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What the “Gene Revolution” Can Learn from the Green Revolution

By Felicia Wu and William P. Butz

Felicia Wu is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh, and an adjunct policy researcher at RAND. William Butz, a RAND consultant, is president of the Population Reference Bureau.

Thanks in part to the Green Revolution of the 20th century, the number of people in danger of malnutrition worldwide has decreased significantly in the past 30 years. However, an estimated 800 million people still lack adequate access to food. The world now sits at the cusp of a second agricultural revolution, the “Gene Revolution,” in which modern biotechnology could enable the production of genetically modified (GM) crops that could be tailored to meet the needs of the regions that still face food shortages.

The GM crop movement has the potential to do enormous good, but it may pose potential risks to human health and the environment. We believe that those risks can be controlled at the same time as farm production, rural income, and food security in developing countries are increased.

It is useful to compare the current GM crop movement with the Green Revolution of the 20th century. We compare the scientific and technological differences but focus mostly on the economic, cultural, and political factors. The latter factors are critical in determining whether a new agricultural technology is adopted and accepted by farmers, consumers, and governments. The comparison shows whether and how a Gene Revolution could spread around the world.

Greenpeace protesters in Bangkok


Greenpeace protesters in Bangkok, Thailand, hold genetically modified Thai papayas decorated with clocks and electric lines to resemble time bombs. Thailand destroyed more than 1,000 papaya trees suspected of having been genetically modified after several European companies canceled orders of canned tropical fruit from Thailand over fears of contamination from genetic modification.

Seeds of Revolution

Historically, agricultural innovations that succeed in becoming agricultural revolutions offer these advantages to farmers, consumers, and governments:

  • The new agricultural technologies provide a net financial benefit to farmers.
  • The movements substantially improve agricultural production, food nutrition, or both. Or the movements substantially decrease the necessary inputs, such as fertilizer or water.
  • People are generally willing to adapt culturally and economically to the new technologies. Consumers accept the products of the agricultural movement.
  • There is cooperation among those who provide, regulate, and use the technologies.
  • The movements are sustainable, eventually requiring no public subsidies.

The Green Revolution began in the 1940s, reached its peak in the 1970s, and continues to affect agricultural practices today. It has staved off massive malnutrition, transformed agriculture, and increased food production in Asia, Latin America, and even parts of the industrialized world, such as Great Britain. But in Africa, where the Green Revolution arrived later, it has yet to improve food production in a sustainable way.

In contrast, the Gene Revolution could be considered revolutionary so far in only four countries: the United States, Canada, China, and Argentina. Certain GM crops, such as soybeans, corn, and cotton, now constitute from about 30 to 80 percent of total plantings of these crops in those countries. The benefits provided to growers mean that the GM varieties will likely continue to be a substantial portion of total future plantings. Adoption of the GM crops has led to increased yield, decreased use of pesticides or particularly harmful herbicides, and, in some cases, improved food quality. Policymakers and most of the general public in these countries accept the new technology.

Percentage of Chronically Malnourished Population Has Declined in Most of the Developing World, Except Sub-Saharan Africa

But the Gene Revolution has stalled on the global stage. Consumer and environmental concerns, along with precautionary regulations, have limited its spread to countries that could benefit from it the most, notably much of sub-Saharan Africa, where famine continually threatens the population (see the figure). It is illuminating to compare the Gene Revolution with the Green Revolution in four areas: science and technology, funding, geographic reach, and policies and politics.

Science and Technology

The Green Revolution brought scientists and farmers together. Scientists integrated their research with traditional farming practices to tackle problems that were constraining crop yield. High-yield seeds for rice, wheat, and corn were introduced in parts of the world where those crops made up a large portion of the daily diet. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation systems were introduced to aid the farmers in controlling pests, treating low-quality soil, and delivering water.

The Gene Revolution allows previously unheard-of combinations of genetic traits across species to achieve prespecified objectives. For example, daffodil and bacterial genes can be introduced into the rice genome so that rice produces beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. The benefits of current GM crop varieties include increased yield, reduced pesticide and fertilizer use, reduced vulnerability to the whims of nature, and improved nutritional content. Other GM crops are now being developed to survive on less water, to survive in soil heavy in salt or metals, to convert nitrogen from the air, and to produce vaccines against diseases such as cholera and hepatitis B.

One challenge that did not arise during the Green Revolution but that is fundamental to the Gene Revolution is the issue of intellectual property (IP). Science and technology advance through the sharing of ideas and resources, but IP ambiguities and restrictions can often limit this diffusion. Commercial application of biotechnology has taken place primarily through the private sector in the United States. The issue of who “owns” a particular “event” (the successful modification of a genetically modified crop) and who can develop the crop further has become so economically important and contentious that numerous cases involving this issue are being litigated.


Philanthropic organizations provided the seed money for the Green Revolution. Initial funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation. Later, other foundations and governments in countries where the efforts were taking place, such as in Mexico and India, joined the effort, as did international organizations.

Then in 1971, while the Green Revolution was bearing its first fruits in many parts of the world, organizations in industrial countries pooled their resources and formed the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The funding sources for research on agriculture in the developing world thus came to include European nations, Canada, and Japan. The work of CGIAR spread to more than 100 countries, sponsoring research on all key crops in the developing world and also on livestock, fish, forestry, plant genetics, and food policy.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem examine an etrog.


Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem examine an etrog, which is the Hebrew word for a small citrus fruit, one of four items used in the celebration of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. An Israeli rabbi says that genetic engineering has answered the prayers of observant Jews yearning for the perfect etrog.

Today, some 50 donors provide expanded funding in association with CGIAR. The newer donors include the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other public organizations.

In contrast, genetically modified crops are largely the products of private industry. Successful companies serve their markets with the intent of generating profits. With regard to agricultural biotechnology, therefore, companies in the United States and elsewhere have for the most part created seeds that farmers can and will purchase primarily in industrialized countries: corn and soybeans that can tolerate a particular herbicide, corn and cotton that are resistant to particular pests, and food crops that last longer on the supermarket shelf.

Indeed, the GM seeds are designed for the particular planting situations in industrial countries. The targeted farmers have generally found it worthwhile to buy the seeds. In industrialized nations, therefore, GM crop technology has had the potential to revolutionize farming.

But the current GM seed varieties are neither affordable nor useful to most of the world’s poorer farmers. Hence, the revolutionary impact has been limited in the developing world. There seems to be a mismatch between technology and need, driven by the funding sources of basic research.

Geographic Reach

The Green Revolution has achieved substantial agricultural production increases in Mexico, the rest of Latin America, India, and Southeast Asia but not in most of Africa. There are two prominent explanations. One is that the technology package — crop breeding, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation — that was so helpful elsewhere was unsuited to African crops or growing conditions. The other is that African transportation systems were ill designed to deliver either the technology package or its resulting products.

In contrast, the key technology package of the Gene Revolution is simply the improved seed. Therefore, all farmers should be able to take advantage of the Gene Revolution if they can pay for the seed. But an important geographical constraint is the set of cultural factors that might deter farmers from embracing the new science. Genetically modified crops have already become a stigmatized technology in some parts of the world because of concerns about manipulating organisms in seemingly “unnatural” ways and because of fears of the unintended adverse effects on human health and the environment.

Policies and Politics

At the time that the Green Revolution technologies were being developed in the 1940s and 1950s, the United States and the rest of the industrialized world feared that food crises in developing countries would foment political instability that could push those countries toward Communist regimes. Partly as a result of Cold War priorities, the U.S. government was highly concerned about agricultural science in the developing world and worked with nonprofit foundations and scientists in the post-World War II decades to bring about the Green Revolution in the regions subject to famine. The Green Revolution owed much of its success to public-sector institutions that poured resources into the effort. Policymakers saw a political need for agricultural improvement worldwide, advanced this cause as a key policy concern, and ensured that funds were appropriated toward the cause.

Compare this with the current Gene Revolution: Biotech industries created genetically modified crops, and governmental agencies have seen fit to regulate the crops to prevent or to mitigate potential health and environmental risks. Today, there does not appear to be a strong political motivation for genetically modified crops to succeed in the developing world. Communism is no longer a threat; and famines, while still a problem, appear to be more the result of local weather, politics, and wars than the portent of any sweeping geopolitical threat. Instead, the driving forces determining whether GM crops are adopted in various parts of the world are now health and environmental concerns and national and international regulations, notably the battle between U.S. and European Union regulations.

Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva acquiesced to farmers' demands to go ahead with the cultivation and sale of transgenetic soybean crops.


Despite protests by ecologists, Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva acquiesced to farmers’ demands to go ahead with the cultivation and sale of transgenetic soybean crops, like those shown here, in some Brazilian states.

Lessons from the Green Revolution for the Gene Revolution

The similarities and differences between the Green and Gene Revolutions lead us to several conclusions. For the GM crop movement to have the sort of beneficial global impact that would constitute an agricultural revolution, the following conditions must be met.

  1. Agricultural biotechnology must be tailored to, and made affordable for, farmers in the developing world. Otherwise, farmers may not see that it is in their best interest to use GM crops despite the unique benefits the crops could provide.
  2. There is a need for larger investments in research in the public sector. Numerous studies have shown the importance of public-sector research and development in aiding agricultural advancements. Partnerships between the public and private sectors can result in more efficient production of GM crops that are useful to the developing world and can expand the accessibility of those crops and their associated technologies to developing-world farmers.
  3. Agricultural development must once again be regarded as critically important from a policy perspective in both donor and recipient nations. As world population numbers continue to climb, agricultural development remains necessary for eliminating malnutrition and preventing famine, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Many see GM crops as a means to address these problems, but policymakers worldwide are far from being a combined force on this issue.
  4. Policymakers in the developing world must set regulatory standards that take into consideration the risks as well as the benefits of foods derived from GM crops. Any health, environmental, or socioeconomic disruptions from a new agricultural revolution will fall under public scrutiny. Regulatory standards will be crucial in gaining the cooperation of the many stakeholders involved and in sustaining the GM crop movement. Without regulations that explicitly take into account the potential risks to farmers and consumers, the nations that stand to benefit the most from GM crops might discourage them from being planted.

The Gene Revolution must overcome an intertwined collection of challenges before it can have an impact beyond those regions of the world that already produce excesses of food. If the GM crop movement can overcome these challenges while proving itself to be acceptably free of adverse health and environmental consequences, it has the potential to provide benefits to farmers and consumers around the globe in previously inconceivable ways as well as to mitigate the need for potentially harmful chemicals or scarce water supplies.

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