Green Revolution, 2.0

It transformed India to self-reliance from a ship-tomouth existence. But the Green Revolution was not an unmixed blessing. Over the decades which followed, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction, leading to a grave farming crisis in the country.

Green Revolution, 2.0

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Under British rule, India switched from being a net exporter to being a net food importer in 1919. The country’s food problems were perhaps most adequately exemplified by the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 that had a death toll of ‘about 1.5 million’. The pathetic situation made the government conscious of growing more food within the country through the Grow More Food (GMF) campaign which was launched in the year 1943-44.

Although the British initiated the programme, it was executed in a planned manner from 1947- 48, by free India, despite disturbances such as partition and challenges such as setting up new Central and state governments. A review of the GMF campaigns reveals its poor performance, most importantly, only a small fraction of big farmers benefited from the campaign. Hence, it lost importance and was replaced by the Community Development (CD) programme for giving special emphasis on diverse rural works including minor irrigation and land reclamation.

Agriculture as such was not given due importance in the principal objectives of the 2nd Five-year Plan (1956-1961). In 1961, the population touched 439.2 million at the growth rate of 1.96 per cent, while foodgrain production increased only to about 82 Million tonnes (Mt). Famine and droughts in 1964-65 and 1965-66, military conflicts in 1947, 1962 and 1965, and increasing population resulted in dependence on food aid from the US under Public Law (PL)- 480. But despite the quantities of foodgrain received under the aid programme, India fell short of the targeted requirement of 90 Mt by 20 per cent.


At one point, the country reached a stage where there were stocks for only two weeks and nothing else in the pipeline. The then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri called upon all Indians to skip one meal each Monday. To cope with the situation, the Government of India invited the Ford Foundation for appropriate suggestions on how to improve agriculture. Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug was invited to India by the Indian agricultural scientist Dr M S Swaminathan, the then adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture. Borlaug was known worldwide as the ‘Father of Green Revolution’ for his epic work in developing semi-dwarf, high-yield, diseaseresistant wheat varieties (HYVs).

This earned him the Nobel Prize. However, as minister of Food and Agriculture, amidst tough opposition and hue and cry from capitalists and communists, Chidambaram Subramaniam (popularly called CS) along with M S Swaminathan and civil servant B. Sivaraman introduced HYV seeds and more intensive application of fertilizers which paved the way for ushering in the Green Revolution in India. Indeed, the Green Revolution is a unique event in the agricultural history of independent India.

It transformed India to self-reliance from a ship-tomouth existence. But the Green Revolution was not an unmixed blessing. Over the decades which followed, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction, leading to a grave farming crisis in the country. We boast of selfsufficiency of food grain production. But it has been achieved through the pursuit of exploitative agricultural practices which laid emphasis on the production of two water intensive crops ~ rice and wheat ~ by wresting areas from coarse cereals. Indeed, the Green Revolution is simply a wheat-rice revolution.

Today, large sections of farmers have been driven to penury. Farming has now become a risky business. For decades, aquifers have been drilled everywhere at progressively greater depths, lowering water tables and degrading water quality. In the words of Vandana Shiva, it has led to the “ecological breakdown in nature and political breakdown in society [as] consequences of a policy based on the tearing apart of both nature and society.” The strong argument for the Green Revolution in India is that it solved the problem of starvation. But it is not always true.

Norman Borlaug summed up in a speech given thirty years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (1970) for his aforementioned monumental work that “… increased food production, while necessary, is not sufficient alone to achieve food security. Huge stocks of grain have accumulated in India, while tens of million need more food but do not have the purchasing power to buy food.” Likewise, another Nobel Laureate (1998) Amartya Sen also pointed out that famines in India including the one in 1943 were not due to the lack of availability of food, but rather the inability of people to access it.

We are today food self-sufficient but the 2023 Global Hunger Index gives India a rank of 111 out of 125 countries. This indicates a hunger severity level of ‘serious’ for the country. The Indian population is also at a higher risk of nutritional insecurity. Estimates show that India is home to one-third of the 2 billion global population suffering from micronutrient deficiency (hidden hunger). In 161 districts, more than 40 per cent children under five years of age suffer from stunting. While there could be several reasons for such high prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in India, scientists assert that the diminishing food value in the staple food grains (Rice and Wheat) could be a sufficiently significant contributor to the problem. Rice and wheat consumed by Indians today seem to have low nutritive value. Those foodgrains are not only less nutritious, but also harmful to health according to a report titled ‘Silent Famine’ published in the Down To Earth (DTE, 16-31 January 2024) issue published by a Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). As per the report, as many as 1,500 different high yielding cultivars of rice and wheat have been released after the Green Revolution was introduced in 1967 in the country.

Between 2018 and 2020, scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), after discussion with breeders of different organizations in the country, selected 16 cultivars for rice and 18 cultivars for wheat for evaluation of their nutrient profiles. Those selected cultivars are so popular that they meet over 50 per cent of daily energy requirements of people of the country.

After evaluating their nutrient profile, scientists opined that they have lost up to 45 per cent of their food value during the last five decades. In the last five decades, the concentration of essential nutrients like zinc and iron has decreased by 33 per cent and 27 per cent in rice, and by 30 per cent and 19 per cent in wheat respectively. Zinc is crucial for immunity, reproductive and neurological development, while iron is key for hemoglobin formation. It is also apprehended that if the devaluation continues at this rate, the grains will be impoverished for human consumption by 2040. The matter of great concern is that concentration of arsenic, a toxic element, in rice has increased by 1,493 percent. In other words, rice and wheat that we consume are not only less nutritious, but also harmful to health. Why has there been such a decline in zinc and iron in high yielding varieties of rice and wheat? There can be two answers: poor availability of nutrients in the soil and stubbornness of cultivars to the external supply of zinc and iron for enhancing grain density.

Experiments showed that the decrease in grain mineral densities, specially of zinc and iron, in modern breeds owes much to the disruption of the plants’ inherent intricate regularity mechanisms in sequestering zinc and iron, despite their abundance in soils. In reality, to cope with the shortage of foodgrains in the country, plant geneticists have been so concerned with increasing quantities of foodgrains that they no longer do the fundamental job of delivering nutrition from soil to the grains. Dwarf genes isolated from high-yielding varieties were inserted to ensure a higher distribution of photosynthates (products of photosynthesis that are usually simple sugar) into the grains, thereby increasing the grain size and improving yield.

Particularly after the 1980s, the main focus of plant breeders was on developing varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and tolerant to stresses like salinity, moisture and drought. Thus we gained quantity but lost quality. In 2015, researchers in Iran also found that during 70 years of introduction of high-yielding varieties, yields substantially increased, while the concentrations of protein, zinc and iron have shown a drastic decline. The time has come to address the blunders we committed.

To solve open hunger, we have invited hidden hunger. With a view to improve the nutritional profile of food grains, scientists of ICAR and Agricultural Universities across the country have undertaken germplasm exploration across the country to find appropriate donor varieties that are high in nutritional content under a special project on biofortification. Under the project, donor varieties are crossed with the already released or forthcoming high yielding varieties so that yields are not compromised.

So far, institutes under ICAR have developed as many as 150 biofortified varieties of different kinds of foodgrains. We should not forget the sane advice of Albert Einstein:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)