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Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding

Author(s):Harwood, Jonathan
Reviewer(s):Lipton, Michael

Published by EH.Net (October 2012)

Jonathan Harwood, Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding. Routledge: London, 2012. pp. xviii + 269 pp. $140 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-415-59868-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael Lipton, Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex.

This book has three arguments. First, despite good intentions and responsiveness to criticism, the ?green revolution? (GR), particularly public-sector plant breeding, has not been very peasant-friendly. Second, its peasant-friendliness depends substantially on the political organization and action of breeders and research institutes (private as well as public) and farmers (big as well as small).

The third argument, occupying well over half the book, is much the most interesting and original. It argues that the trajectory of farmer and breeder politics (and personalities) in South Germany, 1880-1939, helps us grasp what works and fails in seeking a peasant-friendly GR. More generally, the claim is that GR scholars and practitioners have neglected pre-GR history, therefore repeating past errors and not learning from past successes. Putting that right, it is suggested, can well make further spread of the GR (and its possible biotech-based successors) much more peasant-friendly.

This book should be read for its considerable merits on its own terms: those of qualitative political meso-history of plant breeding. There, indeed, analogies between plant breeding for South Germany in 1880-1939 and the ?developing world? in 1960-2012 are of striking interest. Will small farmers best achieve research useful for them by lobbying together with large farmers, and/or by sharing their institutions for plant breeding and other research ? or by striking out on their own, perhaps seeking urban allies? What is the best public response to large breeders (often also farmers) who ? as they privatize, develop and sell germplasm from publicly funded organizations ? pressure them to research those varieties and crops of interest to them alone? What is the right balance ? and relationship ? between public research for ?developed? farming regions and the generally smaller, more risk-prone yet also more risk-averse, and more diverse conditions of, for example, much of Bavaria or Northwest China? These and other issues, familiar from today’s controversies, are illuminated by Harwood’s German evidence.

Yet qualitative political meso-history is a very limited approach. The qualitative needs the quantitative. In this table-free book, we have no estimates for area, production, employment, yield, or economic returns on peasant vis-a-vis large farms in Germany 1880-1939.? The meso can benefit from the micro (an account of the experience of selected farms or villages) and desperately needs the macro. How were the structures of farm and rural life, and hence plant breeding and innovation, affected by the racism associated with the Nazis?? The political needs the agricultural and the economic. There are no numbers for Germany (and few for the GR) showing the type and range of new varieties, their adoption rates (by area or farmers) on small or large farms, or the difference that adoption made to output, employment, income or welfare. There is very little on crucial agro-technical issues, such as what proportion of land in the South German states was under self-pollinating crops, with seeds re-usable without much yield loss (a point the author does consider much later, in respect of biotech varieties).

All these matters surely affect the appropriate lessons from other historical experiences for today’s GR. In particular, as Harwood recognizes, the yield and income gains from GR varieties (and associated water and fertilizer use) have been rapid and large, for example in the Punjab. How relevant are the lessons from relatively incremental, slow change, as in German agricultural technology (or at least seed varieties) in 1880-1939?

Harwood recognizes that some peasant-friendly lessons were learned from the early critics of the GR. However, one would not guess from his book that over 90 percent of land on vast swathes of irrigated Asia is now planted to high-yielding semi-dwarf rice and wheat; that smaller farms, if anything, plant higher proportions of these, and support them with more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) per hectare; or that the proportion of land in smaller farms has increased in most GR countries.

Yes, the GR might have benefited more poor farmers, sooner, if lessons of history had been learned. But is that mainly the history of breeder and farmer politics in such contexts as Germany 1880-1939? The breeding history of each developing country creates its own pre-GR national agricultural research systems. It should perhaps be to that history (e.g., for India, to the spread of the Pusa wheat varieties in the 1920s and 1930s) that national GR practitioners and scholars first turn. Second, the distribution of gains between rich and poor, big farmers and small, depends on the overall power-structure, not only meso-politics of plant breeding and the economics of the farm: huge changes such as the Neolithic settlements, the medieval and eighteenth-century agricultural revolutions, and the GR interact, often to dramatic effect, with structures of power, class and interest.?

Finally, though peasant-friendliness is very important in determining whether a GR is pro-poor, it is not the only determinant. GR funders, theorists and practitioners were mainly concerned with avoiding starvation, which seemed to threaten much of the developing world after India’s successive disastrous harvests of 1965-66 and 1966-67. Adding to ?the pile of rice? (and wheat) was seen as the solution to hunger. For all our justified emphasis now upon food entitlements, this is less naive than it sounds: as Harwood recognizes, the GR slashed the local purchase price of staples, and that would have been pro-poor even without much gain to small farmers.

Harwood provides a fascinating account of the meso-politics of plant breeding in South Germany in 1880-1939; uses the account to illustrate possible paths of pressure from, and benefit (or otherwise) to, small farmers; and credibly suggests why this sort of history may matter to agricultural research policymakers today. But other, broader sorts of history, and at the same timer a narrower agro-technical and quantitative focus, are needed to supplement this book.??

Michael Lipton (Research Professor of Economics, Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex, Brighton, England) is the author of Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs (Routledge, 2009).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII