The Doubly Green Revolution

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The Doubly Green Revolution is a term used by former Rockefeller Foundation president Gordon Conway and also the title of his 1997 book, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century. It refers to the original Green Revolution, an effort to increase crop yields through breeding of varieties dependent on heavy usage of inputs like fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticides in the 1940s through the 1960s. As the original Green Revolution has been criticized for being harmful to the environment, Conway's idea of a "doubly green" revolution is one that would increase crop yields while safeguarding the environment. However, while emphasizing environmental friendliness, Conway does not define sustainable agriculture as organic and he is a proponent of genetic engineering, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and pesticide use, which are not permitted in organic agriculture.

What Is a Doubly Green Revolution


In Conway's words, a Doubly Green Revolution is defined as follows:

"In effect, we require a Doubly Green Revolution, a revolution that is even more productive than the first Green Revolution and even more 'green' in terms of conserving natural resources and the environment. In the next three decades, it must aim to:
  • "Repeat the successes of the Green Revolution;
  • "On a global scale;
  • "In many diverse localities;
"And be:
  • "Equitable;
  • "Sustainable; and
  • "Environmentally friendly."[1]

He defines sustainable agriculture as: "the ability of an agroecosystem to maintain productivity in the face of stress or shock."[2]

Similarities and Differences from the First Green Revolution

Conway maintains that the first Green Revolution was successful and also feels that, while some changes ought to be made to the original Green Revolution model, the overall idea of using science and technology to increase food production should remain unchanged. He says:

"The experience of the Green Revolution... has amply demonstrated our ability to transform people's lives for the better. Hunger and poverty can be eliminated through the application of modern science and technology provided they are used widely and supported appropriate economic and social policies, and a will to act."[3]

Significantly, Conway differs from the philosophy of the first Green Revolution by saying "food security is not a matter solely of producing sufficient food. It is too simplistic to add up a nation's food production and divide by the size of population."[4] This is a major departure from the first Green Revolution.

A second major departure from the first Green Revolution is Conway's embracing of involving farmers in crop breeding, both by asking farmers which attributes they prefer in a plant (or which variety of plant they prefer when presented with a number of choices) and by having farmers carry out crop trials on their own farms under actual farm conditions.[5] (The first Green Revolution relied on plant breeders to decide the attributes of the plant and then tested the crop varieties almost entirely on experimental farms or - in cases of field trials - on the farms of resource-rich farmers who had access to irrigation and inputs like pesticides and fertilizers.)

Crop and Livestock Breeding

The basis of the original Green Revolution was crop breeding, and breeding programs continue to play an important role in Conway's vision of a doubly green revolution. Conway sums up his goals for crop breeding, saying: "For the immediate future there is a pressing need, in all our important food crops, for improved resistance to viruses and insect pests, for tolerance to salts, drought and heat, for higher-quality grain and other products and for the most demanding goal of all, improved systems of nitrogen fixation."[6]

For example, for rice he outlines IRRI's plans for different rice plants for different environments: "On the well-favoured irrigated lands they are seeking very short, fast-growing varieties that can be direct seeded... Plants with this architecture should deliver a very high harvest index and a maximum yield of 15 tons/ha."[7] (This goal is similar to the work of IRRI in the first Green Revolution.) He continues with goals for lands that were largely ignored in the first Green Revolution: "For the rainfed lowlands, they are looking for more medium-sized varieties, tolerant of submergence and deep-rooted to improve their resistance to drought. Perhaps the most imaginative target is for the uplands, where they envisage a perennial rice that has the ability to fix its own nitrogen."

Another goal he outlines is for the breeding of a crop (specifically, maize) capable of asexual reproduction, eliminating farmers' need to purchase new hybrid or genetically engineered seeds each year.[8]

Genetic Engineering

Conway is an avowed proponent of genetic engineering. His chapter on crop and livestock breeding, tellingly entitled "Designer Plants and Animals" begins with the following quote:

"Genetic engineering will bring mishaps and stupidities in its wake. But, overall, it's highly likely to be a good thing, for which the benefits handsomely outweigh the risks." - Nicholas Schoon, Independent[9]

Conway says of the limitations of conventional breeding:

"Traits which a breeder wishes to incorporate in a plant or an animal may not be present in any species with which a cross can be made, although they may occur in quite unrelated species. Conventional plant breeding is also a relatively slow process."[10]

He notes that conventional livestock breeding also suffers from the limitations of "the random nature of normal crossing and also by long generation times."[11]

He sees genetic engineering as a way to bypass these limitations, describing it as "microsurgery" that is "in essence, the same process as occurs when the plant or animal breeder crosses one plant with another, or one animal with another."[12] He adds: "The great advantage of recombinant DNA technology -- or genetic engineering, as it is popularly called -- is that the new combinations are determined beforehand and, with skill and care, are precisely achieved. As a result, the plant breeder is no longer restricted to genetic variation that arises in traditional breeding programmes."[13]

He adds that:

Genetic engineering has a special value for agricultural production in developing countries. It has the potential to address the specific problems detailed in the previous chapter, creating new plant varieties and animal breeds that not only deliver higher yields but contain the internal solutions to biotic and abiotic challenges, reducing the need for chemical inputs such as fungicides and pesticides, and increasing tolerance to drought, salinity, chemical toxicity and other adverse circumstances. Most important, genetic engineering is likely to be as valuable a tool for the lower-potential land as for the high-potential."[14]

Notably, The Doubly Green Revolution was published in 1997, very early in the history of commercially available GMOs. Thus, Conway did not have as much information about genetically engineered crops as scientists do today. However, he dreams of a number of uses for genetic engineering. He mentions:

  • Crops that produce their own insecticide (Bt toxin) (p. 152-153)
  • Crops with a gene from taro that kills insects (p. 153)
  • Herbicide tolerant crops such as Roundup Ready crops (p. 153-154)
  • Increasing the ability of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to fix nitrogen (p. 155)
  • Making nitrogen-fixing bacteria able to live symbiotically with other crops as they currently do with legumes (p. 155)
  • Crops genetically engineered to fix their own nitrogen (p. 156)
  • Forage crops for livestock that are genetically engineered to produce essential amino acids they currently lack (p. 150-151, p. 156)
  • Forage crops engineered to contain less lignin, making them more digestible for livestock (p. 156-157_
  • Creating livestock vaccines via genetic engineering (p. 157)
  • Creating genetically engineered Bt livestock (p. 157)

He notes that there are some risks of GMOs, and that some of the risks are not yet known. He mentions the risk of transferring antibiotic resistance, for example, from GE corn to cattle who eat that corn.[15] Also, genes could transfer from GE crops to their wild relatives, thus creating superweeds.[16] Last, he notes that GMOs could result in "the evolution of new strains of viruses or an increase in the range of crops they attack."[17] He says that "more important than the potential hazards, at least to my mind, si the question of who benefits."[18] Thus, the question for him is not whether GMOs are appropriate for agriculture or the Global South, but how we can produce and utilize GMOs in a way that is equitable for the world's poor. He notes that, at the time, the Rockefeller Foundation was spending $5 to $6 million per year on genetically engineered rice.[19]

Pest Control

In his chapter on pest control, Conway begins by asserting that "pests, pathogens, and weeds are the most visible threats to sustainable food production." He then notes that pesticides are "frequently costly and inefficient" and "can make the problem worse by killing off the natural enemies - the parasites and predators - which normally control pests."[20] Aside from the harmful health and environmental impacts of pesticides, which he notes but somewhat glosses over, he adds that pests often become resistant to pesticides.[21]

An important example he notes is that of Indonesia, which actually banned the planting of traditional rice varieties during the Green Revolution.[22] Indonesia heavily subsidized pesticides and the nation accounted for 20 percent of all pesticides used on rice in the world. Around 1977, the crops were devastated by the brown planthopper, which is normally held in check by natural predators, which were being killed off by the pesticides. "In North Sumatra the population density of the pests rose in direct proportion to the number of insecticide applications."[23]

Conway encourages agrobiodiversity, noting that in highly biodiverse Javanese home gardens, "The diversity of plants in each garden encourages a diversity of insects which, in turn, support a large population of general predators - spiders, ants, assassin bugs - that keep potential pests under control."[24]

Methods of pest control he advocates include:[25]

  • Using more selective pesticides instead of broad-spectrum ones
  • Using chemicals that mimic insect hormones and prevent the insects from becoming adults
  • Using natural plant compounds like chilli pepper as pesticides. (Here, he includes synthetic pesticides, pyrethroids, which are similar to the natural pesticide pyrethrum)
  • Using beneficial organisms like Bacillus thuringiensis as pesticides.
  • Releasing herbivorous insects that eat weeds
  • Planting plants that release compounds that are harmful to weeds
  • Intercropping
  • Agrobiodiversity
  • Fallow periods
  • Crop rotation
  • Development of disease and pest-resistant crop varieties

Conway also notes that "The move toward large areas of monoculture has been one of the reasons why pest and disease outbreaks have grown in the wake of the [[Green Revolution]."[26] He also blames "the narrow genetic stock" of the crops as well as the misuse of pesticides as contributing to pest and disease problems. At IRRI, for example, 13% of the wet season rice crop was lost to pests when only one crop was grown per year, but this increased to 33% when two crops were grown each year and more when three crops were grown.[27]

Integrated Pest Management

Conway is an advocate of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which "looks at each crop and pest situation as a whole and then devises a programme that integrates the various control methods in light of all the factors present. As practised today it combines modern technology, the application of synthetic, yet selective, pesticides, and the engineering of pest resistance, with natural methods of control, including agronomic practices and the use of natural predators and parasites."[28] He calls the outcome IPM "sustainable, efficient pest control that is often cheaper than the conventional use of pesticides."[29]

Replacing Soil Nutrients

When crops are harvested, nutrients are removed from the ecosystem. Conway examines several methods of replacing these nutrients, which is essential if yields are to be maintained in agriculture. The Green Revolution relied on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer: "About 60 percent of total fertilizers are today applied to cereals: over a half on rice, and a quarter on wheat."[30] (The Green Revolution focused on breeding and production of wheat and rice.) Conway notes that synthetic fertilizer can increase yields tremendously: "Recommended application rates for the new rice and wheat varieties are between 120 and 170 kg nitrogen/ha. At these rates, farmers can expect returns of eight- to twentyfold in terms of kilograms of additional grain per kilogram of additional plant nutrient, and thirty- to fiftyfold for roots and tubers."[31]

He also notes significant downsides to using synthetic nitrogen, although his analysis is lacking in many ways. Conway focuses on the high cost of artificial fertilizer to poor farmers, as well as the wastefulness of using it as much of it runs off or leaches out of the soil if it is not applied in the proper quantities at the right time.[32] He notes that this runoff or leaching goes into surface waters or aquifers but mentions this in the context of a loss of usefulness and cost effectiveness to the farmer, and not as an environmental and health problem. He notes possible health problems associated with nitrates in drinking water in a previous chapter but also minimizes synthetic fertilizers as the cause, saying "but in most of these cases the nitrates were derived from human or livestock waste, rather than fertilizers."[33] In that previous chapter, he also notes the role of fertilizers in creating dead zones or fish kills in waterways and in releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.[34] Additionally, he fails to mention that synthetic fertilizer kills microorganisms in soil that are necessary for a healthy and productive agroecosystem and results in soil degradation over time.

He recommends the following ways to improve the current state of fertilizer use:[35]

  • Spraying fertilizer on the leaves of plants
  • Split fertilizer applications and time them closely with the plant's needs
  • Coating urea fertilizer with sulphur to slow its release and reduce greenhouse gases
  • Incorporating fertilizer into the soil instead of applying it to the soil surface
  • Burying fertilizer deep in the soil as briquettes, marbles, or supergranules
  • Breeding crops to better utilize nitrogen or fix their own nitrogen
  • Rotating crops with nitrogen-fixing crops
  • Producing the nitrogen-fixing plant azolla in rice paddies and incorporating it in the soil as a green manure
  • Intercropping nitrogen-fixing legumes with crops
  • Using livestock manure as fertilizer
  • Composting

He says more than once that the "best" approaches are combining synthetic fertilizers with green manures: "The best approach is to combine azolla with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers."[36] "Usually the best approach is to combine green manures with small amounts of inorganic fertilizer, say half the usual rate of application."[37]

However, he notes that "alternatives to inorganic fertilizers have distinct advantages. They are available, or can be created, on or near the farm, and are generated from natural resources. Thus they tend to be relatively inexpensive. They can significantly increase yields, particularly on poor soils, and in some instances will perform as well as or better than inorganic fertilizers. In nearly all situations they are good partial replacements, although it needs to be remembered that they may not be less polluting. Nitrates are liable to leaching whether they have an inorganic or organic origin."[38] (This is true, but only when organic fertilizers are overapplied. Unlike synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, properly applied organic fertilizers enhance instead of killing off soil microorganisms, and thus they feed the soil food web, which in turn feeds the plants continually over time, instead of providing a one-time dose of food directly to the plant.) Conway adds that "the main disadvantage of organic fertilizers is their high labour demand."[39] Again, this is only true in certain contexts. If animals graze on crop residue in a field following the harvest and then the field is used to grow crops in the next year, the animals have done the work of harvesting their own food fertilizing the field without requiring any work from the farmer.


Conway notes the problem of excessive greenhouse gas emissions from livestock.[40] He recommends adding antibiotics and steroids to cattle feed as well as administering the genetically engineered hormone rBST to dairy cattle as ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.[41] He adds that "supplementing dairy cattle diets... with high quality feed" reduces the emissions per liter of milk produced, likely implying that cattle should be fed on grains in addition to grazing on grass.[42] Another suggestion is feeding crop wastes to livestock.[43]

In his discussion of using livestock manure as fertilizer, he says that "intensive use of livestock manures is easier if animals are penned in stalls close to the farmer's dwelling. This is becoming increasingly common in India, where the growth of dairy cooperatives is encouraging the keeping of high-yielding cows and buffalo... The dairy cooperatives have provided assured markets and through village-level artificial insemination have increased the quality of the animals. There is now an incentive to provide better feed, and to control diets through stall feeding of cut grasses, tree fooder, crop residues, and grain."[44]

This implies a rejection of allowing animals to graze, distributing their manure on the fields as they do so, and rotating cropland and pasture on a farm so that each area of land is fertilized by livestock manure and then the resulting nutrients are utilized by crops in turn. Additionally, it touches on a higher-input strategy of livestock keeping than one in which livestock simply forages on available grasses or crop waste.

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  1. Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY, 1997, pp. 41-42.
  2. Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY, 1997, pp. 168.
  3. Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY, 1997, p. 31-32
  4. Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY, 1997, p. 35.
  5. Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY, 1997, pp. 186-191.
  6. Conway, p. 141.
  7. Conway, p. 142.
  8. Conway, p. 144.
  9. Conway, p. 140.
  10. Conway, p. 144.
  11. Conway, p. 147.
  12. Conway, p. 149.
  13. Conway, p. 149.
  14. Conway, p. 151-152.
  15. Conway, p. 157.
  16. Conway, p. 157-158.
  17. Conway, p. 158.
  18. Conway, p. 159.
  19. Conway, p. 159.
  20. Conway, p. 205
  21. Conway, p. 209
  22. Conway, p. 59.
  23. Conway, p. 212-213.
  24. Conway, p. 208
  25. Conway, p. 206-209
  26. Conway, p. 208.
  27. Conway, p. 209
  28. Conway, p. 215
  29. Conway, p. 215.
  30. Conway, p. 224.
  31. Conway, p. 225-226.
  32. Conway, p. 226-227.
  33. Conway, p. 90-93.
  34. Conway, p. 93-96.
  35. Conway, p. 227, 230-236.
  36. Conway, p. 231.
  37. Conway, p. 233.
  38. Conway, p. 237.
  39. Conway, p. 237.
  40. Conway, p. 227.
  41. Conway, p. 227.
  42. Conway, p. 227.
  43. Conway, p. 227-228.
  44. Conway, p. 236.

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