The term “Green Revolution” is used for big increases in wheat and rice yields in developing countries from the 1960s brought about by new high-yielding crop strains combined with the use of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. It was launched in Asia in 1960 at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines; rice is the staple food for people living in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia discussed herein consists of Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam but excludes Brunei and Singapore. The Green Revolution in Southeast Asia was a technology package comprising improved high-yielding varieties of rice, irrigation or controlled water supply, improved moisture utilization, fertilizers and pesticides, and associated management skills. Some two decades later, several Southeast Asian countries adopted more of a market approach to rural finance. At the same time, local governments improved rural infrastructures such as transportation, telecommunication, postal, irrigation, and electrical systems to assist large and small farmers previously beyond the reach of technological innovations. The utilization of this technology package in suitable socioeconomic environments has resulted in greatly increased yields and incomes for many farmers in Southeast Asia.
The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution have been the farmers and the consumers. Southeast Asia’s population increased by 68.2 percent, or 139.3 million people, between 1970 and 1995. Cereal production in Southeast Asia more than doubled from 33.8 million metric tons to 73.6, and cereal yield increased from 1,352 to 2,237 metric tons per hectare. Food availability (measured as calories available per person per day) increased by 34 percent. Rural incomes (measured as per capita gross domestic product) increased by 193 percent, driven increasingly by urban-industrial growth from the 1980s onwards and by growth in the rural nonfarm economy. Using a benchmark of the international poverty line of US$1 per day (purchasing power parity, 1985 dollars), the absolute number of poor declined by 41.4 percent from 108 million in 1975 to 40 million in 1995.
Real food prices in Southeast Asia, indeed throughout the world, have steadily declined over the last thirty years as a result of the Green Revolution. Lower real food prices benefit the poor relatively more than they do the rich, since the poor spend a larger portion of their available income on food. Stationary threshers, tube wells, and flour mills have all reduced the drudgery of women. Recent studies of the impacts of the Green Revolution also suggest that it extended beyond the rice producers of Southeast Asia to include other crops and other socioeconomic settings.
The Green Revolution clearly averted a major food crisis in Southeast Asia. Indonesia attained rice self-sufficiency in 1984. Several Southeast Asian countries<M>Indonesia (pre-1997 crisis) and Vietnam, for example - went from running food deficits in the 1960s to being surplus producers in the late 1980s, despite increasing population. The Green Revolution was the foundation for startling economic growth in Southeast Asia. Since Green Revolution technologies boosted production using less labor without requiring a lot of capital, agricultural labor could easily flow to other sectors. As economies ceased to need to import food, foreign exchange was freed up for other uses. Higher incomes from agriculture caused domestic markets to expand. Indonesia, with the most rapid agricultural growth, has had the most rapid reduction in total poverty. In the Philippines, agricultural growth has been highly inequitable due mainly to the skewed distribution of land holdings and poor rural infrastructure. Overall performance in poverty reduction there has been disappointing because of the unequal distribution of wealth.
The use of high levels of inputs and the achievement of relatively high rice yield in Southeast Asia have made it more difficult to sustain the same rate of yield gains, as yields approach the economic optimum yield levels. Indeed, increased intensity of land use has led to increasing input requirements in order to sustain current yield gains. Environmental pressures are increasing as existing land and water resources come under threat from rapid urbanization, which increasingly withdraws land from agricultural production and create pressure for reallocation of water now used in agriculture.
Furthermore, the Green Revolution technologies were not without their problems. The necessity of using large amounts of agrochemical-based pest and weed control in some crops has raised environmental concerns as well as concern about human health. The chemicals applied as fertilizer and as pest and weed control can pollute rivers and lakes through runoff, and can pollute groundwater through leaching.
The land is increasingly unable to support the burden of intensive agriculture. Intensive farming practices have virtually mined nutrients from the soil. When fertilizers are added to a crop, a plant absorbs not only the extra nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from the fertilizer, but also proportionately increased levels of micronutrients from the soil, including zinc, iron, and copper. Over time, the soil becomes deficient in these micronutrients. Their lack, in turn, inhibits a plant’s capacity to absorb nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Consequently, crop yields are declining alarmingly. Many farmers are heavily in debt from their investments in new equipment and reliance on chemicals, and rural unemployment is increasing. These are ominous signs of a deteriorating farm economy.
The move to a higher-input environment naturally favored those farmers who had access to capital and skills. They strengthened their roles in society, sometimes at the expense of less well-endowed groups. Many studies have claimed gender bias in the development of the Green Revolution. The established roles of women in the farming systems were challenged by the new technology and the new economic structures, as work performed by women was now handled by machines.
A limitation of the Green Revolution has been its inability to have much direct influence on rain-fed farming systems, whose production may adversely affected by droughts. As a result, income disparities between irrigated and rain-fed villages and regions have worsened and many rain-fed regions have barely benefited. The prospects for significant technological advances in rain-fed areas are hampered by limited and uncertain rains that often make water a critical constraint in plant growth, and by the diversity of local growing conditions that limits the geographic applicability of improved technologies.
For Indonesian rice farmers, the high costs of high-yielding rice varieties and the chemical nutrients and fertilizers are driving a return to organic farming using organic seeds, minimal fertilizer, and no pesticides. Across Indonesia, about a dozen nongovernmental organizations are seeking to popularize organic farming methods as a sustainable, profitable, and environmentally safe alternative to fertilizers and pesticides.
In the twenty-first century, the world faces the prospect of a new and complex food crisis that will require better ways of ensuring that the hungry and the malnourished will be able to meet their food needs. To tackle this enormous challenge, a new Green Revolution must be launched that will protect the environment and boost agricultural output. Future agricultural growth will continue to be driven by improvements in crop productivity based on genetic manipulation of plants, and biotechnology will eventually accelerate this process, though genetically modified crop strains have foes in Asia, just as they do in Europe. The need for continuing and aggressive research in all related areas and disciplines is self-evident. Today’s farmer requires far more knowledge in order to make environmentally appropriate decisions and to cut production costs. Information resources will need to substitute, in the future, for the currently all-too-frequent excessive use of physical resources.
Kog Yue Choong
See also Agriculture<M>Southeast Asia; Green Revolution<M>South Asia; Rice and Rice Agriculture; Terrace Irrigation
Blackman, A. (2000). Obstacles to a doubly green revolution. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future.
Djalal, D. (2000). Old ways return to favor. Far Eastern Economic Review 163, 21 (25 May).
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).(n.d.). Lessons from the Green Revolution: Towards a new Green Revolution. Retrieved April 23, 2001, from: http://www.fao.org/wfs/final/e/volume2/t06-e.htm
Rosegrant, M. W., & Hazell, B. R. (2000). Transforming the rural Asian economy: The unfinished revolution<M>Summary. In Rural Asia: Beyond the Green Revolution. Manila, Philippines: Oxford University Press, 97<N>115.