Think Again

Think Again: The Green Revolution

Noble Prize-winning scientist Norman Borlaug died Sept 12, but his ideas and the green revolution they produced are still transforming agriculture in Asia. Next stop: Africa.

"Asia Could Have Fed Itself Without the Green Revolution."

Hardly. Critics of the Green Revolution question whether technologies such as new seeds, irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer were really needed to feed Asia. They claim that indigenous technologies in combination with good policies would have been sufficient.

It is true that food production was growing before the Green Revolution -- mostly through expanding crop areas. But yields were increasing at too low a rate to keep up with the surge in population that followed decades of improvements in public health. By the early 1960s, famine was looming across much of Asia, and the continent's farmers were ill-equipped to meet the challenge. Asia was running out of suitable agricultural land, and increased productivity looked unlikely. Despite government investment in irrigation and fertilizer, most farmers still relied on traditional crop varieties and low-input, low-output farming practices. As the food balance deteriorated, chronic poverty and hunger worsened, and it only took a poor monsoon, which came in 1964, to tip millions of people into famine. Major catastrophes were only averted in the early 1960s with the help of food aid from abroad, especially from the United States.

Only when the new high-yielding wheat and rice varieties developed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug and others came along did crops really take off. The new varieties were much more responsive to fertilizers and irrigation, and many farmers doubled or tripled their yields. Borlaug's seeds also grew faster and were insensitive to daylight length, enabling more crops to be grown each year on the same piece of land. The result was the doubling of cereal production in Asia between 1970 and 1995, from 310 million to 650 million tons per year. Although the population increased 60 percent over the same period, the rise in food production was so great that cereal and calorie availability per person actually increased nearly 30 percent, and wheat and rice became cheaper.

"The Green Revolution Was Bad for the Rural Poor."

On balance, no. Some have argued that small farmers and landless workers lost out as the Green Revolution spread: Only large farmers could afford the improved seeds and fertilizer; mechanization displaced laborers; and many tenant farmers were evicted by their landlords. The Green Revolution, these critics say, is partly to blame for the staggering 800 million Asians who still live on just $1 a day. These skeptics forget, however, that the number of poor prior to the Green Revolution was far higher -- 1 billion Asians at the time when the total population was only about half as large as it is now. The Green Revolution was certainly one of the forces accounting for that shift.

Most small farms did in fact successfully adopt Green Revolution technologies, even if not always as quickly as larger-scale producers. Agricultural laborers benefited from more job opportunities, more uniform patterns of employment through the seasons, and better overall wages. And rapid agricultural growth also stimulated growth in the rural nonfarm economy, creating countless more jobs for the landless and the poor. The increased food supply also lowered food prices, enabling the urban and rural poor to purchase more calories and diversify their diets.

It is true that the benefits to farmers were greater for those living where land was equitably distributed and where governments actively intervened in credit, fertilizer, and product markets to ensure that small-scale operations did not fall behind. Inappropriate farm mechanization and rapid rural population growth also muted some of the gains. And the Green Revolution failed to reach many poorer unirrigated areas, so regional inequalities sometimes worsened. But on balance, matters would have looked far grimmer had the Green Revolution never come along.

"The Green Revolution Was Bad for the Environment."

Yes and no. Undoubtedly the Green Revolution saved huge areas of forest, wetlands, and hillsides from being converted into cropland. Up to the mid-20st century, higher production could only be achieved by cultivating more acres. But thanks to new seed varieties, Asia doubled its food production with only a 4 percent increase in land use. This remarkable feat prevented the otherwise inevitable soil erosion and loss of biodiversity that follows the deforestation and cultivation of fragile lands.

The Green Revolution did, however, bring environmental problems. Fertilizers and pesticides were often used excessively or inappropriately, polluting waterways and killing beneficial insects and other wildlife. In some places, poor irrigation and drainage practices caused salt to build up in the soil to such an extent that farmers had to abandon some of their best farmland. Often, water was being used faster than rain could replace it, sending groundwater levels into retreat. Biodiversity also suffered as the new crops took over; many traditional plant varieties were lost.

Some of these outcomes were the inevitable result of millions of largely illiterate farmers adopting modern inputs almost overnight. The problem, however, was exacerbated by inadequate training, ineffective regulation of water quality and use, and subsidies that made modern inputs so cheap as to encourage their excessive use.

The good news is that Green Revolution farming doesn't have to be synonymous with environmental decay. Practices such as low-till farming, precision placement of fertilizers, integrated pest management (which combines pest-resistant varieties, biological control mechanisms, and pesticides), and improved water management have been developed to increase yields even while reducing water and chemical use. The unfinished agenda of the Green Revolution is reforming policies and institutions so that these kinds of best practices are much more widely used.

"The Green Revolution Was Driven by Commercial Agribusiness Interests."

Not at all. The idea of increasing farmers' dependence on purchased seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides might inspire visions of agribusiness ruling supreme. But the truth is, Asia's Green Revolution was initiated and led by the public sector. The research and development that produced new seeds were undertaken almost exclusively by public research institutions. It was government-run banks and marketing agencies that dominated the distribution and pricing of water, fertilizer, seeds, and credit. Those same institutions stored and marketed most of the surplus grain that farmers produced. Accomplishing these tasks was considered a job too large for the private sector alone at the time, especially if small farmers were not to be left behind.

All this required massive levels of public investment. And even long after the Green Revolution had spread, Asian countries continued to pour money into agriculture to sustain the gains. The return on those investments -- in terms of economic growth and poverty reduction -- has been impressive. Only recently have some Asian countries begun market liberalization programs to expand the private sector's role. So far, this has been of greatest benefit to small- and medium-sized local businesses rather than multinational corporations.

"Africa Doesn't Need a Green Revolution."

Dead wrong. Critics of Asia's Green Revolution argue that it would be better if Africa focused on organic and other low-input farming rather than going the route of its neighbors to the east. But this advice describes exactly what African farmers have been doing all along, and as a result, average cereal yields on the continent have hardly changed in 50 years and now hover at about one-third of those achieved in Asia. Such a predicament has left Africa mired in poverty, with levels of hunger and malnutrition in drought years resembling those witnessed in Asia in the mid-1960s. Africa badly needs to raise its farmers' productivity, and this cannot be done without increasing fertilizer use to offset low and declining soil fertility, capturing and using more rainwater for irrigation, and planting improved crop varieties. In a word, it can't be done without a Green Revolution.

Africa can't simply copy Asia's feat, however. The continent's geography is not conducive to Asia's irrigated rice and wheat, which helps explain why the Green Revolution has not spread to Africa already. More fundamentally, Africa has invested relatively little in developing its rural infrastructure, leading to unusually high transportation and marketing costs for its farmers. Importing fertilizer is pricey because many African countries are small and landlocked -- and anyway, most buy too-small quantities to secure a good price. Nor do African governments have a record of creating a supportive policy environment for their farmers. The net result is that it is simply not profitable for most African farmers to shift to high-input, high-output farming.

Still, the promise is there. Many experts agree that Africa has the biophysical potential to dramatically increase cereal production -- perhaps by as much as 100 million tons or more per year. And on a continent where small farms are the norm, a locally driven Green Revolution could prove a win-win for both growth and poverty alleviation. Africa is also less likely to be exposed to the same kind of environmental problems that arose in Asia. The diversity of crop-growing conditions in Africa means that widespread monocropping is not practical. There are also few river basins to permit large-scale irrigation, and modern inputs are costly -- all of which should encourage farmers to turn to ecologically rich farming practices that are less dependent on modern inputs as those in Asia. None of this can happen, however, if Africa remains locked out of the Green Revolution.

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again

Think Again: International Law

Governments respect international law only when it suits their national interests. Don't expect that to change any time soon.

"Obama Will Respect International Law More Than Bush Did."

No. George W. Bush did not brush aside international law as casually as his critics claimed, and President Barack Obama's approach is likely to be surprisingly similar. The United States -- under the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties -- has taken a fairly consistent approach to international law over the decades, one that involves building legal regimes that serve U.S. interests and tearing down those that do not.

The bill of particulars against Bush seems long. He withdrew the Unites States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia; "unsigned" the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC); invaded Iraq in violation of the U.N. Charter; authorized war-on-terror tactics in tension with human rights treaties and the Geneva Conventions; dragged his feet on a climate treaty; imposed a tariff on steel in violation of international trade law; stood by while a genocide took place in Sudan; and refused to sign a host of new and old treaties aimed at promoting human rights and limiting violence in war.

But there is less here than meets the eye. Bush acted within the law by withdrawing from the ABM treaty (which permitted withdrawal upon six months notice, a requirement he observed), and he had no obligation to maintain the U.S. signature on the Rome Statute (which lacked support from both political parties in the United States). Nonetheless, Bush provided valuable support to the ICC by agreeing to allow it to investigate crimes in Sudan. The invasion of Iraq did violate the U.N. Charter, but it also removed one of the world's worst international lawbreakers and vindicated the U.N. sanctions regime that Iraq had disregarded.

There was little political support for a climate treaty until the end of the Bush administration. When that support finally materialized, Bush signaled that he would go forward with such a treaty. In similar ways, Bush's war-on-terror tactics moderated over time, as the threat diminished. Bush had no obligation to intervene in Sudan -- indeed, an intervention without Security Council authorization, which would certainly have been blocked by China, would have been unlawful. Nor did he have an obligation to sign other human rights and law-of-war treaties that he disapproved of.

During his presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for the International Criminal Court and humanitarian intervention. In office, he has done nothing for the ICC and has stood by while the killing continues in Sudan. He has promised to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay; the problem, however, was not that the facility itself violated international law but that the detention methods practiced there (arguably) did so. These very same detention practices have continued in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Obama has sought to give immunity to Bush-era interrogators -- another possible violation of international law, and certainly in tension with it. Bush's unlawful tariffs on steel are matched by the "buy American" provision in the stimulus bill signed by Obama and the tariffs that he has slapped on Chinese tires. Obama has provided some symbolic support for international law in a few ways, but where it counts -- obtaining Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty (which Bush also supported) and numerous international human rights treaties -- he has expended no political capital. Don't expect this to change.

"If International Law Were Stronger, the World Would Be Safer."

Not necessarily. International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it. Ambitious schemes that seek to transcend countries' interests routinely fail. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war shortly before the worst war in world history. The League of Nations was bypassed and ignored. The United Nations has never lived up to its ambitions and has only proved effective for narrow projects after expectations were scaled down to a realistic level. The greatest achievement of international law -- the modern trade system institutionalized in the World Trade Organization -- depends for its vitality on the good faith of a handful of great powers relying on weak self-help remedies.

The challenge for governments is finding areas of international cooperation where interests converge enough that states are able to overcome mutual suspicion and commit themselves to complying with their obligations. Real problems, such as climate change, must await propitious international political conditions, which will often take longer than good policy and science indicate is optimal. Promoting international law for its own sake, in the hope that eventually countries will go along, has never been successful.

"International Law Is the Best Way to Protect Human Rights."

Wishful thinking. Academic research suggests that international human rights treaties have had little or no impact on the actual practices of states. The Genocide Convention has not prevented genocides; the Torture Convention has not stopped torture. The same can be said for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and a host of treaties meant to advance the rights of women and children. States that already respect human rights join human rights treaties because doing so is costless for them. States that do not respect human rights simply ignore their treaty obligations.

The evidence shows that human rights are best in those states that are wealthiest, leading many scholars to speculate that the best way to promote human rights is to promote growth. This can be done through liberal trade and immigration policies, and perhaps (though this is controversial) carefully targeted aid that is conditioned on institutional reform. One simple step, unlikely to be taken, would be for Europe and the United States to eliminate domestic agricultural subsidies that reduce demand for agricultural exports from poor countries.

"Europeans Care More About International Law Than Americans Do."

Not really. This shibboleth reflects a number of mistakes. Because European integration rests on a series of highly successful treaties, many casual observers see Europeans as pro-international law. And when seeking international approval of new treaties they propose, Europeans themselves cite their experience as evidence that international law works. But unification of countries is not a new phenomenon -- the United States is the result of union as well -- and has little to do with the type of international law at issue in current debates, the kind of international law that involves all states around the world.

It's true that Europeans have been successful in recent years in placing many of their major concerns, such as human rights and climate change, on the international legal agenda. But the United States and other countries have also promoted treaties that they care about, especially on counterterrorism. Finally, Europe's foreign-policy agenda is more liberal than that of the United States, leading European countries to advance treaties with more liberal aims than those the United States has. These treaties -- again, those on human rights and climate change lead the list -- have received a great deal of attention in the United States among critics of U.S. foreign policy for that reason only. This has nothing to do with Europe's allegedly greater support of international law; it just reflects policy differences.

Meanwhile, Europeans have played hardball when it has suited them. On international trade, the European Union has taken positions in a range of disputes involving genetically modified organisms, beef hormones, and bananas that have placed it in violation of international trade law or nearly so. Most EU countries are on track to violate their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. European enthusiasm for the ICC remains high, but major European countries -- unlike the United States -- have been reluctant to give the ICC free rein in Sudan. Just last year, the European Court of Justice told EU members that they must disregard an order issued by the Security Council because it violated European law. Disregarding an order by the Security Council violates the U.N. Charter, of course. The 1999 NATO military intervention in Kosovo also violated international law -- the Security Council did not approve it -- yet it had the enthusiastic participation of all the full European members of NATO, plus France. (And don't forget the 16 European countries that joined the United States in supporting military intervention in Iraq.)

Europeans, like Americans, use international law as an instrument to advance their interests. Where U.S. and European interests diverge, the countries act differently with respect to international law -- complying with, and promoting, those portions of it that advance their interest, while violating or applying narrow interpretations to those that don't.

"International Law Is a Worthy Goal."

Not at all. Some might argue that even if international law is not currently effective, improving it is nonetheless a worthwhile aspiration for the international community. But international law should be looked at as a worthy means, not an end in itself. In some circumstances, it can be useful to build international cooperation on key issues. But the view that international law is an end in itself -- which I have dubbed "global legalism" -- is based on a false picture of international relations and can lead to wasted time and effort devoted to constructing legal institutions that won't work. Although many academics are global legalists, state leaders, of all ideological persuasions, are not.

The Nuremberg trials -- ironically one of the sources of global legalism -- were thought necessary for punishing the Nazis and were surely justified, but they also violated international law, which at that time did not hold leaders criminally responsible for launching invasions of other countries or even for crimes against humanity. The illegal military intervention in Kosovo stopped ethnic cleansing and, for a time, the wars that racked the Balkans. Not all violations of international law are good, of course. But the tendency of global legalists to treat international law as a talisman, more often than not, interferes with the kinds of international cooperation that actually advance the global good.

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