The Green Revolution in Retrospect

A new paper authored by Prabhu Pingali of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, details the achievements and limitations of the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution was a product of investment in and diffusion of agricultural research and its largest success was that cereal crop production outpaced population growth, with only a small increase in land area cultivated. As examples, between 1960 and 2000 wheat yields in developing countries increased 208% while between 1960 and 1990 food supply in developing countries grew 12-13%.

Building on the work of developed countries to improve staple crops, the Green Revolution, largely through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, took high yielding varieties and adapted them to thrive in the conditions of developing countries. Indeed it is estimated that without the efforts of the CGIAR and national programmes world food and feed prices would have been 35-65% higher and average calorie availability would have declined by 11-13%. While these successes sparked further investment in agricultural research and its delivery from both public and private institutions, the post Green Revolution period saw investment in agriculture decline.

As the author points out investment in agricultural innovation is equally important now, particularly if we are to ‘sustain productivity gains, enhance smallholder competitiveness and adapt to climate change’. Evidence shows the returns to agricultural research are as high now as they were during the Green Revolution and in a recent meta-analysis have been estimated at a median annual rate of return of 40-60%.

The Green Revolution, however, was not without its shortcomings. As One Billion Hungry states, we need a new Revolution that addresses the limitations of the first, a Revolution in which there is renewed international interest due to the recent food price spikes.

The major limitations of the Green Revolution are detailed in Chapter 3 but this paper goes further, for example, bringing to light evidence that the technologies developed during the Green Revolution were largely designed for and distributed to men, thereby failing to meet the needs of women farmers. The unintended environmental impacts, for example on soil degradation and pollution, have contributed to a slowdown in yield growth seen since the mid-1980s.

Also the Green Revolution largely passed Africa by and the author notes this was for two main reasons. Firstly, population densities in Africa were low at the time and there was little need to increase yields from the same area of land. Secondly, the Green Revolution focused mainly on staple crops, rice, wheat and maize, with little focus on the diversity of cropping systems in use in Africa. Evidence of progress, for example the CGIAR have invested an estimated $2.9 million in maize in Africa, is taken by the author as evidence that the Doubly Green Revolution is beginning to take place. As he states, “the challenge for agriculture now is to integrate smallholders into value chains, maintain their competitiveness and close the urban-rural gap.”


  1. Dr John Andrew Siame says:

    The Green revolution also contributed to social differentiation, as only resource endowed households could effectively participate and derive benefits from the programme.


  1. […] after the Green Revolution, food shortages, high prices, poverty and hunger continue. It is estimated that there are presently […]

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