The Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (2015)

Green Revolution

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), Norman Borlaug (1914–2009)


The English demographer Thomas Malthus projected that the human population was increasing at a rate far greater than the production of food supplies and that, if not brought under control, mass starvation and poverty was inevitable. Happily, Malthus’s predictions did not materialize in most industrialized countries. By the middle of the twentieth century, thanks to the use of modern plant breeding, improved agronomy, and the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, there were food surpluses. By contrast, Mexico, and developing countries in Asia and Africa, with their rapidly growing populations, experienced pervasive hunger and malnutrition.

In the early 1940s, the American agronomist Norman Borlaug, supported by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, initiated research to increase the production of Mexican wheat. By 1945, he had developed varieties that were high yield and disease resistant, and he doubled the wheat-growing season. By the 1960s, Mexico was exporting one-half its wheat production. In the mid-1960s, the Indian subcontinent was immersed in war and was experiencing famine and starvation in an uncontrolled population increase. Borlaug transferred his technologically advanced approaches of modern irrigation, pesticides, high-yield crop varieties, and, perhaps most important, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, to the cultivation of rice crops in India and Pakistan—once again, with remarkable success. Crop yields were increased and costs were reduced.

As might be predicted, not all of Borlaug’s approaches were universally lauded. The extensive use of chemical pesticides produced human toxicity and increased cancer risks in animals. The emphasis on high-yield crop varieties decreased or eliminated the cultivation of less productive plants, thus reducing biodiversity, and in Brazil there was deforestation to increase farmlands. Unlike the small or poor farmer who lacked funds to purchase fertilizer, gain access to water for irrigation, or secure credit, large landowners were the major beneficiaries, leading to greater income inequalities.

Nevertheless, the Green Revolution has been credited with preventing widespread famine and for feeding billions of people. Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for increasing the world’s food supply.

SEE ALSO: Amazon Rainforest (c. 55 Million BCE), Wheat: The Staff of Life (c. 11,000 BCE), Agriculture (c. 10,000 BCE), Rice Cultivation (c. 7000 BCE), Population Growth and Food Supply (1798), Factors Affecting Population Growth (1935), Silent Spring (1962), Genetically Modified Crops (1982).

An undated American work of art, There Were No Crops This Year, provides a glimpse of agricultural life prior to the mid-twentieth century, when the Green Revolution eradicated the threat of starvation in developed countries.