Decades ago, international collaboration reinvented India’s relationship to food production. Today, the country's agricultural transformation continues to impact how the world produces its food.
In collaboration with scientist M.S. Swaminathan (second from right), Norman Borlaug (right) tested his varieties of rust-resilient wheat in India. The results led to rapid transformation in India’s wheat production, which was named the Green Revolution.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the period known as the Green Revolution transformed how the world produced food. It multiplied country-wide agricultural capabilities, fed millions and demonstrated just how powerful innovative international collaboration can be. In India, the Green Revolution raised food grain production from 70 million tons in 1954 to more than 275 million tons today. The processes that led to this achievement introduced technological innovation and created lasting relationships and institutions to sustain productivity for future generations.
Roots of a revolution
During the 1960s, agriculture was beset by problems like outdated farming techniques, crop diseases, inadequate food distribution systems, droughts and environmental challenges like floods and drought. Millions of people in India suffered massive food shortages and widespread starvation, says Prabhu L. Pingali, professor of applied economics and director of the Tata-Cornell Institute at Cornell University in New York. “Famines were a common phenomenon during this time period.”
Compounding the problem was India’s heavy reliance on imported grain. RB Singh, former Central Agricultural University chancellor, says the country used to import 8 to 10 million tons per year and faced financial difficulties when trying to pay for it.
Oceans away, during the same time, major breakthroughs in agriculture research were occurring in Mexico under the leadership of American scientist Norman Borlaug. His work on developing new, resilient and bountiful wheat varieties was groundbreaking.
In collaboration with Indian scientist M.S. Swaminathan, Borlaug began to test his new varieties of rust-resilient wheat in India. The results were monumental. Getting the wheat in the hands of farmers within just five years, India’s wheat production more than doubled to nearly 24 million tons per year. “This rapid transformation was named ‘The Green Revolution’ by [American international aid official] William Gaud,” says Singh, “and Norman Borlaug—the Father of the Green Revolution—was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for saving millions from starvation.”
The Green Revolution had a transformative impact on India’s agriculture and rural populations alike, says Pingali. “Investments in high yielding rice and wheat varieties resulted in dramatic improvements in food supplies, and by the late 1970s, India became self-sufficient in food grains and is today a major food exporter,” he describes. “There has been a sharp drop in hunger and India no longer faces the specter of famines. Higher yields lead to a rise in farm incomes and a sharp drop in rural poverty,” he continues. “The Green Revolution was also instrumental in triggering overall economic development.” Not only did the Green Revolution help India meet its immediate food demands, “it gave India much-needed national confidence to continue producing more for its ever-increasing population,” says Rajendra Singh Paroda, former director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
New developments—and making a difference
The Green Revolution was not just a lone historical event, but rather the beginning of an ever-expanding American and Indian agricultural collaboration.
“Over the last 50 years, the partnership has expanded to other crops such as cotton and to developing advanced technologies such as biotechnology,” says Pingali. “Indian scientists have studied and worked in U.S. universities and research centers, and have contributed to developing new technologies that have had great impacts on agriculture across the world.”
Paroda says that both countries have expanded their relationship to include the free exchange of genetic resources for many crops and fruits. “There also exists agricultural trade for many crops, especially soybean and corn, between the two countries,” he says. “A large number of agricultural scientists in the past received their education and training in the United States. Good scientific collaboration exists between institutions and experts in many specialized areas.” He cites the fields of seed science, pesticide development and agricultural machinery as a few examples.
Despite the tremendous gains of the Green Revolution and continued improvements in agriculture over a half-century later, experts believe problems regarding food security will continue to grow for India and the rest of the world. Pingali says there is a “global storm of challenges affecting our food system,” like population growth, rapid urbanization, damage to environmental resources and rising temperatures from climate change. “We need the best minds in India and elsewhere to focus on addressing these challenges and finding solutions for feeding future populations in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner,” he says.
For young people who want to get involved, Pingali recommends a strong education, broad approach and global focus. “The challenges facing agriculture need scientific innovation as well as business acumen,” he says. “International collaborations and partnerships are as important, if not more important than in the past, especially with U.S. universities and the private sector. A career focused on agricultural development will have high impact on the lives of the poor farmer and the urban consumer, in India and in other countries.”
The challenges may seem daunting, but opportunities to help are abound. “India is fast becoming a powerhouse in agricultural research and innovation, in addition to its strength in information technologies,” says Pingali.
“Given the expertise in these two areas, India can become a global leader in digital agriculture. U.S.-India collaborations can help make smart farming, using digital tools, a reality in India and other countries.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.