Indebtedness and dependency: the untold story of the Green Revolution

By Ana Benoliel Coutinho

Indebtedness and dependency: the untold story of the Green Revolution


Based on its achievements, the Green Revolution and conventional farming once promised to feed people while contributing to rural development. Indeed, it did succeed in avoiding famine in many countries and helping some of the world’s poorest countries to become self-sufficient in food.[1] However, decades of putting this approach into practice have revealed its negative impact on soil and agricultural systems as well as its devastating effect on thousands of farmers worldwide. This article seeks the reasons for this and the solutions identified to avoid farmers resorting to suicide and to secure sustained agricultural practices.

Roots & results of the Green Revolution

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, policy and decision-makers opted to invest in the Green Revolution because of the threat of famine while also seeing it as an opportunity for agricultural development and thus managed to persuade donors to support its policies in developing countries. The move enabled the Green Revolution to meet its main goal, helping developing countries mainly from Asia and Latin America to avoid famine despite growing population figures.

See also: Can high yields today ensure our food in 10 years?

“India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia declared self-sufficiency in food, and agricultural technology received praise for reversing the economic fortunes of one of the world’s poorest regions,” Oxford Academic wrote.

According to some studies, the Green Revolution proved to be effective in boosting agricultural growth, was deemed to be ‘strongly pro-poor’ and the results spilled over to the rest of a country’s economy. In Rwanda for example, gains in the production of the six nationally prioritized crops ‘exceeded their national targets in 2008 on the way to a 30% proposed increase during 2006–12’.

These breakthroughs very often brought better rural infrastructure as well as improved access to education and healthcare.

The results achieved by intensive agricultural systems are due, to a large extent, to strong financial support from public policymakers, a trend that continues today. Europe, for instance, invests billions of euros annually in intensive farming without, until recently, imposing any obligation to reduce pollution.

Farmers’ suicide

Nevertheless, the negative socio-economic and environmental impact of the Green Revolution appears to outweigh arguments for its growth. Apart from devastating environmental effects, the Green Revolution has also affected people’s wellbeing in rural communities. The number of cases of farmers committing suicide has become shocking in both developing and developed countries. France experienced a quiet suicide epidemic in 2018 with more than 370 farmers ending their lives. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, in India, approximately 16,000 farmers commit suicide each year and according to researchers, indebtedness plays a major role in this.

What is the cause?

The underlying cause that leads to suicide by farmers is indebtedness. The model of the Green Revolution is linked to substantial investment in fertilizer, seeds, pesticides, and fuel which often leads to the need for credit and loans. As conventional agriculture constantly requires more and more off-farm inputs, the price of which has been increasing, many farmers have failed to keep pace with this. Moreover, the use of pesticides and fertilizers degrades the agricultural system making it even more dependent on these inputs thus creating a vicious cycle. The use of genetically engineered (GM) and hybrid seeds creates even more dependency on these systems. For instance, in Uganda through development aid, farmers were donated such seeds that were only possible to be planted alongside the use of fertilizers and pesticides[2].

Hence, one may reach the conclusion that the system created by the Green Revolution favours those who supply agrochemicals rather than farmers and rural development.


Going back to the case of suicides among French farmers, this problem not only triggered a government response but also such initiatives as the Solidarité Paysans which helps farmers who are undergoing severe economic difficulties. As their recent report shows, many farmers were able to improve their economic situation by adopting some of the agroecological techniques.

See also: Agroecology: an opportunity for fragile farms

Alternative agricultural approaches based on agroecological principles such as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are emerging and are able to address the root of the problem.

See also: Defining agroecology: a broad term and yet a very concrete set of farming principles

While the conventional approach still attracts the lion’s share of subsidies, alternative approaches are evolving, spreading, and giving hope to farmers and also to future generations, the more so now that the issue has become the focus of heavyweight decision makers. Thus, the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety has been tasked “to reduce the use of chemical pesticides, fertiliser” as well as to address “the environmental impact of the food processing and retail sectors”.

[1] Roederer-Rynning, C. (2015). Policy-Making in the European Union (7th ed.), Chapter 8: The Common Agricultural Policy: The Fortress Challenged (196-217). Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Nabudere, W. D. (2001). From Agriculture to Agricology: Towards a Glocal Circular Economy. Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (p.74) Johannesburg: MISTRA