The Environmental and Gendered Consequences of the Green Revolution

Green Revolution refers to the agricultural movement that began in early 1960s which transformed the rural agrarian economy by introducing new technology and machinery, new plant varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yields. Norman E. Borlaug, an American agricultural scientist and plant pathologist laid the foundation for the technological advancement in agriculture. His research in Mexico led to the introduction of high yielding variety grains, especially wheat and rice, which combined with advanced modern technology led to a dramatic increase in food production. After its success in Mexico, other parts of the world also began to adopt the methods and ideas of the Green Revolution. With the assistance of Rockfeller foundation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization, Borlaug soon began the Green revolution in Asia where rapidly increasing population and food shortages had created conditions for mass starvation.

Looking at the Indian economy, agriculture has been an integral part of it for a very long time, with the majority of the population dependent on agrarian activities for subsistence. When India gained its independence in 1947, the agricultural productivity was really low. Moreover, in the 1960s India experienced extreme food shortages as a result of two unprecedented droughts in 1965-66 and 1966-67, making India dependent on US food aid to prevent starvation. It was in this background that the Indian government frantically began to look for measures to increase food production and overcome the hunger problems. The government invited American scientists associated with Ford and the Rockfeller foundation to rectify the situation, and in 1965 introduced the Green Revolution along with the help of M.S. Swaminathan, popularly known as the Father of the Green Revolution in India. Therefore, by the mid-1960s, the agricultural policies mainly focused on utilizing new Mexican varieties which were seen as ‘miracle’ seeds and promised abundant grain production. While it resolved the immediate problem of food scarcity, it also had several long term negative consequences on various aspects of the society. In this paper, we will be focusing on the ecological consequences and its impact on women in agrarian spaces.

Adverse Consequences of the Green Revolution on Environmental Health

Although the New Agricultural Strategy increased crop productivity, reduced reliance on food grain import, led to rural industrialisation by introducing new technologies in agriculture, among other short term benefits, it had a serious negative impact on existing power distribution, social inequality and on health and environment. The new varieties relied heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the toxic contents polluted the water as these agro-chemicals used in the fields often washed off polluting nearby water sources, and seeped into the groundwater making it undrinkable and also led to degradation of the soil quality, resulting in multiple health hazards among consumers and farmers. In the long run, the Green Revolution had more negative impact as it contributed to fertility loss in soil, over-exploitation of underground water levels, loss of biodiversity, increased level of chemicals in water and soil, ultimately contributing to climate change. Many large scale irrigation projects, required for intensive farming, undertaken under the new agrarian reform led to water scarcity and depletion of freshwater resources. Moreover, its impact was not uniform as micro-analysis of the green revolution reveals regional variations, and sharpening of the already existing inequalities and power distribution, leading to farmer’s indebtedness and social conflicts as majority benefits went to rich upper caste farmers. This capital intensive agrarian revolution was biased towards the rich farmers who had access to resources to invest in modern technology and new genetically modified seeds, therefore, in order to compete with them small marginal farmers had to take loans. However, due to abundant crop production, the prices fell as a result many were indebted and some even committed suicide. (Stepha, 2022).

Vandana Shiva in her book, “The Violence of the Green Revolution” criticizes the Green revolution in India which unleashed violence against the environment and both present and future generations. Shiva argues that the Green Revolution methods are rooted in reductionist science which views the world from a purely scientific perspective, breaking down complex phenomena into simpler parts. She mentions two reasons for terming modern science as reductionist: first, it limited human’s ability to understand nature by disregarding knowledge systems and alternative perspectives; second, by perceiving nature as lifeless and disconnected, nature’s potential to regenerate and renew itself was diminished. (Mies & Shiva, 2014, p.23)

While this reductionist system claims to be objective, neutral and universal, Shiva argues it was designed to serve the needs of commercial capitalism which aligned with the values of those in power and control. The reductionist knowledge favors certain perspectives while marginalizing the other, leading to social imbalance and reinforcing hierarchical structures. For millennia, farmers have been engaged in agricultural activities working closely with nature based on their traditional knowledge, acquired over the generations. However, with the introduction of the Green Revolution, peasants were no longer specialists responsible for conserving and enhancing genetic diversity and self-renewability of grains as it was replaced by new strategies that prioritized uniformity and non-renewability, destroying the genetic diversity. The shared genetic heritage was converted to privately owned property, safeguarded by intellectual property rights, with primary aim to boost transnational profits and give the First World dominance over the Third World resources. (Shiva, 2016). The Green Revolution invaded and colonized nature; the hybridization of seeds disrupted the traditional concept of seeds by separating their role as both a source of food and production means. This led to accumulation by private capitalists who now came to dominate the food production industry. The agrarian space was no longer under the control of the peasant community but was commercialized under corporations and research centers.

With the coming of the Green Revolution, there was a misconception that soil fertility could be produced and enhanced within the factories and labs, however, that was far from reality. The newly introduced dwarf varieties required extensive amounts of chemical fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus, for large scale production, which led to build-up of toxic chemicals in the soil. The prolonged, excessive usage of synthetic inputs harmed ecosystems including long-term risks, like the emergence of resistant pests and degradation of soil fertility. The synthetic fertilizers used in the fields eventually enter soil, water and air; this nitrogen and phosphorus which seeps into groundwater and rivers poses threat to the aquatic ecosystems by overloading them with an excess of nutrients, a process known as eutrophication which creates dead zones, harmful algal blooms and diminishes the fish habitats killing fishes and seagrass. Ocean acidification, caused by the decomposition of excess algae and plants due to eutrophication, leads to a decrease in pH of the water resource, hindering the growth of fish and shellfish and impeding shell formation in bivalve mollusks. (NOA, n.d.) The accumulation of nitrogen in aquatic and terrestrial environments poses a significant risk to biodiversity and the well-being of indigenous flora and fauna. Furthermore, the use of fertilizers in soil contributes to the production and emission of nitrous oxide, a highly detrimental greenhouse gas. (National Geographic Society, n.d.)

Shiva notes that the degradation of land quality is intricately linked to multiple factors like shift from crop-rotations to cultivating rice and wheat simultaneously, change in the ratio of grain to straw in the new varieties(by increasing grain yield at the expense of straw production; high yielding rice varieties reduce biomass availability for fodder and mulch, leading to a decrease in nutrient recycling in the soil), excessive quantity of trace elements leading to soil toxicity, including fluorine toxicity and accumulation of boron, iron, molybdenum, and selenium toxicity which posed a threat to crop production and animal health. Moreover, the new cropping pattern reduced organic matter availability in the soil due to higher nutrient intake demand of the new HYV seeds, leading to micronutrient deficiencies of elements like zinc, sulfur, manganese, and iron in the soil. The transition from growing mixtures of cereals, pulses and coarse grains to only growing wheat and rice also significantly affected the soil fertility, as leguminous crops like pulses, a significant source of nitrogen for the soil, were no longer grown and to add to that the omission of millets and coarse grain production resulted in a decrease in fodder, reducing the availability of farm yard manure which plays a vital role in replenishing soil fertility, and thus turning the agricultural lands into wastelands. Another consequence of the Green Revolution was expansion in the cultivated land, areas that were once forests or marginal lands were now being used to cultivate crops. Overall, we see how the Green Revolution paradigm replaced the natural cycle with a commercial system that relied on purchasing chemical fertilizers from factories and prioritized the production of agricultural products for sale. As Shiva aptly writes, “agricultural productivity necessarily includes returning to the soil part of the biological products that the soil yields. Technologies cannot substitute nature and work outside nature’s ecological processes without destroying the very basis of production. Nor can markets provide the only measure of ‘output’ and ‘yields’.”(Shiva, 2016).

The Green Revolution initiated extensive agriculture which not only depended upon high input of chemicals, but also required intensive irrigation from both surface as well as ground level water, which further led to environmental problems on water equilibrium and instigated conflicts over water resources. Unlike the previous crop varieties that relied on irrigation as a precautionary measure against loss, the modern HYV seeds required extensive irrigation as a vital component for achieving fruitful yields. According to Shiva, the increasing demand in irrigation input during the Green Revolution can be seen at two levels: first, the transition from indigenous water efficient crops like millets, oilseeds to mono-cultivation and multiple-cropping systems like wheat and rice which led to a surge in the need for water resources; second, the introduction of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice which expanded the intensity of water requirement. (Shiva, 2016). Some of the most obvious consequences of modern agriculture which relies on heavy irrigation are exhaustion of river bodies and aquifers. Apart from the depletion of water resources, massive irrigation projects and excessive irrigation based cultivation patterns led to waterlogging which creates a suitable environment for anaerobic decomposition- a process in which microbes like bacteria decompose organic material in the absence of oxygen, affecting the plant roots. Additionally, excessive water diversion can result in the accumulation of excessive salt in soils, which negatively affects the plant growth; especially in arid regions where lands have huge quantities of salts which rise to the top when poured water on it and creates a residue when the water dries up, reducing the soil productivity, quality and in extreme cases makes it unusable forever. (Shiva, 2016). The intensive use of water with the Green Revolution disrupted the water balance in different regions, and waterlogging and salinization of land led to desertification of land. Furthermore, intensive irrigation leads to elevated levels of water evaporation, which affects both the temperature and pressure of the air, as well as the humidity levels in the atmosphere. (National Geographic Society, n.d.) Shiva further observes that intensive irrigation led to disputes, as waterlogging does not acknowledge farm borders and drainage cannot be controlled without the involvement of the entire community. We notice that the privatization focus of the Green Revolution caused community resource management to suffer as a consequence. The need for intensive irrigation systems resulted in extensive storage systems, and the establishment of large dams necessitated centralized management of water resources. The construction of dams further led to negative consequences as it disrupted the natural flow of water leading to increased erosion and sediment accumulation in the reservoir, both of which can have detrimental effects on the ecosystem, water quality, and overall health of the catchment areas. (Shiva, 2016). The new variety of seeds and cultivation patterns introduced under the Green Revolution initiated a vicious cycle that

demanded more water and chemicals, resulting in disastrous ecological as well as social consequences. This agrarian revolution which began with the aim of enhancing land and water productivity to achieve abundance, soon created a new set of problems leading to scarceness of land and water resources.

The Correlation between Environmental Degradation and the Marginalization of Women: An Ecofeminist Perspective

Modern science and technology, which instigated the Green Revolution and was widely accepted as “universal, value-free system of knowledge” was soon questioned by the Third world and feminist scholars who acknowledged contemporary science as a “western, male-oriented, patriarchal projection” which mainly focused on dominating and exploiting nature and women. Violence is an integral part of modern reductionist science which subjugates both nature and women by depriving them of their full potential and power. Reductionism which is based on uniformity and divisibility, enables fragmented knowledge to be seen as representative of the entire system. It disregards context, and is based on detachment and exclusion. As a result, only “experts” and “specialists” are deemed valid in the pursuit and production of knowledge; the non-specialist knowledge (traditional knowledge often held by indigenous women) was treated as ignorance, while it hid its own incomprehension. Through alienation, it takes control and ownership over nature and women. The capitalist patriarchy views seed and women’s bodies as territories that are yet to be fully colonized; hence, Shiva accurately writes, “Colonization of the seed, reflects the patterns of colonization of women’s bodies”. (Mies & Shiva, 2014, pp:29). Instead of being recognized for their creative potential and regenerative power, they are transformed into passive entities, with experts taking control to enhance their value. In this system, women’s contributions are devalued by categorizing it as passive, non-labor, and their ability to work as a natural resource. This devaluation of nature and women’s contributions coincides with the belief that colonization and development are acts of progress. It is quite evident how this industrializing vision devalues other’s social labor, but what is ironic is that this devaluation positions destruction as savior which can be clearly seen in how capital and technology have taken over, shifting value from labor to non-value, creativity to passivity and production to destruction. (Mies & Shiva, 2014, pp:22-26).

The connection between degradation of the environment and exploitation of women, was for the first time highlighted by the ecofeminists (a term coined by Francoise D’ Eaubonne in 1980) in the mid-1970s. “Ecofeminists argue that green politics should start from women’s experience as women share with nature a common oppression at the hand of male-dominated progress.” (Mellor, 1992, p:229). Since certain feminine qualities like co-operation, nurturing, support, nonviolence are considered important for promoting and protecting environmental processes, women were viewed as a part of nature and were conscious of cruelty suffered by Mother Earth at the hands of the men, placing the duty of preserving nature on women’s shoulders. (Khanduja, 2017). “Women are seen in sync with nature, working in union with it, while men have a hierarchical relationship with nature in which their actions try to dominate it.”(De, 2015, p:3). Under the Green Revolution, the capitalist masculine system took control over nature and brought in ecological disasters, just like how patriarchy colonized women’s bodies and their reproductive ability. The Green Revolution serves as a perfect example of how mainstream green ideologies overlook the perspectives and experiences of women, highlighting the necessity of merging feminism with environmentalism to prevent green politics from adopting a masculine perspective that aligns with patriarchal principles. It is important to understand that the ecological consequences of the Green Revolution disproportionately affect women due to their close relationship with natural resources. Hence, ecofeminism brings attention to the idea that social (like oppression of women, colored people etc.) and ecological issues aren’t entirely separate from each other, and tries to understand all these issues collectively.

Women have had a very close relationship with nature for a long period of time, because of their extensive knowledge of environmental processes and the local flora and fauna, women played a major role in managing natural resources and agrarian activities, especially in the third world countries. However, their eco-friendly and sustainable methods as well as their knowledge passed on over generations, was no longer given any importance under the Green Revolution. Modernization of agriculture neglected female farmers, their experiences, knowledge, skills which they gained through constant interaction with the local environment and the traditional technologies, often created and used by women. The natural resources were now taken over by the market economy as a result of which women were displaced from their survival economy, causing them to become impoverished and marginalized. (Sobha, 2007). The emphasis on monocultures, commercialization and mechanization of agrarian space marginalized women’s traditional roles in subsistence farming as primary producers and builders of the soil, as they became subsidiary wage earners on farms and were further pushed into unpaid household labor. This marginalization has led women to lose control over land as a means of production, and their situation was further worsened by unequal wages in agricultural labor. Farming now relied on non-renewable resources from factories, replacing natural inputs provided by women farmers and also disrupted the link between agriculture and other industries like animal husbandry, which was held together by women. The capitalist patriarchal transformation of self-reproducing agriculture brought a shift in values and ideas of agricultural production, the focus was now more on making profits instead of subsistence. Instead of focusing on society’s needs, this profit based commercial outlook led to the exclusion of many peasants and women from the food production system affecting their accessibility to food and employment.

Mitu De writes that women who looked after the food and nutrition of the families were the first to observe ecological changes, they were the first to notice changes in color, smell of food and water, when new diseases broke out among the children due to environmental pollution, and so on. De observes that environmental problems are more harmful for women compared to men as they’re more involved in family management, moreover, in case of a crisis, women are the ones who bear the brunt and are forced to go without basic provisions. (De, 2015, p:4) The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to increase the grain production not only affected land, water but also introduced chemicals into the food chain, and its traces could be seen in vegetables, fishes, animal products like dairy and meat as well as in breast milk which then gets passed on to infants. Various consequences of environmental degradation like deforestation, water and soil degradation, exposure to organic pollutants have a direct impact on female labor, health and nutrition. For instance, many households depend on fuelwood for cooking food and other purposes which is usually collected by women; due to deforestation women were now forced to travel longer distances to collect firewood and in many cases girls were made to drop out of schools to assist their mothers in household activities. Some shifted to using biomass, whose smoke has a negative impact on the health especially when burned within enclosed spaces without a proper chimney or other outlets to draw the smoke out; this smoke from solid fuels can cause pneumonia in children and lung disease in women. Sobha argues that if collection of firewood was done by men, then perhaps it might have received attention from the concerned authorities. (Sobha, 2007) Another example which shows women’s vulnerability to environmental issues can be seen in how they’re exposed to dangers of pollutants in water as they collect water, wash clothes and utensils, give bath to household animals, all of which are usually done by the female of the household; furthermore, when children get infected mother has a higher chance of contracting the disease compared to father, as mothers are primarily involved in providing care along with the invisible, unpaid household duties. It is also worth noting how the degradation of agrarian space resulted in men leaving their houses and women behind, further increasing their burden as they were left to take care of the children and the households with meager income since female workers were paid substantially less compared to men and in some cases were not paid at all.

The rapid agricultural modernization and adoption of new technologies had a differential impact on rural communities, shaped by differences in socioeconomic status and gender. The effects of the Green Revolution on rural people depended on whether they were wage laborers, cultivators, or consumers, landed or landless, rich or poor, male or female headed households. However, two general trends are quite evident everywhere: the wealthy benefited more than the financially weaker sections and on the other hand, men benefited more compared to women. The agrarian reform disproportionately benefited men due to pre-existing patriarchal structures, moreover, technical training and extension programmes were exclusively targeted at rich male farmers thereby denying women opportunities to improve their skills and access to important channels of communication and state sponsored support services. One of the most visible consequences of agrarian modernization was the loss of wage labor opportunities for poor rural women due to the introduction of technology which mechanized tasks they traditionally performed, and to add to that modern mills mostly preferred to employ male workers. For example: introduction of rice mills throughout Asia put women out of work, as these women laborers were formerly involved with winnowing, threshing, manual de-husking and hand-pounding of rice, all of which were important sources of female employment in agrarian spaces. (FAO, n.d.) Women had limited access to resources, modern technology, hybrid seeds and chemical inputs, preventing them from fully participating in the benefits of agricultural modernization. While men often adopted higher value cash-crops and predominantly engaged in monetized activities, women were left to cultivate staple crops for household consumption which brought in no income while adding to their workload. In order to afford technological inputs, women were compelled to sell their labor along with managing household activities, however, women were paid lower wages than men and were often assigned more labor intensive tasks like weeding, transplanting and harvesting, and in most cases women were not even paid for their labor, thereby aggravating the already heavy labor burden experienced by women. According to an article by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the mechanization of agriculture in India had mixed effects on women, depending on the socio-economic status of the household they belonged to. Women from poor, landless households were forced to work as agricultural laborers to meet the financial demands or their workload in farming activities increased as their households avoided hiring outside help to reduce expenditure. On the other hand, rich households that could invest in modern inputs, benefitted from the additional income, allowing women to discontinue their agricultural labor. However, this withdrawal from field work often led to an increased workload like cooking for hired laborers, along with taking care of the family and household.

Overall, we can see how this agricultural transformation reinforced the existing traditional gender roles and inequalities, led to the displacement of women from their traditional roles in sustainable agriculture as keepers of knowledge and hindered women’s economic independence, as women in agricultural households faced increased work burdens, reduced income opportunities, and diminished autonomy. The dominant patriarchal and capitalist systems established under the Green Revolution, perpetuated violence against both nature and women. Therefore, by recognizing the inherent connection between social and ecological issues, ecofeminism highlights the gendered power dynamics ingrained within agricultural practices and brings attention to the need for intersectional analyses when examining the impacts of development projects. It emphasizes the importance of sustainability, equity and social justice and provides a framework to understand, address the challenges collectively, and transform the patriarchal systems that have perpetuated environmental degradation and marginalization of women. By incorporating ecofeminist perspectives and integrating women’s knowledge, skills, and experiences, we can advocate for a more inclusive, community-centered and sustainable approach to facilitate equitable development, sustainable agricultural practices, and environmentally conscious future.

Conclusion

Although the Green Revolution was celebrated as a profitable and successful solution by governments, its true cost on the environment and women in agricultural households is undeniable, in fact there has been a silence surrounding its gendered consequences. The agrarian scientific revolution which was expected to overcome ignorance and advance knowledge, instead perpetuated a tradition of viewing nature and women solely as resources, passive entities to be exploited, disregarding the limits of nature. Under the Green Revolution, profits and power became closely tied to the exploitation of all living organisms. This resulted in a dangerous form of ignorance which posed a significant threat to life on Earth, as many of its aftereffects created conditions for climate change globally. Unlike in the past wherein the farmers adapted according to the environmental factors and through careful observation took appropriate steps, the Green Revolution failed to consider its environmental impacts, overlooked the importance of local and traditional knowledge, sustainable agricultural practices and inclusivity, as it solely focused on increasing crop production and its commercialization. That being the case, it is crucial for governments, policymakers, and researchers to adopt a more comprehensive approach that addresses environmental issues holistically and ensure sustainable and inclusive agricultural development. A more holistic approach that considers sustainable farming techniques, equitable distribution of resources, and gender-sensitive policies is essential, as it can mitigate negative ecological consequences, reduce gender disparities, and ensure the overall well-being of agrarian communities.

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Merin Mani, M.A. in Sociology from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, has submitted her research paper to the Sociology group’s Social Sciences writing competition.

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