When Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, died last Monday at the age of 95, I could not help but wonder if special issues of the Nation Magazine and the Monthly Review, the authoritative voices of American liberalism and radicalism respectively, might have caused the old buzzard to croak. The September 21 issue of the Nation was titled “Food for All” and took on the myths of the Green Revolution, just as does the July-August issue of Monthly Review. The MR has the added distinction of being co-edited by Fred Magdoff, Harry’s son, who is one of the leading Marxist experts on sustainable agriculture.
Borlaug was very clear about his political goals, as were his acolytes in the bourgeois press. Take, for example, the moniker Green Revolution. The term was a conscious alternative to the Red Revolutions that were driven by a desire for Bread in the Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese countryside. The imperialists thought they had discovered a philosopher’s stone in Borlaug’s wheat and rice hybrids. Now every poor person could enjoy three square meals a day and forsake the need to take up arms.
The bourgeoisie rewarded Borlaug with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, a choice that recognized the obvious connection between an adequate diet and social peace. Given the turmoil of the Vietnam War, Borlaug’s research seemed like an exit ramp from the colonial revolution that was now in full bore across the world. Although the Oct. 22nd New York Times concurred with majority opinion that Borlaug was some kind of saint, it did worry a bit. “Through increased productivity, the green revolution may mean less employment in Asia—and scores of millions are already living in tragic misery. So far there has been no outcry to stop the insistence on birth control as a means of dealing with overpopulation.”
Indeed, Borlaug had come to the neo-Malthusian conclusion that birth control was a necessary handmaiden to his agricultural breakthroughs. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he warned: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” This position has been embraced by Lester Brown, a founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, both nominally “environmentalist” organizations. This is just a sign of how difficult it is to lump all environmentalists together without a class analysis. The approach of radical environmentalists like Fred Magdoff has been to both attack the intellectual and scientific foundations of the Green Revolution as well as defend the right of poor people not to have birth control rammed down their throat. It is just a reminder that you cannot figure out the environmental movement without an ideological road map.
Borlaug got started in the 1940s under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, which despite its philanthropic pretensions, was worried about threats to its holdings both in Mexico and in the rest of Latin America. It should be mentioned that the Rockefellers also provided the initial funding for Lester Brown’s Worldwatch Institute. The Rockefellers have consistently been in favor of “preserving” natural resources as well as preventing poor people from having too many babies.
Today, Bill Gates has taken up the same mission as the Rockefellers, hoping to deploy Borlaug’s technologies to Africa—a continent held hostage to missionary incursions of one sort or another going back to the Victorian epoch. Apparently, he is just as sold on population reduction as Borlaug, Brown and the Rockefellers based on this report from the London Times on May 24th of this year:
SOME of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly to consider how their wealth could be used to slow the growth of the world’s population and speed up improvements in health and education.
The philanthropists who attended a summit convened on the initiative of Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, discussed joining forces to overcome political and religious obstacles to change.
Described as the Good Club by one insider it included David Rockefeller Jr, the patriarch of America’s wealthiest dynasty, Warren Buffett and George Soros, the financiers, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and the media moguls Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey.
These members, along with Gates, have given away more than £45 billion since 1996 to causes ranging from health programmes in developing countries to ghetto schools nearer to home.
They gathered at the home of Sir Paul Nurse, a British Nobel prize biochemist and president of the private Rockefeller University, in Manhattan on May 5. The informal afternoon session was so discreet that some of the billionaires’ aides were told they were at “security briefings”.
Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, said the summit was unprecedented. “We only learnt about it afterwards, by accident. Normally these people are happy to talk good causes, but this is different – maybe because they don’t want to be seen as a global cabal,” he said.
George Soros’s participation in this global cabal (sorry, that’s the way I see it) makes perfect sense because he can give good advice to Gates about how to bribe academics in the Third World to become spokesmen for this sordid venture. With his billions, Soros was able to wine and dine Eastern European dissidents and convert them to the dubious wisdom of Karl Popper’s Open Society, a socio-economic framework most amenable to Soros’s forced penetration of closed markets.
In an earlier generation, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations spent millions on putting Third World agronomists in training programs at American universities where they would become converts to the Green Revolution. They certainly understood that becoming converts for corporate farming was almost a guarantee for continued success in an academic world that was awash in money from the Monsantos of the world.
In an article titled “The United States Intervention in Third World Policies” that appeared in the April 1986 Social Scientist, Jagannath Pathy drew attention to the massive seduction of academics by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. This involved sending our “experts” overseas to help the benighted peasants as well as recruiting theirs for special training at places like Cornell and MIT.
Indo-U.S. co-operation in agricultural research dates back to the efforts of the U.S. government to help India increase food production. In 1953, F.W. Parker of the Technical Co-operative Mission arranged a number of studies determining the fertility status of soils. This laid the basis for the establishment of a chain of soil testing laboratories aided by USAID which subsequently paved the way for the introduction of chemical fertilisers in India. In 1955, Rockefeller Foundation and five U.S. land grant universities assisted Indian agricultural universities and research institutions and suggested a curricula appropriate to reorienting scholars to meet the challenge of introducing HYVs of maize, sorghum and millets. The U.S. gave $ 35 million for laboratory equipment and libraries. Every year 35 fellowships were instituted for training Indian students at U.S. institutions. Rockefellers provided $ 21.3 million up to 1973 and arranged for several visiting professors to visit India. It also provided travel grants for Indian government officials and university administrators to go to the U.S. In 1982, Ralph W. Cummings, the Director of Rockefeller Foundation’s Indian agricultural research programme laid down guidelines for the establishment and development of agricultural universities. These guidelines focussed on higher agricultural productivity through diffusion of fertiliser responsive varieties. The narrow genetic base of HYVs, disease and pest suspectibility of some of the parent varieties and the existence of vast monoculture soon exposed the crops to attacks by pests and diseases. As noted earlier, in the mid-1960s, USAID provided large loans to import much needed fertilisers. The U.S. and World Bank put pressure on the Indian government to encourage MNCs investment in local fertiliser production. Such a strategy could not have been pursued smoothly without the support of Indian agricultural scientists trained in the service of American interests (Abrol, 1983).
From 1952-72, the Ford Foundation spent $ 16 million providing generous grants to persons, institutions and government on a wide variety of nation building activities. It established and/or funded the Institute of Economic Growth, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, National Council of Applied Economic Research, Indian Statistical Institute and Institutes of Management at Calcutta and Ahmedabad. The Foundation trained about 50,000 extension workers. The National Institute of Community Development was established with the help of USAID and Michigan State University. The whole pattern of education and research was thus modelled on the philosophy and value system of the donor country. U.S. experts provided advice on how to organise and develop science and technology, decided the priorities of research, recommended developmental models. Performance of major research and educational institutes like UGC. CSIR, ICAR, etc. is reviewed by experts from the U.S. and Western Europe. This delinking of science and technology from the concrete socio-political contexts has proved to be stultifying.
The Nation Magazine was particularly insightful in identifying Bill Gates’s affinity for genetically modified crops, the leading edge today of the Green Revolution. Just as Monsanto’s seeds are intellectual property, so are Microsoft products. And both are bad for you. In a superb dissection of the Gates Foundation’s ambitions in Africa, authors Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez and Annie Shattuck draw the parallels between GM and software patents:
The preference for private sector contributions to agriculture shapes the Gates Foundation’s funding priorities. In a number of grants, for instance, one corporation appears repeatedly–Monsanto. To some extent, this simply reflects Monsanto’s domination of industrial agricultural research. There are, however, notable synergies between Gates and Monsanto: both are corporate titans that have made millions through technology, in particular through the aggressive defense of proprietary intellectual property. Both organizations are suffused by a culture of expertise, and there’s some overlap between them. Robert Horsch, a former senior vice president at Monsanto, is, for instance, now interim director of Gates’s agricultural development program and head of the science and technology team. Travis English and Paige Miller, researchers with the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, have uncovered some striking trends in Gates Foundation funding. By following the money, English told us that “AGRA used funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write twenty-three grants for projects in Kenya. Twelve of those recipients are involved in research in genetically modified agriculture, development or advocacy. About 79 percent of funding in Kenya involves biotech in one way or another.” And, English says, “so far, we have found over $100 million in grants to organizations connected to Monsanto.”
This isn’t surprising in light of the fact that Monsanto and Gates both embrace a model of agriculture that sees farmers suffering a deficit of knowledge–in which seeds, like little tiny beads of software, can be programmed to transmit that knowledge for commercial purposes. This assumes that Green Revolution technologies–including those that substitute for farmers’ knowledge–are not only desirable but neutral. Knowledge is never neutral, however: it inevitably carries and influences relations of power.
Besides the special issues of the Nation and Monthly Review, I can also strongly recommend the Food First website (http://www.foodfirst.org), which has been one of the most consistent and powerful critics of agribusiness going back to the mid 1970s. Francis Moore Lappé launched the think-tank not long after her “Diet for a Small Planet” was published, a book that serves as effective anti-venom for Borlaug’s Green Revolution. Although the entire website consists of information that debunks the claims of people like Borlaug, there is one in particular that is must-reading if you are trying to understand the issues. I am speaking of Peter Rosset’s article “Lessons from the Green Revolution“ published in April 2000. (It may be of some interest that Peter is the son of Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, and has obviously inherited his willingness to take on the powers that be.)
Rosset is particularly cogent on the reliance of Green Revolution farming on petrochemicals, a dependency that obviously is fraught with peril in a period of rising prices (whether a product of “peak oil” or speculation is pretty much besides the point.) He points out:
With the Green Revolution, farming becomes petro-dependent. Some of the more recently developed seeds may produce higher yields even without manufactured inputs, but the best results require the right amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and water. So as the new seeds spread, petrochemicals become part of farming. In India, adoption of the new seeds has been accompanied by a sixfold rise in fertilizer use per acre. Yet the quantity of agricultural production per ton of fertilizer used in India dropped by two-thirds during the Green Revolution years. In fact, over the past thirty years the annual growth of fertilizer use on Asian rice has been from three to forty times faster than the growth of rice yields.
Because farming methods that depend heavily on chemical fertilizers do not maintain the soil’s natural fertility and because pesticides generate resistant pests, farmers need ever more fertilizers and pesticides just to achieve the same results. At the same time, those who profit from the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides fear labor organizing and use their new wealth to buy tractors and other machines, even though they are not required by the new seeds. This incremental shift leads to the industrialization of farming.
Once on the path of industrial agriculture, farming costs more. It can be more profitable, of course, but only if the prices farmers get for their crops stay ahead of the costs of petrochemicals and machinery. Green Revolution proponents claim increases in net incomes from farms of all sizes once farmers adopt the more responsive seeds. But recent studies also show another trend: outlays for fertilizers and pesticides may be going up faster than yields, suggesting that Green Revolution farmers are now facing what U.S. farmers have experienced for decades-a cost-price squeeze.
In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yield increased 13 percent during the 1980s, but came at the cost of a 21 percent increase in fertilizer use. In the Central Plains, yields went up only 6.5 percent, while fertilizer use rose 24 percent and pesticides jumped by 53 percent. In West Java, a 23 percent yield increase was virtually canceled by 65 and 69 percent increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.
Also of interest is Harry Cleaver’s “The Contradictions of the Green Revolution“, which despite my differences with his autonomist brand of Marxism I can recommend as one of the more penetrating critiques of Borlaug’s techniques that is rooted in political economy. As such it is a good complement to Rosset’s article that is much more focused on the ecological dimensions. For Cleaver, the key to understanding the impact of Borlaug’s “revolution” is how it has transformed class relations as well as the mode of production. He writes:
But if increased food production has been the principal thrust of the new strategy it has not been the only one. Closely tied to the effort to increase output has been the transformation of agrarian social and economic relations by integrating once isolated areas or farmers into the capitalist market system. This “modernization” of the countryside, which has been an important part of so-called nation-building throughout the postwar period, has been facilitated by the dependency of the new technology on manufactured inputs. The peasant who adopts the new seeds must buy the necessary complementary inputs on the market. In order to buy these inputs he must sell part of his crop for cash. Thus the international team widens the proportion of peasant producers tied into the national (and sometimes international) market as it succeeds in pushing the new technology into the hands of subsistence farmers. Obviously in the case of commercial producers, adoption only reinforces existing ties to the market.
These development experts, however, apparently feel that widening the market by pushing new inputs is not always enough. Along with their recent admiration for the “progressive” peasant who jumps at any opportunity to grow more, they have been making an effort to teach personal gain and consumerism. In his widely read handbook, Getting Agriculture Moving, ADC president Arthur T. Mosher insists on the theme of teaching peasants to want more for themselves, to abandon collective habits, and to get on with the “business” of farming. Mosher goes so far as to advocate extension educational programs for women and youth clubs to create more demand for store-bought goods. The “affection of husbands and fathers for their families” will make them responsive to these desires and drive them to work harder.
A new study by another elite group, Resources for the Future (RFF), done for the World Bank on agricultural development in the Mekong Basin, also recommends substantial efforts to change the rural social structure and personal attitudes of peasants in such a way that new capitalist institutions can function more efficiently. The RFF, like others before it, suggests massive doses of international capital and more Western social scientists to help bring about the necessary changes. These tactics of the ADC and RFF are more than efforts to bring development to rural areas. They are attempts to replace traditional social systems by capitalism, complete with all its business-based social relations.
For those whose reading of Karl Marx does not extend much beyond the Communist Manifesto, a question might pop into their head. What’s so bad about replacing “traditional systems by capitalism”? After all, doesn’t Karl Marx write:
The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
I mean, who wants to be a village idiot or a barbarian? Wouldn’t it be better to effect a bourgeois revolution in the countryside and release agrarian labor into the cities for industrial jobs? Furthermore, if the Green Revolution is more productive than traditional agriculture, at least measured in terms of sheer output, who would want to stand in its way? Indeed, in Walden Bello and Mara Baviera’s article in the Monthly Review special issue, they call attention to Eric Hobsbawm’s observation in The Age of Extremes that “the death of the peasantry” was “the most dramatic and far-reaching social change of the second half of [the twentieth] century,” one that cut “us off forever from the world of the past.”
Their reply to Hobsbawm should remind us that facile comparisons between the industrial revolution and agriculture are unwarranted. If the introduction of more and more machinery is the key to the productivity of labor and hence the creation of conditions amenable to a socialist society, agriculture is a partial exception to this rule as Bello and Baviera point out:
The food price crisis, according to proponents of peasant and smallholder agriculture, is not due to the failure of peasant agriculture but to that of corporate agriculture. They say that, despite the claims of its representatives that corporate agriculture is best at feeding the world, the creation of global production chains and global supermarkets, driven by the search for monopoly profits, has been accompanied by greater hunger, worse food, and greater agriculture-related environmental destabilization all around than at any other time in history.
Moreover, they assert that the superiority in terms of production of industrial capitalist agriculture is not sustained empirically. Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls, for instance, point out, that although the conventional wisdom is that small farms are backward and unproductive, in fact, “research shows that small farms are much more productive than large farms if total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop. Small integrated farming systems that produce grains, fruits, vegetables, fodder, and animal products outproduce yield per unit of single crops such as corn (monocultures) on large-scale farms.”
When one factors in the ecological destabilization that has accompanied the generalization of capitalist industrial agriculture, the balance of costs and benefits lurches sharply towards the negative. For instance, in the United States, notes Daniel Imhoff,
the average food item journeys some 1300 miles before becoming part of a meal. Fruits and vegetables are refrigerated, waxed, colored, irradiated, fumigated, packaged, and shipped. None of these processes enhances food quality but merely enables distribution over great distances and helps increase shelf life.
Industrial agriculture has created the absurd situation whereby “between production, processing, distribution, and preparation, 10 calories of energy are required to create just one calorie of food energy.” Conversely, it is the ability to combine productivity and ecological sustainability that constitutes a key dimension of superiority of peasant or small-scale agriculture over industrial agriculture.
Contrary to assertions that peasant and small-farm agriculture is hostile to technological innovation, partisans of small-scale or peasant-based farming assert that technology is “path dependent,” that is, its development is conditioned by the mode of production in which it is embedded, so that technological innovation under peasant and small-scale farming would take different paths than innovation under capitalist industrial agriculture.
But partisans of the peasantry have not only engaged in a defense of the peasant or smallholder agriculture. Vía Campesina and its allies have actually formulated an alternative to industrial capitalist agriculture, and one that looks to the future rather than to the past. This is the paradigm of food sovereignty, the key propositions of which are discussed elsewhere in this collection.
Although there is not much point speculating on what a future world socialist system would look like, there is little doubt that the technologies introduced by Borlaug would begin to recede into the background, or at least be used in a way that is not destructive to the environment and to labor.
Ironically, despite Marx’s comments about the idiocy of rural life, he eventually came to an understanding that the city and countryside would have to be re-integrated in order to resolve the environmental crisis of his day, namely the decline of soil fertility. To put it succinctly, the byproducts of human and animal excretion would replenish the soil rather go to waste as it did in the streets of London in the 19th century. This “metabolic rift” was in fact apparent to Marx even when he was writing the CM with its seeming hostility to peasant life. Marx wrote a set of demands to be raised by Communists that included: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”
This demand reflected his awareness that the current arrangements would not suffice. In volume three of Capital, he elaborated on the problems of capitalist farming that would only increase in the 20th century despite all the technical fixes recommended by Borlaug and company:
All criticism of small-scale landownership is ultimately reducible to criticism of private property as a barrier and obstacle to agriculture. So too is all counter-criticism of large landed property. Secondary political considerations are of course left aside here in both cases. It is simply that this barrier and obstacle which all private property in land places to agricultural production and the rational treatment, maintenance and improvement of the land itself, develops in various forms, and in quarreling over these specific forms of the evil its ultimate root is forgotten.
Small-scale landownership presupposes that the overwhelming majority of the population is agricultural and that isolated labour predominates over social; wealth and the development of reproduction, therefore, both in its material and intellectual aspects, is ruled out under these circumstances, and with this also the conditions for a rational agriculture. On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an every growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.
It should of course be emphasized that Marx’s reference to small-scale landownership is linked to the conditions that obtained in the Europe of his day. It was nothing like the case made by Walden Bello, which would have to be part of a general program of social emancipation. It might look much more like the rural cooperatives that Lenin hailed toward the end of his life that would have been a far cry not only from the monstrous schemas promoted by Borlaug but ironically emulated by Stalin through his forced collectivizations that reduced agricultural labor to a cog in a machine. Lenin wrote:
Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch—to reorganize our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganize it. Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organize the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organized in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organization of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.
The failure of the USSR to adopt such an approach had tragic consequences as forced collectivization created the backlash that would lead to Stalin’s merciless repression of the kulaks and a weakening of the Soviet infrastructure. Fortunately, a new approach to socialism being adopted in Cuba is more in line with Lenin’s hopes in 1923, as well as consistent with the concerns Marx had about the metabolic rift:
Cuba has developed one of the most efficient organic agriculture systems in the world, and organic farmers from other countries are visiting the island to learn the methods.
Due to the U.S. embargo, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was unable to import chemicals or modern farming machines to uphold a high-tech corporate farming culture. Cuba needed to find another way to feed its people. The lost buying power for agricultural imports led to a general diversification within farming on the island. Organic agriculture has become key to feeding the nation’s growing urban populations.
Cuba’s new revolution is founded upon the development of an organic agricultural system. Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy states that this is “the largest conversion from conventional agriculture to organic or semi-organic farming that the world has ever known.”
Not only has organic farming been prosperous, but the migration of small farms and gardens into densely populated urban areas has also played a crucial role in feeding citizens. State food rations were not enough for Cuban families, so farms began to spring up all over the country. Havana, home to nearly 20 percent of Cuba’s population, is now also home to more than 8,000 officially recognized gardens, which are in turn cultivated by more than 30,000 people and cover nearly 30 percent of the available land. The growing number of gardens might seem to bring up the problem of space and price of land. However, “the local governments allocate land, which is handed over at no cost as long as it is used for cultivation,” says S. Chaplowe in the Newsletter of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association.
The removal of the “chemical crutch” has been the most important factor to come out of the Soviet collapse, trade embargo, and subsequent organic revolution. Though Cuba is organic by default because it has no means of acquiring pesticides and herbicides, the quality and quantity of crop yields have increased. This increase is occurring at a lower cost and with fewer health and environmental side effects than ever. There are 173 established ‘vermicompost’ centers across Cuba, which produce 93,000 tons of natural compost a year. The agricultural abundance that Cuba is beginning to experience is disproving the myth that organic farming on a grand scale is inefficient or impractical.