Green Revolution

Did you know that not long ago, if you had a farm in the developing world you (or your workers) would have to apply fertilizers by hand? Can you imagine how long it would take to fertilize a farm of, say, 400 acres?  Maybe you're imagining ancient times, but the truth is that these practices were common around the world until about 70 years or so ago. In this explanation, you shall discover how all of this changed with the modernization of agriculture in the developing world as a result of the Green Revolution. 

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Table of contents

    Green Revolution Definition

    The Green Revolution is also known as the third Agricultural revolution. It arose in response to the growing concerns in the mid-20th century about the world's ability to feed itself. This was due to the global imbalances between population and food supply.

    The Green Revolution refers to the spread of advances in agricultural technology that began in Mexico and which led to a significant increase in food production in the developing world.

    The Green Revolution endeavored to and allowed many countries to become self-sufficient as it relates to food production and helped them avoid food shortages and widespread hunger. It was particularly successful in Asia and Latin America when it was feared that widespread malnutrition would occur in these regions (however, it was not very successful in Africa). The Green Revolution spanned from the 1940s to the late 1960s, but its legacy still continues in contemporary times.1 In fact, it is credited for the 125% increase in global food production that occurred between 1966 and 2000.2

    Dr. Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist known as the "father of the Green Revolution". From 1944-1960, he conducted agricultural research into wheat improvement in Mexico for the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. He created new strains of wheat and the success of his research spread throughout the world, increasing food production. Dr. Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to improving the global food supply.

    Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug StudySmarterFig. 1 - Dr. Norman Borlaug

    Green Revolution Techniques

    The critical aspect of the Green Revolution was the new technologies that were introduced into the developing nations. Below we shall examine some of these.

    High-Yield Seeds

    One of the key technological developments was the advent of improved seeds in the High Yielding Variety Seed Program (H.VP.) for wheat, rice, and corn. These seeds were bred to produce hybrid crops which had features that improved food production. They responded more positively to fertilizers and did not fall over once they were heavy with mature grains. The hybrid crops produced higher yields per unit of fertilizer and per acre of land. In addition, they were disease, drought, and flood resistant and could be grown in a wide geographical range because they were not sensitive to the length of the day. Moreover, since they had a shorter growing time, it was possible to cultivate a second or even a third crop annually.

    The H.V.P. was mostly successful and resulted in the doubling of the production of grain crops from 50 million tons in 1950/1951 to 100 million tons in 1969/1970.4 This has continued to increase since then. The success of the program attracted support from international aid organizations and was funded by multi-national agribusinesses.

    Mechanized Farming

    Prior to the Green Revolution, a lot of the agricultural production activities on many farms in the developing world were labor intensive and had to either be done by hand (e.g. pulling weeds) or with basic types of equipment (e.g. seed drill). The Green Revolution mechanized agricultural production, thus making farm work easier. Mechanization refers to the utilization of different types of equipment to plant, harvest, and do primary processing. It included the widespread introduction and use of equipment such as tractors, combine harvesters, and sprayers. The use of machines reduced production costs and was faster than manual labor. For large-scale farms, this increased their efficiency and thereby created economies of scale.

    Economies of scale are cost advantages that are experienced when production becomes more efficient because the cost of production is spread over a greater amount of product.


    Going almost hand in hand with mechanization was the use of irrigation.

    Irrigation refers to the artificial application of water to crops to assist in their production.

    Irrigation not only increased the productivity of already productive land but also transformed areas in which crops were unable to be grown into productive land. Irrigation has also continued to be important to post-Green Revolution agriculture as 40 percent of the world's food comes from the 16 percent of the world's land that is irrigated.


    Monocropping is the large-scale planting of a single species or variety of plants. It allows for large tracts of land to be planted and harvested at the same time. Monocropping makes it easier to use machinery in agricultural production.


    Another major technique in the Green Revolution was the use of agrochemicals in the form of fertilizers and pesticides.


    In addition to having high-yielding seed varieties, plant nutrient levels were artificially increased by adding fertilizers. Fertilizers were both organic and inorganic, but for the Green Revolution, the focus was on the latter. Inorganic fertilizers are synthetic and manufactured from minerals and chemicals. The nutrient content of inorganic fertilizers can be customized to the specific needs of the crops under fertilization. The application of synthetic nitrogen was particularly popular during the Green Revolution. Inorganic fertilizers allowed plants to grow more quickly. Additionally, much like irrigation, the application of fertilizers facilitated the conversion of unproductive land into agriculturally productive land.

    Green Revolution application of inorganic fertilizers StudySmarterFig. 2 - application of inorganic fertilizer


    Pesticides were also very important. Pesticides are natural or synthetic and could be applied rapidly to crops. They help to get rid of pests which resulted in higher crop yields on less land. Pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

    To find out more about some of these techniques, read our explanations on High-Yield Seeds, Mechanized Farming, Irrigation Monocropping, and Agrochemicals.

    Green Revolution in Mexico

    As previously stated, the Green Revolution began in Mexico. Initially, the push towards the modernization of the agricultural sector in the country was so that it could be self-sufficient in wheat production, which would increase its food security. To this end, the Government of Mexico welcomed the establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP)—now called the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT)—in 1943.

    MAP developed a plant breeding program which was led by Dr. Borlaug, who you read about earlier, produced hybrid seed varieties of wheat, rice, and corn. By 1963, almost all of Mexico's wheat was grown from hybrid seeds that were producing much greater yields—so much so, that the country's 1964 wheat harvest was six times larger than its 1944 harvest. At this time, Mexico went from being a net importer of basic grain crops to an exporter with 500,000 tons of wheat exported annually by 1964.

    The success of the program in Mexico caused it to be replicated in other parts of the world that were facing food shortages. However, unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s, rapid population growth and slow agricultural growth, coupled with a preference for other types of crops, caused Mexico to revert to being a net importer of wheat.6

    Green Revolution in India

    In the 1960s, the Green Revolution began in India with the introduction of high-yield varieties of rice and wheat in an attempt to bolster agricultural production in order to curb massive amounts of poverty and hunger. It began in the state of Punjab, which is now distinguished as India's breadbasket, and spread to other parts of the country. Here, the Green Revolution was led by Professor M.S. Swaminathan and he is lauded as the father of the Green Revolution in India.

    One of the major developments of the revolution in India was the introduction of several high-yielding varieties of rice, the most popular of which was the IR-8 variety, which was very responsive to fertilizers and yielded between 5-10 tons per hectare. Other high-yield rice and wheat were also transferred to India from Mexico. These, coupled with the use of agrochemicals, machines (such as mechanical thrashers), and irrigation increased India's grain production growth rate from 2.4 percent per year before 1965 to 3.5 percent per year after 1965. In gross figures, wheat production grew from 50 million tons in 1950 to 95.1 million tons in 1968 and has continued to grow since then. This raised the availability and consumption of grains in all households throughout India.

    Green Revolution stamp commemorating wheat production in India StudySmarterFig. 3 - 1968 Indian stamp commemorating large advances in wheat production from 1951-1968

    Pros and Cons of the Green Revolution

    Not surprisingly, the Green Revolution had both positive and negative aspects. The following table outlines, some, not all, of these.

    Green Revolution ProsGreen Revolution Cons
    It made food production more efficient which increased its production. Increased land degradation as a result of technologies associated with the Green Revolution, including the reduction of the nutrient content of the soils on which crops are grown.
    It lowered the dependence on imports and allowed countries to become self-sufficient.Increase in carbon emissions because of industrialized agriculture, which is contributing to global warming and climate change.
    Higher caloric intake and a more diversified diet for many.Increased socio-economic disparities as its technologies favor large-scale agricultural producers to the detriment of small landholders who cannot afford them.
    Some proponents of the Green Revolution have reasoned that growing higher-yielding crop varieties has meant that it has saved some amount of land from being turned into farmland. Rural displacement as small-scale producers are unable to compete with larger farms and therefore have migrated to urban areas in search of livelihood opportunities.
    Green Revolution has reduced levels of poverty through the creation of more jobs. Reduction in agricultural biodiversity. E.g. India there were traditionally over 30,000 varieties of rice. Currently, there are only 10.
    Green Revolution provides consistent yields regardless of the environmental situation.Agrochemical usage has increased waterway pollution, poisoned workers, and killed beneficial flora and fauna.
    Irrigation has increased water consumption, which in turn has reduced the water table in many areas.

    Green Revolution - Key takeaways

    • The Green Revolution started in Mexico and spread the technological advances in agriculture to developing countries from the 1940s-1960s.
    • Some of the techniques used in the Green Revolution include high-yielding seed varieties, mechanization, irrigation, monocropping, and agrochemicals.
    • The Green Revolution was successful in Mexico and India.
    • Some of the benefits of the Green Revolution were that it increased yields, made countries self-sufficient, created jobs, and provided a higher caloric intake, amongst others.
    • The negative impacts were that it increased land degradation, increased socioeconomic inequalities, and reduced the level of the water table, to name a few.


    1. Wu, F. and Butz, W.P. (2004) The future of genetically modified crops: lessons from the Green Revolution. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.
    2. Khush, G.S. (2001) 'Green revolution: the way forward', Nature Reviews, 2, pp. 815-822.
    3. Fig. 1 - Dr. Norman Borlaug ( by John Mathew Smith & ( Licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    4. Chakravarti, A.K. (1973) ' Green revolution in India', Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 63(3), pp. 319-330.
    5. Fig. 2 - application of inorganic fertilizer ( by eutrophication&hypoxia ( Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    6. Sonnenfeld, D.A. (1992) 'Mexico's "Green Revolution". 1940-1980: towards an environmental history', Environmental History Review 16(4), pp28-52.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    All of the following were features of the hybrid crops EXCEPT:

    True or False:The mechanization of farming led to the creation of economies of scale on small farms.

    In which decade did the Green Revolution begin in India?


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