Science in Society Archive

Beware the New “Doubly Green Revolution”

The fake moral crusade to feed the world with genetically modified crops promoted as the second “Doubly Green Revolution” is doing even more damage than the first. The bad genetics involved in has failed the test in science and in the real world. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Bad genetics kills

When James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for the double-helix structure of DNA, came to the UK in October 2007 to promote his new book and autobiography, Avoid Boring People: Lessons From A Life In Science, he sparked outrage among fellow scientists. He said to a newspaper reporter that [1] he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africans” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.” That was not the first time Watson abused his position to promote what the Federation of American Scientists condemned as “personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science” [2].  On a previous occasion, he suggested that people with low IQ had genes for stupidity, and he would like to prevent them from being born or give them gene therapy [3] (Why Genomics Won't Deliver, SiS 26).

Within a week of this latest transgression, Watson was suspended, and subsequently resigned, from his post as chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbour Molecular Biology Laboratory.

Nonetheless, it was precisely such eugenicist, genetic determinist propaganda that Watson had used so effectively in promoting the Human Genome Project in the 1980s. And if anything significant had come out of sequencing the human and other genomes, it was to explode the myth of genetic determinism once and for all [4] (see Living with the Fluid Genome, I-SIS publication). Some of us had been arguing all along that genes and environment are inseparable well before the Human Genome Project was conceived. The surprise is how readily the environment could specifically mark and change genes and genomes to influence later generations. ‘The inheritance of acquired characters’ is nowhere as evident as in molecular genetics [5] (see Life After the Central Dogma series, SiS 24). It is part of the ecological genetics of the ‘fluid genome’ emerging since the 1980s that has made genetic determinism obsolete [4]. Unfortunately, our political leaders are still being ill advised by famous scientists adhering to the old discredited paradigm.

Another Nobel laureate (Nobel Peace Price 1970) who should know his genetics better is Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a reductionist approach to agriculture based on using genetics to breed genetically uniform high yielding varieties (HYVs), which has brought short-term increases in crop yields, but at tremendous environmental and social costs.

Borlaug has persisted in promoting this failed approach, especially in its later incarnation of genetically modified (GM) crops, as made clear in a Nature editorial published in October 2007, “Feeding a hungry world” [6].

Far from suffering disgrace, Borlaug is showered with awards, the most recent being the US Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian honour [7]. At the presentation event, M.S. Swaminathan, father of the Green Revolution in India, gave the keynote address.

India, meanwhile, is caught in a worsening epidemic of farmers’ suicide. Its agricultural minister acknowledged in the Indian Parliament that an estimated 100 000 farmers have taken their own lives between 1993 and 2003. The introduction GM crops to the country has escalated the suicides to 16 000 a year  [7] (Stem Farmers’ Suicides with Organic Farming, SiS 32). 

Borlaug is doing a great deal more damage to the world than Watson based on their bad genetics. The difference is that while Watson is now a liability in attracting grants and investments for genomics and related post-human genome endeavours, Borlaug serves as the ideal mouthpiece for the biotech industry’s fake moral crusade of feeding the world under the banner of the second, “doubly-green” revolution of genetically modified crops.

Lessons from the Green Revolution

The failures of the Green Revolution are widely acknowledged [8], and even by Swaminathan himself [9], who referred to “a fatigue” of the Green Revolution: a sharp drop in the yield of grain per unit of fertilizer applied as well as a drop in yield. In India, grain yield per unit of fertilizer applied decreased by two-thirds during the Green Revolution years. And the same has happened elsewhere.

Between 1970 and 2000, the annual growth of fertilizer use on Asian rice has been 3 to 40 times the growth of rice yields [8]. In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yield increased 13 percent during the 1980s, but came at the price of a 21 percent increase in fertilizer use. In the Central Plains, yield 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 accomplished by 65 and 69 percent increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.

However, it is the absolute drop in yields despite high inputs of fertilizer that finally punctured the Green Revolution bubble. By  the 1990s, after dramatic increases in the early stages of the Green Revolution, yields began falling. In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yields rose steadily during the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and have been dropping gradually since. Similar patterns emerged for rice-wheat systems in India and Nepal.

Where yields were not actually declining, the rate of growth has been slowing
rapidly or leveling off, as documented in China, North Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Since 2000, yields have fallen further, to the extent that in six out of the past seven years, world grain production has fallen below consumption. And consumption is increasing not as much by growing population as by by rising demand for biofuels in recent years [10] (see Chapter x). As a result, world grain stocks have dropped to their lowest since records began 30 years ago, and food prices have shot up worldwide.  

The Green Revolution was an industrial style agriculture that packaged HYVs with fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. And given optimum inputs, these HYVs did indeed increase yields dramatically, especially in the short term. In the longer term, Green Revolution agriculture depleted and degraded the soil, yields fall even as more and more fertilizers are used. Similarly, pests develop resistance to pesticides, and greater amounts have to be applied. Farmers and the general public become increasingly at risk from the toxic effects of pesticides and fertilizers that contaminate ground water.

At the same time, heavy irrigation resulted in widespread salination of agricultural land, while aquifers are pumped dry. It is estimated that 6 percent of India’s agricultural land has been made useless as a result of salination [8], and nearly a fifth of the sub-continent is withdrawing more water than is being replaced by rain [11]. In the Punjab, home of the Green Revolution, nearly 80 percent of groundwater is now “overexploited or critical.”

The high costs of fertilizer and pesticide put small farmers at a disadvantage right from the start, driving them off the land while big farmers grow bigger, thereby deepening the divide between rich and poor.

But even for those farmers who manage to keep going, the spiralling costs of more fertilizers and pesticides, and diminishing income due to falling yields, or massive crop failures from drought, pests, and diseases, to which the genetically uniform HYVs are especially susceptible, soon plunged farmers deeper and deeper into debt. For many of these farmers, the only exit from debt is suicide. This sorry tale has been told over and over again [12].

It is clear that the Green Revolution’s success in raising yields has failed to reduce poverty or hunger. India’s 26 m ton grain surplus in 2006 could feed the 320 million hungry people in its population, but starving villagers are too poor to buy the food produced in their own countryside [11].

The Green Revolution also led to the loss of indigenous agricultural biodiversity. This severely compromises food security for small farmers, as the indigenous varieties are more resistant to pest, disease, and drought than the genetically uniform HYVs. Monoculture HYVs also reduce the nutritional value of foods as soils become depleted of essential micronutrients. In Bangladesh, the promotion of Green Revolution rice led to a loss of nearly 7 000 traditional rice varieties and many fish species. In the Philippines, more than 300 traditional varieties disappeared.

Instead of learning from the failures of the Green Revolution, Borlaug, Swaminathan, and the biotech industry are offering the world a second “doubly green” revolution [8] in GM crops, and they are taking it to Africa with the help of corporate charities that are doing more harm than good in the world [13] (Philanthropy Gates Style, SiS 35).

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

Bill & Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation announced a joint $150 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The creators of AGRA claim the initiative will bring benefits to the Africa’s impoverished farmers who have been bypassed in the first Green Revolution. Bill Gates is a confessed enthusiast for biotechnology [12], while the Rockefeller Foundation is notorious for having invested in creating The 'Golden Rice' , genetically modified to produce pro-Vitamin A, and aggressively promoted “to salvage a morally as well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry” [14].

But, as pointed out by the Food First Institute [11], the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which brings together the key Green Revolution research institutions, has invested 40 to 45 percent of their £350 million annual budget in Africa; if not in the Green Revolution, in what? And if in the Green Revolution, it must have failed Africa, and not bypassed it.

The Green Revolution failed because it did not address the main causes of poverty and hunger, on the contrary it contributed to increasing hunger and poverty in the midst of plenty.

Overcoming poverty and hunger requires the redistribution of land and resources to enable farmers to grow food; they also need a fair and stable market, and ecological farming systems that free farmers from the shackles of expensive inputs of fertilizers and pesticides [15] (Organic Farmer Who Values His Freedom Above All , SiS 28). This is especially true for sub-Saharan African countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Mali where the area of unused, good quality farmland is many times greater than the area actually farmed. It is also the case in Zimbabwe and South Africa where the majority of farmers have been excluded from access to minimally acceptable farmland [11].

Borlaug claims to have reduced hunger in the world through the Green Revolution, and many of his critics are willing to give him credit for that. But this too turns out to be a myth.

In the two decades from 1970 to 1990 spanning the Green Revolution, the total food available per person in the world rose by 11 percent while the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942 m to 786 million, a 16 percent drop.

However, if China is left aside, the number of hungry people in the rest of the world actually went up by more than 11 percent, from 536 to 597 million.

In South America, while per capita food supplies rose almost 8 percent, the number of hungry people went up by 19 percent. In South Asia, there was 9 percent more food per person by 1990, but there were also 9 percent more hungry people.

In China, the number of hungry dropped dramatically from 406 million to 189 million (a fall of 54.4 percent). As Food First Institute says [8], “ [it] almost begs the question: which has been more effective at reducing hunger-the Green Revolution or the Chinese
Revolution, where broad-based changes in access to land paved the way for rising living standards?”

The real causes of hunger in Africa

The growing hunger in Africa is largely due to the increased impoverishment of the rural people who once grew food, but have now left farming. Today’s African farmers could easily produce far more food than they do, if they can get credit to cover production costs, or find buyers or obtain fair prices to give them a minimum profit margin [11].

Rural Africa has been devastated by 25 years of ‘free trade’ policies imposed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the US and EU [11].  The forced privatisation of food crop marketing boards - which once guaranteed African farmers minimum prices and held food reserves for emergencies - and rural development banks - which gave farmers credit to produce food – left farmers without financing to grow food and without buyers for their produce. Free trade agreements have made it easier for private traders to import subsidized food from the US and EU than to negotiate with thousands of local farmers. This effective dumping drives local farm prices below the costs of production and puts local farmers out of business.

A new technology package with GM crops is not going to make any difference to the social and structural problems, and judging by India’s recent experience, it would make things much worse [7]. It will further narrow the genetic base of indigenous agriculture, increase farmers’ indebtedness in paying for patented seeds, increase farmers’ vulnerability as GM varieties are more susceptible to crop failures, and bring extra environmental and health risks (see GM Science Exposed. [16], I-SIS CD book). The “doubly green” revolution can only exacerbate poverty and hunger in Africa

So what does Africa need instead? This has been so obvious it hardly needs saying, as all forms of sustainable, agro-ecological farming systems around the world, including Africa have been staging a successful revival since the late 1980s [17] (The Case for A GM-Free Sustainable World, I-SIS Publication). But it will be instructive to learn from Cuba’s experience, particularly in the light of freeing agriculture from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Lessons from Cuba: agriculture without fossil fuels

Cuba is where agriculture without fossil fuels has been put to its greatest test, thanks to the collapse of trade with the former socialist bloc; and it has passed with flying colours [18-20].

Before 1989, Cuba was a model Green Revolution farm economy, based on huge production units, and dependent on vast quantities of imported chemicals and machinery to produce export crops, while over half of its food was imported. The Cuban government’s commitment to equity, and favorable terms of trade offered by Eastern Europe, ensured that Cubans were not undernourished [11]

The collapse of the socialist bloc and the tightened US trade embargo exposed the vulnerability of Cuba’s Green Revolution model, and it was plunged into the worst food crisis in its history. Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, including both food and agricultural inputs, and without those inputs, domestic production fell, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in caloric intake in the early 1990s. Cuba was faced with a dual challenge of doubling food production with half the previous inputs.

But by 1997, Cubans were eating almost as well as they did before 1989, with little food and agrochemicals imported. Instead, Cuba concentrated on creating a more self-reliant agriculture: a combination of  higher crop prices paid to farmers, agroecological technology, smaller production units, and urban agriculture.

The way Cuba responded was an inspiration to the rest of the world. It began with a nation-wide call to increase food production by restructuring agriculture. It involved converting from conventional large-scale, high input monoculture systems to smaller scale, organic and semi-organic farming systems. The focus was on using low cost and environmentally safe inputs, and relocating production closer to consumption in order to cut down on transportation costs.

Urban agriculture was a key part of this effort. A spontaneous, decentralized movement had arisen in the cities. People responded enthusiastically to government initiative. By 1994, more than 8 000 city farms were created in Havana alone. Front lawns of municipal buildings were dug up to grow vegetables. Offices and schools cultivated their own food. Many of the gardeners were retired men aged 50s and 60s, and urban women played a much larger role in agriculture than their rural counterparts.

By 1998, an estimated 541 000 tons of food were produced in Havana for local consumption. Food quality has also improved as people had access to a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Urban gardens continued to grow and some neighbourhoods were producing as much as 30 percent of their own food.

The growth of urban agriculture was largely due to the State’s commitment to make unused urban and suburban land and resources available to aspiring urban farmers. The issue of land grants in the city converted hundreds of vacant lots into food producing plots, and new planning laws placed the highest land use priority on food production.

Another key to success was opening farmers markets and legalising direct sales from farmers to consumers. Deregulation of prices combined with high demand for fresh produce in the cities allowed urban farmers to make two to three times as much as the rural professionals.

The government also encouraged gardeners through an extensive support system including extension agents and horticultural groups that offered assistance and advice. Seed houses throughout the city sold seeds, gardening tools, compost and distribute biofertilizers and other biological control agents at low costs.

New biological products and organic gardening techniques were developed and produced by Cuba’s agricultural research sector, which had already begun exploring organic alternatives to chemical controls, enabling Cuba’s urban farms to become completely organic. In fact, a new law prohibited the use of any pesticides for agricultural purposes anywhere within city limits.

Cuba did not invent urban agriculture. It has been a worldwide movement since the 1970s, and by 1999, an estimated 14 percent of the world’s food was produced in urban areas. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of sustainable development, as more and more of the populations worldwide are becoming urbanized. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity for town planning and design to transform the concrete jungle into habitats surrounded by open fields and gardens, which can attract and support wildlife at the same time. Imagine growing up in cities with urban agriculture instead of existing slums and soulless housing estates. (See Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuels [21], SiS 37 for further details.)

Food Sovereignty for all

Today, across Africa, Latin America and Asia, farmer-to-farmer movements, farmer-led research teams and farmer field schools have already discovered how to raise yields, distribute benefits, protect soils, conserve water and enhance ago-biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of smallholdings in spite of the Green Revolution [11]. A survey of 45 sustainable agricultural projects/initiatives spread across 17 African countries covering some 730 000 households revealed that agro-ecological approaches substantially improved food production and household food security. In 95 percent of the projects, cereal yields improved by 50 to 100 percent, with additional positive impacts on natural, social and human capital.

The concept of food sovereignty developed by La Via Campesina and brought to the public debate during the World Food Summit in 1996 has gained tremendous popularity and support. It is stated as follows [22]: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their market; and to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food Sovereignty does not negate trace, but rather it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to food and to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production. ”

Food sovereignty is opposed to patenting seeds [11]; it also includes agrarian reform, with limit on the maximum farm size, equitable local control over resources such as seeds, land, water and forests. The Food Sovereignty approach is increasingly taken seriously by other sectors such as organisations representing consumers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, trade unions, environmentalists and human rights activists, researchers and other experts. It also forms the basis for collaboration between the FAO and farmers groups and other civil society actors, as announced by FAO Secretary General Jacques Diouf at the 2002 World Food Summit.

Given appropriate land reform and institutional support in finance and marketing, there is no doubt that farmers in Africa, India and elsewhere can free themselves from the cycle of indebtedness, increasing poverty, hunger, malnutrition and ill-health, especially with zero-input organic farming methods based on indigenous crops and livestocks [23] (see Dream Farm 2, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, in Food Futures Now, I-SIS Publication). The really green revolution has started in Ethiopia a few years ago, when the government adopted organic agriculture as a national strategy for food security. Crops yields have doubled and tripled while reversing the damages of the failed Green Revolution [24] (see Greening Ethiopia for Self-sufficiency series, SiS 23).

Article first published 14/01/08


  1.  “Watson book tour cancelled after racism claims”, Sally Peck,, 20 October 2007,
  2. “DNA pioneer quits after race comments”, Thomas H. Maugh,, 26 October 2007,,1,7818665.story?coll=la-headlines-world&ctrack=1&cset=true
  3. Ho MW. Why genomics won’t deliver. ience in Society 26, 39-42, 2005.
  4. Ho MW. Living with the Fluid Genome, ISIS and TWN, London and Penang, 2003.
  5. Ho MW. Life beyond the Central Dogma series. Science in Society 24, 4-13, 2004.
  6. Borlaug N. Feeding a hungry world. Editorial, Science 2007, 318, 359.
  7. “WFP Founder Norman Borlaug receives America’s highest civilian honor”, The World Food Prize, 18 July 2007,
  8. Rosset P, Collins J and Moore Lappe V. Lessons from the Green Revolution, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2000,
  9. “Time for an ‘ever-green’ revolution: Prof. Swaminathan”, The World Today, 20 September 2004, ABC, Australia,
  10. Tacio H. Feeding a world of 9 billion 1 October 2007,
  11. Holt-Gimenez E, Altieri MA and Rosset P. Ten Reasons Why the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations’ Alliance for Another Green Revolution Will Not Solve the Problems of Poverty and Hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa. Food First Policy Brief No. 12, October 2006
  12.  “One suicide every 8 hours”, Jaideep Hardikar, 26 August 2006, DNA, India,
  13. Ho MW. Philanthropy Gates’ style. Science in Society 2007, 35, 4-8.
  14. Ho MW. The Golden Rice – An Exercise in How  Not to Do Science, TWN-ISIS Report, 2000,
  15. Ho MW. Organic farmer who value his freedom above all. Science in Society 28, 11-12, 2005.
  16. Ho MW, Cummins J. et al. GM Science Exposed, Hazards Ignored, Fraud, Regulatory Sham, Violation of Farmers’ Rights, I-SIS CD Book, 2007.
  17. Ho MW and Lim LC. The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, Independent Science Panel Report, Institute of Science in Society and Third World Network, London and Penang, 2003; republished GM-Free, Exposing the Hazards of Biotechnology to Ensure the Integrity of Our Food Supply, Vitalhealth Publishing, Ridgefield, Ct., 2004 (both available from I-SIS online bookstore
  18. Murphy C. Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, May 1999,
  19. Ho MW. Exploding the food myths in the GM debate. I-SIS News 5, July 2000
  20. Wright J. Falta Petroleo! Perspectives on the emergence of a more ecological farming and food system in post-crisis cuba, Wageningen UR 2005 ISBN: 90-8504-197-X
  21. Ho MW. Organic Cuba without fossil fuels, Science in Society 37.
  22. Pimbert M. Transforming Knowledge and Ways of Knowing for Food Sovereignty, Reclaiming Diversity & Citizenship Series, iied, International Institute for Environment and Development, London, 2006.
  23. Ho MW. Dream Farm 2: Organic, sustainable, fossil fuel free. In Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al., Food Future Now: Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, I-SIS &TWN, London & Penang, 2008.
  24. Edwards S. Greening Ethiopia series, Science in Society 23, 4-8, 2004.

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?