led to continued deforestation because the current croplands cannot support the changing agricultural biome.
The Rio Treaty in 1992 acknowledges this disadvantage, assigning the loss of biodiversity to the expansion of agriculture. This agreement was signed by 189 countries.
4. It requires the use of non-sustainable agricultural methods.
Almost all of the high-intensity agricultural production that occurs using Green Revolution technologies and concepts requires non-renewable resources to generate results. People must use agricultural machinery to maintain their fields to achieve higher yields. There is a necessity for transport logistics within this industry as well. Pesticides and nitrates are mandatory components of the growing process.
Phosphorus tends to be the limiting factor in the developing world when trying to create high-yield harvests. This essential mineral is necessary to maintain soil health, and the mines which supply this nutrient are being rapidly depleted around the world. If we continue to lean on these practices to supply ourselves with food, the entire agricultural system could collapse before the end of the century.
5. It creates health impacts that we must consider with its practices.
When humans consume pesticides or receive exposure to the chemical agents while working in their fields, then it may increase the risk of cancer for some operators. Poor farming practices, which include over-using products and not using masks, kill up to 20,000 people each year because of direct exposure. There are also links to soft tissue sarcomas and malignant lymphoma to certain herbicides and pesticides.
Several cancers, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and certain breast and ovarian cancers, are linked to these practices as well.
6. It has advanced beyond our current distribution networks.
There is no denying the effectiveness of the growing processes of the Green Revolution. It is also notable that our transportation and distribution networks have been unable to keep up with the pace of production. We are wasting more food today than ever before in the history of humanity.
40% of the losses that happen in modern agriculture occur at the post-harvest level, which includes processing services. Another 40% occur at the customer level, and that includes the retail services that provide individual access to items. Over 1.3 billion pounds of food are lost in some way each year, and root crops are the worst offenders.
7. It encourages more resistance to pests, chemicals, and other hazards.
We have benefitted from the growing practices of the Green Revolution for over five decades, but that time may be drawing to a close. Plants are growing a resistance to the various herbicides that we use to control their growth. Pests are adapting to the chemical agents that try to keep them away from the foods that we grow. Nature always adapts if given enough time, which means it takes more chemicals and added agents to achieve the yields that are necessary for profitability.
There may come a day in the near future when the current set of pesticides and herbicides is no longer useful because the resistance levels have built up so effectively.
8. It can encourage seed sterility.
New technologies allow seed producers to prevent future crop growth by collecting seeds from mature plants. This patented process would require farmers to keep purchasing new seeds each year for their fields from the manufacturer, which is typically Monsanto. That means the increased profits from these practices would go to the big companies instead of the small farmers who need them – which is already what happens when you look at the farm subsidy structures in the United States.
9. It may not produce enough results to create a profitable outcome.
Farmers must look at the composition of their soil to determine if the practices encouraged by the Green Revolution are useful in their situation. If the 30-30-30 barrier is crossed, then the risk of negative returns increases exponentially. This threshold means the farmer would need to use 30 pounds each of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen for their farming needs. That investment would create a neutral, zero-profit return. Anything below it creates profit potential while losses occur on the other side.
10. It promotes monocropping.
The Green Revolution promotes the agricultural practice of growing the same crop on the same land, in perpetuity, instead of growing multiple crops on the same land and/or rotating crops on the land. Monocropping causes problems, such as pesticide seepage onto surrounding soil, soil nutrient depletion, and in some cases, deforestation. Monocropping has been reported to have largely eliminated the use of intercropped grain legumes in much of India, which has resulted in severely reducing the production of these high-protein grains, which are an important source of protein for the largely vegetarian Indian population.
11. It requires expensive investment which promotes inequality between farmers.
Farmers need to have sufficient irrigation systems to support the technology of the Green Revolution. The bio-engineered seeds for this type of farming need a heavy amount of water and chemical fertilizers to succeed in their increased crop yields. Farmers, especially rural ones, who could not afford the investments in irrigation and these chemical fertilizers suffered from deepened inequality as other farmers who could afford it because richer than the vast majority.
12. It depends on fertilizer subsidies.
In the key part of the world where the Green Revolution became most successful, the Punjab of India and Pakistan, the farming system depends heavily on fertilizer subsidies. The billions of dollars spent by the national governments on fertilizer subsidies could have been used to improve social infrastructure for the people, but wasn’t. Sadly, some report that the heavy use of fertilizers in the soils of the Punjab have resulted in soil and that salinized and largely devoid of organic matter, with some large areas of the Punjab becoming wastelands or near-wastelands.
13. It has failed on our earth’s second-largest continent: Africa.
The Green Revolution has not worked in Africa, even after three major attempts, which include one by Borlaug and the current attempt by the Gates Foundation through AGRA. Where it is having signs of success in Africa, it is reportedly due to unsustainably high levels of government subsidies, such as in Zambia, in amounts that could have resulted in significant long-lasting social infrastructure for its people. Without the subsidies, farmers would have to buy the synthetic fertilizers at a price that would make their farming unprofitable. In addition, huge areas of soil in Africa are naturally somewhat acidic, and need to be treated with lime to counteract the effect of that acidification. Smaller farmers likely cannot afford this lime, and so their lands would be extremely unproductive without lime treatment.
Verdict on the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Green Revolution
Borlaug dismisses the critics who point out the disadvantages of his work, but he does offer a word of caution about the expectations that people should have. “There are no miracles in agricultural production” he said, “nor is there such a thing as a variety of wheat, rice, or maize that can serve as an elixir to cure all ills of a stagnant, traditional agriculture.”
The amount of food that we have today is due to the techniques and crop variety introduced during the Green Revolution. There is also a reason why it the Third Agricultural Revolution: we’ve had to change our farming practices twice before. We’ll likely need to do it again in the future, especially with the heavy toll this methodology takes and the significant investment.
As for now, the advantages and disadvantages of the Green Revolution boil down to moderation. We must continue to look for new methods of farming, reduce the need for chemical agents, and modernize our value chains so that continued deforestation is not necessary for the growing process.
Keith Miller has over 25 years experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entreprenuer, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.