J. Harwood: Europe's Green Revolution and Others Since

Europe's Green Revolution and Others Since. The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding

Harwood, Jonathan
Routledge Explorations in Economic History 56
London 2011: Routledge
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270 S.
$ 160.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Courtney Fullilove, Wesleyan University, Connecticut

Why do development projects routinely fail to help small farmers? Why have efforts to alleviate rural poverty persistently faltered? Jonathan Harwood has written a history of peasant-friendly plant breeding in Germany between 1870 and 1939 that aims to address these questions by situating his subject within a re-periodized series of “Green Revolutions:” beginning in Central Europe at the turn of the 20th-century, continuing through the big modernization projects of the postwar period, and concluding with poverty alleviation programs since the 1970s. Using Germany as a case of successful peasant-friendly breeding, Harwood ventures a comparative analysis of “Green Revolutions” addressed to agricultural historians, science and public policymakers, and development personnel. He divides the book into sections of interest to these various constituencies, identifying the historical chapters on Germany (1–5), his case for public sector applied research (4 and 8), and his critique of postwar Green Revolution programs (7 and 8) (p. 15). Harwood persuasively insists that the "development industry's lack of interest in its own past has been astonishing;" and this is a book for all engaged in such work.

Harwood’s primary focus is state plant breeding stations in early 20th-century Germany, where most farms were between two and five hectares, relied on family labor for subsistence and local markets, and lacked capital for chemical fertilizers and other improvements. Harwood asks why public sector research emerged in this period, arguing that by the 1890s, officials recognized the economic viability of peasant agriculture and pursued technology and representative institutions to curb political unrest. This "dual policy of promoting modernization while pacifying the peasantry" produced lasting institutions of research and extension and promoted technological solutions to problems of production: a persistent feature of 20th- and 21st-century Euro-American rural development programs (p. 33).

Harwood argues that regional government support and breeders’ orientation to the needs of local farmers distinguished these programs from later ones. Rather than adapting commercial varieties to local conditions, breeders began with locally adapted varieties. The stations also provided technical assistance and breeding instruction to farmers. So successful were the varieties developed by government stations that they earned the ire of commercial breeders, who ultimately gained the ear of Nazi officials.

Harwood’s re-periodization of agricultural Research and Development to encompass industrialized Europe is noteworthy in unseating postwar modernization as the crucible of rural development programs. The agricultural extension model was not novel to Central Europe in the 1890s, however. As John Staples and David Moon have demonstrated, for example, government funded agricultural stations and societies were a prominent feature of improvement on the Russian steppe in the 1840s, and these agricultural modernizers sought to reform Tatar pastoralist and Russian peasant farmers precisely because of their orientation toward subsistence and flexible agriculture.[1] Some focused their research on wheat varieties suited to the southern steppe, achieving substantial gains in productivity and village organization. Yet while reformers pursued robust agronomy, they also commercialized the southern steppe, responding in part to the opening of new Black Sea ports to the European grain trade. If these and other examples invite re-periodization, they do not undercut Harwood’s analysis so much as suggest its reach: for these were part of a broader series of “agricultural revolutions” arguably stretching back to plant domestication itself.

Indeed Harwood’s appropriation of the term “Green Revolution” is provocative in part because it may smooth its ideological and historical content. The idea is so pervasive that few recall its Cold War origins. As Harwood notes, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator William Gaud coined the term “Green Revolution” in 1968, claiming that the last two decades of US sponsored development in the Asian countryside would quell red revolutions through bumper harvests and happy farmers[2] (p. 115). Gaud referred to a technology transfer of input-intensive agricultural practices requiring extensive chemicals and irrigation, which, along with production of semi-dwarf hybrids of wheat and rice, dramatically increased world food production.

Many now dispute the successes of the postwar Green Revolution, and Harwood cites numerous examples in his last two chapters on post-war modernization projects and their successors. Input-intensive agriculture strips soil, exhausts natural supplies of water, and exposes workers to dangerous chemicals. By directing their efforts to increased yields for commercial production and export, postwar agricultural development projects also drove small holders off the land and snared those who did invest in improvements into webs of indebtedness.

Harwood seeks alternatives to these failures in the broader array of agricultural development initiatives from which they emerged. He strongly advocates public sector breeding, against the market-led solutions that have dominated since the 1980s. Perhaps even more persuasive is his case for “appropriate technology” oriented towards small farmers: labor rather than input intensive and responsive to drought, flooding, bad soil, and hilly terrain.

Although he notes the success of public breeding programs, Harwood gives comparatively little consideration to overarching objectives and qualities of the states that have sponsored them. This disinterestedness may invite qualifications to his thesis: for there are many kinds of states, as he no doubt appreciates, having turned his attention elsewhere to both European colonial and Meiji Japanese agricultural development projects.[3] In none of these cases did immediate success of government scientists in responding to the needs of small farmers rule out their eventual participation in broader markets. On the contrary, the public sector was an essential participant in the “great transformation” characterized by Karl Polanyi: a revolution of the market supported by the nation-state, redefining values in terms of price rather than sociality. Short-run gains for small farmers may hasten their integration into markets that serve them poorly.

Recent efforts to institutionalize farmer-assisted and peasant-friendly breeding trouble these definitions of value by variously privileging technical, legal, and social solutions to problems of production. In a recent conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Bruce Pearce of the Organic Research Centre considered how to price and market wheat varieties developed for UK producers. Krishna Ravi Srinivas of the Research and Innovation System for Developing Countries in New Delhi favored intellectual property reforms for common use. Riccardo Bocci of Associazione Italiana Agricoltura Biologica and Rete Seme Rurali advocated public sector breeding and community sovereignty.[4] Should seeds be managed by markets, governments, or communities? Are these modes of governance, and registers of value, compatible?

Questioning why efforts to alleviate rural poverty have persistently faltered requires an assessment of the underlying indices for measuring wealth. For just as there are many kinds of states, there are many kinds of small farmers. While Harwood makes a strong case that German peasants resembled the targets of post-war modernization projects in both risk aversion and labor organization, his analysis also suggests that there may be substantial variation between local agricultural practices and reformers. Nevertheless Harwood’s pointed and practical questions can easily accommodate more fundamental reconsiderations of value and practice: "Given the scale of rural poverty in the developing world, the key question for policy is: what kinds of technical and institutional arrangements are most likely to be useful for peasant farmers and the landless poor?" (p. 14) Of course, utility depends on the ends to which resources are deployed.

[1] John R. Staples, Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe Settling the Molochna Basin, 1784–1861, Toronto 2003; David Moon, The Plough That Broke the Steppes. Agriculture and Environment on Russia’s Grasslands, 1700–1914, Oxford 2013.
[2] Nick Cullather, The Hungry World. America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, Cambridge, Mass. 2010, p. 7.
[3] Jonathan Harwood, Why have Green Revolutions so often failed to help peasant-farmers?, prepared for the colloquium of the Agrarian Studies Program, Yale University, October 9, 2009, <http://agrarianstudies.macmillan.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/colloqpapers/05harwood.pdf> (27.08.2015).
[4] Conference on Plant Science, History, and Innovation, part of the “Cultivating Innovation” research project organized by researchers at the University of Leeds, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK, April 14, 2015, <http://www.cultivatinginnovation.org/resources.html> (27.08.2015).

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