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What Can We Learn from Agriculture?

Farmers have learned to respond to market forces, for better and for worse.

By Arthur MacEwan | January/February 2023

I spent the first three years of my life living on farms. If I learned anything about agriculture from that experience, I have long forgotten it. Later in life, as I grew up in the city, I learned that farmers were looked down on as ignorant and unsophisticated, as expressed in such epithets as “country bumpkins.”

Yet, in recent decades, I have learned a good deal more about agriculture. Foremost among the things I have learned is that farmers are neither ignorant nor unsophisticated. Not only do they know all sorts of things about crops and soil that lie outside the ken of the cleverest city dwellers, but, in order to survive, they have learned to respond to market forces, for better and for worse. This applies as much to the so-called “peasantry” in low-income countries as well as to the modern farmers in the United States and other high-income countries.

The Ogallala Aquifer

Consider the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer is a huge body of water underlying about 112 million acres, or 175,000 square miles, including most of Nebraska and parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Using water from the aquifer, farmers have been rewarded by the market for growing crops that depend on irrigation. The water is virtually free; that is, it has close to zero cost.

And there’s the rub. Operating in the market, farmers intensively use a “virtually free” resource. The aquifer’s water is being used more rapidly than it is being replenished. At present rates of usage, by the mid-2060s, 70% of the water will be gone. Things can be done to slow the depletion of the water in the aquifer. Cooperation among farmers to limit water usage and government regulations are possible. But with farmers operating simply though the market, water conservation cannot be accomplished. (See Bill Barclay, “Exporting Water in the Era of Climate Cataclysm,” D&S, July/August 2022, for a closely related analysis.)

On to Low-Income Countries: The Green Revolution

The so-called “Green Revolution” has been a program to greatly increase agricultural output—i.e., grow more “green” stuff—by using new grain varieties and altered methods of production. The program was first implemented during the 1960s in Mexico and then in South Asia, and it continues today in Africa.

It turns out, however, that the “Green Revolution” has not been at all “green” in the current use of the term. “Green” today means mechanisms of production, in agriculture and other activities, that avoid negative environmental impacts or even improve the environment. Although the new grain varieties, principally rice and wheat, do generally increase yields and provide more food in low-income countries, they have depended on more water and manufactured chemicals, which have had long-term negative impacts on the environment that threaten the long-run viability of effective agriculture.

In India, the Green Revolution attained increases in production, with farmers using large amounts of chemical inputs: fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and weedicides, along with heavy irrigation. Yet, according to one group of analysts, writing a chapter in the 2020 book Soil Health, there was a later decline in crop yields that indicated a decline in soil fertility:

Toxic chemicals in soil affected the life of beneficial soil organisms, which indeed are responsible for maintaining soil fertility. Further, these chemicals polluted groundwater, air and adversely affected human and animal health.

These same soil problems are evident in Africa. There, similar chemical-intensive practices are being pushed by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which was founded in 2006 with a large amount of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet, to date, the productivity improvements pushed by AGRA have been meager and no more than in the period before AGRA’s efforts.

Yet, in spite of the productivity failure and the fact that future gains will be even more difficult because of the soil damage, AGRA and the Gates Foundation continue to push the same program, shunning efforts to support building on the traditional practices of local farmers.

Socioeconomic Impacts

Even when the techniques of the Green Revolution brought output expansion, there were adverse socioeconomic impacts. For the new seed varieties to be effective, water and chemical inputs were essential, and farmers with more land had easier access to capital to buy these inputs. As Ray Offenheiser, who had been president of Oxfam for 20 years, put it, looking back from 2020: “So to some degree you’ve got consolidation in the agricultural sector and instead of actually necessarily helping small farmers in certain instances, more in Latin America then in Asia, you ended up displacing the small farmers.”

In a 1975 article in the Indian journal Economic and Political Weekly, P.N. Junankar wrote:

An inevitable consequence of the Green Revolution has been increasing inequality in rural India. As the high-yielding varieties of crops require regular supply of irrigation and fairly large amounts of fertilisers, the advantage has been biased towards the large farms. These farms have also begun to substitute capital (e.g., tractors) for labour. Since the new varieties are profitable, there would be an increase in capitalist farming, an attempt by landlords to evict their tenants and cultivate the land with hired labour, and an attempt by large farmers to buy out small farmers.

There were also impacts in the other direction. Insofar as output of basic food grains increased and food became more available (less expensive), the poor rural population gained. Yet, according to a 1995 study published in World Development, D. K. Freebairn states: A review of more than 300 studies on the Green Revolution published during 1970–89 shows that 80% of those studies which had conclusions on the distributional effects of the new technology found that inequality increased, both interfarm and interregional.

Back in the United States...

The same general phenomenon of the consolidation of farming has taken place in the United States over the last several decades. In 1950, there were 5.4 million farms in the country with an average size of 215 acres. By 2000, there were 1.9 million farms with an average size of 487 acres. Hog farms provide a sharp example: In 1959, there were 1.85 million hog farms, with an average of 37 hogs; in 2013, there were only 63,000 hog farms, with an average of 1,044 hogs. This change in the United States, often taken as a sign of progress, has been a consequence of responses to the market. The greater use of machinery and inputs (e.g., chemical pesticides) produced by industrial activity far from the farm has generated profits. Yet, as in low-income countries, it has led to environmental degradation and has contributed to income inequality.


There is no doubt that changes in agricultural techniques have greatly increased output over the last century, providing food that human beings need. Yet, driven by market relations, there have been many problems associated with this growing output that raise problems for the environment and for socioeconomic relations, and that call into question the sustainability of current agricultural practices. I have only touched on some of these here. Other problems include, for example:

  • Agriculture contributes greatly to the generation of greenhouse gases; according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture and forestry account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Much of the income associated with agriculture is captured by the large seed, chemical, and trading companies, rather than by farmers.
  • Giant pig farms generate and concentrate large amounts of pollution.
  • Expansion of rice and wheat production (primary crops of the Green Revolution) has pushed out more traditional foods of the poor, particularly sorghum and millet.

When we allow economic changes to be thoroughly dominated by the search for profits and organized through the market, those changes can supply some economic gains (e.g., a greater supply of food). Yet, these gains can become short-term and often environmentally and socially damaging.

The experience with the Green Revolution demonstrates that we should be cautious about quick technological fixes for severe socioeconomic problems. Such fixes can have side effects that themselves generate new problems, which can undermine the sustainability of the fixes. Moreover, when the problems have their origins in social structures, it is unlikely that the technological fix will provide a lasting solution.

And beware of Gateses bearing gifts—or Rockefellers. Those “gifts,” as has been the case with much of the Green Revolution, have been imposed from above, often based on ignorance of the situation and generally exclude the knowledge of the actual producers (e.g., the farmers). Finally, most of us, even those who spent their early childhood on farms, are ignorant about agriculture. We can learn from the people engaged in the work, if we pay attention.

is professor emeritus at UMass Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Brad Plumer, “How long before the Great Plains runs out of water?” Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2013 (; Priyanka Srivastava et al., “Soil Health in India: Past History and Future Perspective,” in Soil Health (Springer, 2020); American Experience, “The Green Revolution: Norman Borlaug and the Race to Fight Global Hunger,” PBS, April 3, 2020 (; Timothy A. Wise and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, “Another False Start in Africa Sold with Green Revolution Myths,” Inter Press Service, April 20, 2021 (; P. N. Junankar, “Green Revolution and Inequality,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 29, 1975 (; Donald K. Freebairn, ““Did the Green Revolution Concentrate Incomes? A Quantitative Study of Research Reports,” World Development, 1995 (; Johns Hopkins University, Center for a Livable Future, “Industrialization of Agriculture,” Food System Primer (; Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data (

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