The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
The application of science and technology to traditional agriculture has begun to produce dramatic results, above all in Asia. The rapid expansion of certain food grains in the developing world is being particularly widely heralded, and justly so, as the "Green Revolution." The discussion of the phenomenon tends to cluster around two views. On the one hand, some observers now believe that the race between food and population is over, that the new agricultural technology constitutes a cornucopia for the developing world, and that victory is in sight in the "War on Hunger." Others see this development as opening a Pandora's box; its very success will produce a number of new problems which are far more subtle and difficult than those faced during the development of the new technology. It is important to give careful attention and critical analysis to both interpretations in order to be optimistic about the promise of the Green Revolution where justified, and at the same time to prepare for the problems that are now emerging. The Green Revolution offers an unparalleled opportunity to break the chains of rural poverty in important parts of the world. Success will depend upon how well the opportunity is handled and upon how alert we are to the inherent consequences.
It is now generally known that major technological breakthroughs in food production are believed to have lifted the spectre of famine in the immediate future and to have postponed the prospect of Malthusian population disaster. Startling developments have been accomplished in wheat, rice and corn-major food staples in much of the developing world. The possibilities for doubling or even tripling production are based upon new high-yield varieties coupled with adequate supplies of water, fertilizer, pesticides and modern equipment. Overnight, the image of agriculture in the developing countries has changed from that of an economic backwater to that of a major potential contributor to overall development. The new varieties are rapidly spreading both within countries and across national boundaries. A recent estimate of the International Agricultural Development Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that in Asia alone the estimated acreage planted with these new high-yield varieties rose from 200 acres in 1964-65 to 20 million in 1967- 68. Traditional food-importing nations like the Philippines and Pakistan are becoming self-sufficient and have the prospect of becoming net food exporters.
It will be no easy task to achieve the potential increased production offered by the new technology, particularly when it involves millions upon millions of diverse farms and farmers scattered over the countryside. If the increased production is in fact obtained, this will automatically produce a whole new set of second-generation problems which must be faced if development is to be sustained and accelerated. Therefore, two considerations need to be borne in mind. First, there is reason to believe that the further spread of new varieties will not be as fast as early successes might suggest. Second, the new problems arising out of the spread of the new technology, whatever its speed, need to be foreseen and acted upon now. The probable developments in each case have the greatest significance for economic growth and for the conduct of international relations.
The reasons for believing that the new technology will not in fact spread nearly as widely or as rapidly as supposed and predicted include, first, the fact that the availability of irrigated land imposes at least a short- run limit to the spread of the new high-yield varieties. Most of these require irrigation and careful water control throughout the growing cycle. In most Asian countries about one-fourth to one-half of the rice lands are irrigated; the remainder are dependent upon monsoons and seasonal rains. The speed with which additional land can be converted to the new technology depends on the rapidity with which new irrigation facilities can be constructed; and here the high capital costs are likely to be a retarding factor.
Large-scale irrigation projects can seriously strain the investment capacity of developing nations. For example, the massive Mekong River development scheme, involving Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand, has been estimated to require a capital investment over the next 20 years of about $2 billion, roughly 35 percent of the annual national income of the four countries involved and exceeding the annual net new investment of all the countries of Southeast Asia combined. Further, significant additional costs are involved in converting existing irrigation systems to the requirements of modern agriculture. Many of the old gravity irrigation systems were not designed to provide the sophisticated water controls demanded by the new varieties. (For example, each plot must be controlled separately throughout the growing season.)
Second, there are doubts about the ability of existing markets to handle the increased product. Storage facilities and transport are inadequate and crop grading often deficient. Not only must the marketing system be expanded to handle a larger output; there also is an increased need for farm supplies and equipment. Fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides must be available in the right quantities, at the right times, and in the right places. Given the inadequacy of the agricultural infrastructure, the need to expand and modernize marketing systems is likely to reduce the pace of the Revolution.
Because many of the new varieties, especially rice, do not appeal to the tastes of most consumers, it is difficult to calculate the size of the market. Some argue that until newer varieties which are closer to popular tastes are developed, the market will be limited.
Third, the adoption of the new technology is likely to be much slower where the crop is a basic food staple, grown by a farmer for family consumption. Such farmers are understandably reluctant to experiment with the very survival of their families. Peasant producers are obviously far more numerous in the developing world than are commercial farmers and the task of converting them to a more modern technology is considerably more difficult. So far, spectacular results have been achieved primarily among the relatively large commercial farmers. Some semi-subsistence farmers have begun to grow the new varieties, but the rate at which they adopt them may be slower.
Fourth, farmers must learn new farming skills and expertise of a higher order than was needed in traditional methods of cultivation. The new agronomic requirements are quite different as regards planting dates and planting depths; fertilizer rates and timing; insecticide, pesticide and fungicide applications; watering and many others. Unless appropriate extension measures are taken to educate farmers with respect to these new farming complexities the higher yields will not be obtained.
Fifth, many of the new varieties are non-photosensitive and the shorter term will allow two or three crops per year instead of one. Multiple cropping is good, but there may be difficulties if the new harvest comes during the wet season without provision having been made for mechanical drying of the crop to replace the traditional sun drying. In addition, there may be resistance if the new harvest pattern conflicts with religious or traditional holidays which have grown up around the customary agricultural cycles.
Sixth, failure to make significant institutional reforms may well be a handicap. There is evidence in several Latin American countries that a failure to make needed changes in policies now detrimental to agriculture, or a reluctance to effectuate the institutional reforms required to give real economic incentives to small farmers and tenants, has been primarily responsible for the very slow spread of Mexico's success with new varieties of wheat and corn to its neighbors to the south.
From all this one may deduce that the "first" or "early" adopters of the new technology will be in regions which are already more advanced, literate, responsive and progressive and which have better soil, better water management, closer access to roads and markets-in sum, the wealthier, more modern farmers. For them, it is easier to adopt the new higher-yield varieties since the financial risk is less and they already have better managerial skills. When they do adopt them, the doubling and trebling of yields mean a corresponding increase in their incomes. One indication of this is the large number of new private farm-management consultant firms in the Philippines which are advising large landlords on the use of the new seed varieties and making handsome profits out of their share of the increased output.
As a result of different rates in the diffusion of the new technology, the richer farmers will become richer. In fact, it may be possible that the more progressive farmers will capture food markets previously served by the smaller semi-subsistence producer. In India, only 20 percent of the total area planted to wheat in 1967-68 consisted of the new dwarf wheats, but they contributed 34 percent of the total production. Such a development could well lead to a net reduction in the income of the smaller, poorer and less venturesome farmers. This raises massive problems of welfare and equity. If only a small fraction of the rural population moves into the modern century while the bulk remains behind, or perhaps even goes backward, the situation will be highly explosive. For example, Tanjore district in Madras, India, has been one of the prize areas where the new high-yield varieties have been successfully promoted. Yet one day last December, 43 persons were killed in a clash there between the landlords and their landless workers, who felt that they were not receiving their proper share of the increased prosperity brought by the Green Revolution.
Other experts argue that the new technology's stimulus to production and income cannot be stemmed. It is true that the rapidity with which the new seed varieties have spread in country after country belies the customary view of an inert, unresponsive peasantry. In 1965, India began a program of high-yield varieties which set a goal of 32.5 million acres by 1970-71; last year's crop season saw 18 million acres already planted, which contributed to the most successful year in recent Indian agricultural history (some 100 million tons of food grains, 11 million over the previous record year of 1964-65). Self-sufficiency in food grains is predicted in three or four years. Other countries are experiencing similar situations where the demand for the new seeds is outstripping the available supplies and black markets are even developing in seeds and fertilizer.
Nevertheless, if we assume that the new varieties will continue to live up to expectations and spread rapidly and widely, the increased production will in turn lead to a new set of difficulties. First, large tracts planted in one of the new varieties may be susceptible to disease and infestation which could cause massive losses. Heretofore, reliance upon seed selected by individual farmers meant that neighboring farms growing the same crop usually planted two or more different varieties or strains. This heterogeneity provided a built-in protection against widespread plant diseases, since not all varieties are equally susceptible. But where a single variety is introduced, covering large contiguous areas, the dangers of pathologic susceptibility are multiplied. For example, the new wheat introduced from Mexico into the Indo-Gangetic belt in India and Pakistan has involved a small range of genotypes-and the same has been true in Iran, Turkey and certain Middle Eastern countries. Any change in the spectrum of races of wheat rust in any of these countries could threaten the wheat crop on a massive scale, since it would involve the entire area.
Two steps are necessary to avoid these dangers: first, a diversified breeding program which can continually produce new varieties; second, an able and well-organized plant protection service which can quickly identify dangerous outbreaks and initiate prompt steps to combat them. Both activities must rely primarily upon national organizations rather than the regional or international ones. Both demand a skilled, well-trained staff. Some nations have recognized these dangers and are taking steps to meet them, but others still have not been made sufficiently aware. Aid givers- public and private-who are responsible for promoting the new varieties bear an equal responsibility to promote indigenous research and plant protection services. The outbreak of any major disease which wipes out the harvest of thousands of farmers is far more likely to be blamed on the producers and spreaders of the miracle seed than on Fate. Agricultural development could be set back several decades.
Second, it is vitally important to expand the entire complex of services and industries required to achieve the higher production. Any government or foreign-aid agency which distributes the "miracle" seed but fails to provide the insecticide and fertilizer in the appropriate quantities when and where needed is courting political disaster; unless these inputs are available and used, some local, traditional varieties will outyield the new ones. A seed industry, agricultural chemical plants, processing and storage firms, factories producing hand sprayers, dusters, water pumps and engines- these are just a few of the agriculturally related industries which must develop if the Revolution is to take hold.
The skills and the capital needed cannot be provided solely by the public sector. Private capital must also be utilized. In a few countries the spread of the new technologies has already forced an abrupt departure from the previous practice of having government agencies serve as the major or sole distributor of the required inputs. Private industry, especially American, has stepped in to provide a new, more dynamic pattern of distribution. In the Philippines, for example, ESSO has become a major distributor of fertilizer and agricultural chemicals. Frequently, such ventures have involved links with local firms. In India, the International Minerals and Chemicals Corporation, with the Standard Oil Company of California, built a fertilizer plant with a yearly capacity of 365,000 tons; the U.S. firms provide the management but control is held by an Indian firm. Storage silos, seed multiplication firms and even integrated farm-to-retail firms are just a few of the activities where private U.S. resources are being harnessed to serve the Green Revolution.
Equally important are the increased farm services which are required, particularly agricultural credit. For example, from studies conducted at the International Rice Research Institute, it is estimated that whereas the total cash costs of production for the average Filipino rice farmer using traditional methods and varieties is about $20 per hectare, the cost rises to $220 when the new, high-yielding IR-8 is grown. Although the yield may increase threefold, leading to a net return four times greater than with traditional varieties, the farmer must have access to substantially greater credit to finance his operations. Especially for the poorer farmers with low cash reserves, who may want to adopt the new varieties, the village moneylender and merchant will not be adequate unless they in turn have access to additional funds. Indeed, the Green Revolution must be accompanied both by an increase in the amount of credit available and by the expansion and modernization of credit institutions and mechanisms. Tapping the capital markets in the modern urban sector must be encouraged, and ways must be found at the village level to mobilize local capital, especially the increased savings which are possible from higher farm incomes. The Green Revolution will generate increased cash which, if properly marshalled, can contribute to capital formation and agricultural progress.
Third, much more attention must be devoted to marketing the increased output. Where there has been semi-subsistence agriculture, the impact of the new technology upon the marketed product is even greater than on total production. If the crop is a food staple and if the peasant farm family traditionally consumes some 70 to 80 percent of its total product each year, a doubling of output does not lead to a doubling in the amount retained for family consumption. Some modest increase in consumption is likely, but the bulk of the increased production will enter the market. Thus a doubling in yields in a semi-subsistence agriculture usually leads to much more than a doubling of the amount sold.
The impact of this explosive increase upon the traditional marketing network and storage capacity can be calamitous. The case of India is illustrative. During the past crop year, India experienced a marvelous increase in food-grain production, but the marketing network and storage facilities were not prepared to cope with it. The result can be seen in the mountains of food-grain stored in schools and in the open air under conditions which are apt to reduce if not negate the gains. The food- deficit psychology which underlies the failure of planners and policymakers to anticipate these results is not limited to the developing nations. Aid givers were equally surprised. Strangely, the lessons of the Indian experience do not yet seem to have affected the thinking and planning of other nations which are promoting the new technology.
Fourth, the slowness with which the food-deficit psychology dies also has an important consequence in terms of government pricing policies. The fact that agriculture, even semi-subsistence agriculture, does respond to price, is only gradually becoming accepted. But the shock which quantum jumps in food production may have on domestic prices has not been sufficiently appreciated. The downward pressure on prices, especially where transport is deficient and storage is inadequate, may in fact be so severe as to have a disincentive effect upon producers. Unless adequate attention is given to developing a sound pricing policy to prevent excessive dampening of incentives, the spread of the new technology may in fact be cut short before any "takeoff" has occurred. Premature discouragement could produce a reversion leading to a slowing up in food production or even a rejection of the new technology.
It has been amply demonstrated throughout the world that peasant and subsistence farmers are responsive to favorable prices, provided the return is real and they receive the benefit. For example, from 1951-53 through 1961-63, the farmers of Thailand in response to favorable prices increased their exports of corn at an average annual compounded rate of 35.8 percent; casava, 25.0 percent; and kenaf, 43.8 percent. Filipino farmers responded to a governmental price-support program for tobacco by changing from native to Virginia tobacco and then booming production from 3 million kilos in 1954 to over 30 million kilos in 1962. The list of crops where peasant farmers have responded to favorable prices is large-rubber, oil palm, coffee, jute, wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, gram, cotton. Thus, if the full potential offered by the new technology is to be realized, every effort must be made to insure that there is in fact a significant return to the producer and that the rapid rise in output does not lead to a counter- productive slump in prices.
Fifth, the goals of increased food production are frequently couched in terms of some desirable, minimal standards of nutrition. Such nutritional goals are commendable, but they can be attained only by individuals who have the income with which to purchase the better diet. Effective demand for food depends upon both the income of the demanders and the price of the food. If the increased production leads to lower costs and prices, then consumers will be able to increase their food purchases and hopefully to raise their levels of nutrition. Equally important is the need to increase incomes so that the greater production entering the market can be purchased. The food problem in a developing world is both a problem of production and supply and a problem of demand and income. Unless the higher levels of effective demand materialize, the prospect will be market gluts, price depression and, in certain cases, shifts by the farmers away from the higher-yielding varieties. Hence, every effort must be made both to reduce the unit costs of the increased food output and to augment the incomes of consumers who purchase food; otherwise, the second bowl of rice will not be bought-despite the technical feasibility of producing it.
Sixth, one of the major avowed aims of most nations which are eagerly promoting the Green Revolution is to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. In Southeast Asia, for example, the Philippines already claims to have become self-sufficient. Malaysia predicts that she will be self- sufficient by 1971; Indonesia by 1973. Some believe that these target dates are overly optimistic. But if the rice-deficit nations of the region such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines eventually become self- sufficient by successfully adopting the new technology, what will happen to the rice-surplus nations like Burma and Thailand whose economies are heavily dependent upon rice export? To whom will they sell their rice? Self- sufficiency will not only be detrimental to the rice-exporting nations, but will reduce one of the few areas of economic interdependence in the region. Unless action is taken in advance to offset the predictable impact of the new technology, hopes of promoting regional economic integration will be substantially reduced. Whether or not one agrees with the goal of self- sufficiency for these nations, the policies have been adopted and will be pursued. Many developing nations spend some 30 percent of their foreign exchange on food imports and wish to eliminate this drain as well as the irritation of chronic deficits in domestic production. We should anticipate the predictable consequences of these policies-in this case major economic dislocations in trade-so that we can be equally ready with developmental efforts or foreign assistance to reduce the dimensions of the problem. Unless the exporting nations take immediate stock of their prospects and seek to diversify their agriculture, the impact of such trade distortions could have major consequences for their economies and pace of development.
Seventh, a critical question is whether these technological developments are a "once-and-for-all" phenomenon. How likely is it that new technological improvement will continue to be made? The application of science to agriculture over the last 300 years has resulted in a tenfold increase in yield per acre on the best farmed lands in the temperate zone. This expansion is what led to the production controls introduced by the surplus nations, such as the United States, to keep demand and supply in reasonable balance. Today's Green Revolution is the result of a similar application of science to agriculture in the developing world. But it should be noted that the institutionalized application of science is largely concentrated at present in food crops. Before World War II, primary attention in agricultural research in the developing world was devoted to the major crops-rubber in Malaysia, sugar in the Philippines, coffee in Kenya, palm oil in Nigeria, coffee in Brazil, bananas in Honduras. Staple food crops were either ignored or received scant attention. Thus the successes of the recent application of science to peasant agriculture could be interpreted as an exploitation of a "technical gap" in food crops left by years of neglect. If current developments merely represent a "catching- up," then as soon as population overtakes current developments, we are back to "square one."
Much will depend upon whether or not the necessary manpower is trained in each country to provide a continuing human resource which can produce a constant stream of new technology. The manpower trained in the Rockefeller Foundation's Mexican program has always been a greater contribution, in my view, than the new varieties. Successful adoption should not deflect attention from the importance and role of continuous agricultural research. The development of indigenous competence to engage in agricultural research is critical and becomes even more critical as the new varieties are adopted. The target should be not a new technology but ever-new technology, and this requires skilled manpower.
These are only a few of the possible consequences of the successful spread of the new technology. There are several broader consequences and issues which can be raised only as questions in this brief presentation:
To what extent will the diffusion of the new technology accentuate the displacement of rural people and heighten the pace of migration to the cities? If higher yields per acre, multiple cropping plus mechanization, force surplus manpower out of agriculture, what are the prospects for increased employment in industry and services to absorb this manpower?
For the average developing nation, the Green Revolution means that instead of devoting two-thirds to three-fourths of its agricultural resources to food production, these resources may now be shifted to other higher paying crops. The question then becomes, what crops and for what markets?
If agriculture becomes more modern, dynamic and wealthy, will the non- agricultural sector allow agriculture to retain a significant share of this increased income or merely follow the previous patterns of taxing agriculture for non-agricultural development?
What will be the political significance of these changes if successful adoption of the new technology leads to an economically invigorated and strengthened rural population-almost invariably a large majority in developing nations? Will rural-based political parties and movements emerge to alter the recent dominance of urban centers?
What will be the global effect of a food explosion in the tropical and sub- tropical world? Will such developments lead to an improved reallocation of productive specialization among the developed and developing world, or will nationalistic trade barriers continue to flout natural comparative advantages?
One final danger lies in assuming that there is no longer an urgent need for measures to reduce rates of population growth. Quite the contrary. While the new developments are a splendid gift of time to allow a holding operation, effective population measures continue to be essential. Whether one assumes a growth rate of 2.5 or 3 percent, the inexorable fact is that, give or take a few years, the population of the developing world will double in about 25 years.
The significance of the food-population problem is more than humanitarian and developmental; it also has critical implications for the conduct of international relations. Relations between nations are often profoundly affected by long-run forces over which men can exercise only limited control in the short run. The food-population race is an excellent example of such a set of forces. Predictions regarding both population and food, as well as their interaction over varying lengths of time, must be taken into account in the conduct of developmental assistance, not only by aid-giving nations and international organizations, but by the governments of developing nations themselves. Policies and programs designed to win the race between food and population may have unintended, though often predictable, consequences which may have a very broad impact.
Charles Malik once said that "one of the principal causes of both international conflict and internal strife is unfounded expectations. These are based ultimately either on deception or on a belief in magic."[i] What we have in hand seems to many people to approach magic; let us hope that it does not become the source of deception.
To speak of the possible consequences and problems associated with the next phase of the Green Revolution should not be misinterpreted as a plea for the suppression of the Revolution because, like Pandora's box, it will lead to even greater problems than those it was designed to eliminate. On the contrary, I would strongly argue that the list of second-generation problems is a measure of what great opportunities exist for breaking the centuries-old chains of peasant poverty. They also demonstrate how closely interrelated are the various factors which impel or retard agricultural development. This complex interrelationship makes interdisciplinary research and coöperation vital if the current problems are to be solved and future ones anticipated. The most realistic prediction is that each country is likely to experience a different set of these problems and that there will be variations among countries between the two extremes of optimistic and pessimistic prognoses.
The quiet, passive peasant is already aware of the modern world-far more than we realize-and he is impatient to gain his share. The Green Revolution offers him the dramatic possibility of achieving his goal through peaceful means. It has burst with such suddenness that it has caught many unawares. Now is the time to place it in its long-range perspective and to engage in contingency planning so that we may respond flexibly and quickly as the Revolution proceeds. Perhaps in this way we can ensure that what we are providing becomes a cornucopia, not a Pandora's box.
[i] Charles H. Malik, "What Shall It Profit A Man?", Columbia Journal of World Business, Summer 1966.