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Political Aspects of the Green Revolution

The University of Minnesota College of Agriculture, Food and Envvironmental Sciences

Over and over again, bureaucrats and government scientists warned Borlaug that peasant farmers would never accept the new technology, that they weren't ready for the change. Indeed, during his early years in Mexico Borlaug met farmers who regarded fertilizer as poison and metal plows as robbers of the earth's heat. But their opinions shifted rapidly once they saw a thriving crop at the experiment station. "Never underestimate the little farmer's capacity to change," Borlaug says.

Never, he might have added, underestimate bureaucracy's ability to resist change.

"The best plant variety is only the catalyst," Borlaug says. "It has the potential, but you've got to know how to plant it, correct the soil infertility, and cut down competition from pests and disease. Once you've put together the jigsaw of production, you've got to further link it to economic policy that permits the little farmer to apply the technology."

Seed, pesticides, and fertilizer had to be made available. Farmers had to receive credit until harvest. Even before the planting season started, the government had to guarantee a fair price for the grain. A breakdown in any of these support systems could doom the agricultural revolution.

In Pakistan, Borlaug quickly ran into a regulation limiting the use of fertilizer. The new wheat was starving for lack of nutrients. He won that battle with bureaucracy. Then, at harvest, he was summoned back to Pakistan to explain why the green revolution was failing. After touring the countryside he determined yields were as high as expected. The problem was that the government had dropped its guaranteed price for wheat by 25 percent. Speculators were hoarding the crop.

"The government is to blame!" Borlaug reported loudly and clearly to the president of Pakistan. No doubt unused to such clarity, the president began by replying in equally loud terms. But the price guarantee was restored, and harvest progressed at predicted levels.

"You have to pick the right time to turn from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde," says Borlaug, explaining his philosophy of diplomacy. "Keep a low profile until you're confident you have the capacity to change yields. Then go to the political leaders and tell them, 'The grass roots are afire down here. They've seen the crops in the experiment fields. Please permit them to apply this technology. Get out of their way or it will be a political disaster for your party.'

"Say this too soon and you'll probably get thrown out of the country. You've got to live in a country long enough to establish your credibility and sincerity."

Critics of the green revolution have emphasized its inequalities. Social systems in may developing countries allow richer farmers to benefit more from the new technology than poorer farmers, these critics say. Some even suggest that traditional farming systems - where everybody was more or less equally miserable - were morally superior.

Then there's the problem of fairly distributing the bounty of the green revolution. Food production must be coupled with food distribution. "Frustrating!" is Borlaug's word for the latter. "India became self-sufficient in grain in 1978," he says, "but there's still a distribution problem. There are still hungry people. That's something I hope can be corrected."

No matter how good the science, the green revolution depends on people. Human failings are behind problems like distributing excess food.

"They say the social systems aren't ready," Borlaug says with intensity, all affability disappearing from his manner. "I ask, how long do we wait?

"Wheat isn't political. It doesn't know that it's supposed to be producing more for poor farmers than for rich farmers. When you produce something that's good for the small farmer, the big farmer can use it too. Anybody with any common sense knows this," he says, rapping the table. "There's too much of this sophistication. These people have never lived with misery. There's nothing more depressing to me than over-sophisticated people who sit in air-conditioned offices, drive their big gas-guzzling cars, talk about depleting world resources, and pontificate about helping the poor. That doesn't go well with me. They live in a false world. And that world will crumble unless something is done to change the living standards of the common people.

"Inequities have been present since the day mankind was kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I've battled with these things and I've seen some surprising changes. Of the people who changed in India, the vast majority are farmers on 7 to 12 acres. I'll be the first to admit that one of my biggest challenges was to try to change production in Argentina, where there's still a system of huge landowners. But for me to try to change whole political systemsŠhell, that's ridiculous.

"If you do nothing, there's no risk and there's no criticism. I'm not interested in mediocrity; there's too damn much of it in the world. People who have had the education and the opportunities have to go out there and get things moving. I'm not interested in the philosophy of this change. I'm damn interested in making the change, seeing it happen."

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