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Rethinking the ‘Green Revolution’: Q&A with Bio and Society Alum Marci Baranski

By: Matt Tontonoz

Biology and Society alum Marci Baranski is an interdisciplinary scientist and historian who works in the field of climate change mitigation in agriculture. In 2022, she published a book based on her dissertation work called The Globalization of Wheat: A Critical History of the Green Revolution. The book challenges some dominant interpretations about the Green Revolution, including the idea that scientist Norman Borlaug single-handedly saved the world from starvation with his “miracle seeds.”

Baranski takes aim in particular at the notion of wide-adaption—the idea that high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties could be grown under varied conditions and would therefore benefit all farmers no matter their individual situation.

I spoke with her in May 2023 about her book and how her time at ASU contributed to her thinking.

Photo of Marci Baranski holding her book
Marci Baranski. Photo credit: Marci Baranski

Let’s start with some background. Who did you work with at ASU and what track within Biology and Society did you pursue?

I was one of the pilot 4E [Ecology, Economics, and Ethics of the Environment] students. I worked with Ann Kinzig as my dissertation advisor and had a very interdisciplinary committee made up of people from across the sciences. I started in fall 2010 and finished in spring 2015.

How did you become interested in agriculture?

My bachelor's degree is in biochemistry. I had always been interested in the “high technology” approach to agriculture. I was even thinking about becoming an agriculture technologist. But during my time in undergrad, I started doing a lot of environmental activism and also became more interested in sociology specifically and the environmental humanities in general. When it came to choosing grad school, I was very lost. I wasn't ready to commit to a certain field, so I had been applying to different interdisciplinary programs. One of my professors really highly recommended ASU as a place for me to go, and it ended up being a great fit.

My background doesn't necessarily lend itself to academia because it’s so interdisciplinary. I’m not sure I would fit in a traditional department. That's not ultimately what I wanted to do. I have been interested in public service for a long time, and so after I graduated, I decided to join the government, in part to fulfill the terms of the Boren Fellowship, which funded my research in India. During my PhD and now, I study climate change and agriculture from all angles, including economics, history, geography, ecology, agronomy.

Getting into your book, tell us who Norman Borlaug was and what his approach to agriculture was.

Norman Borlaug was an American scientist working in Mexico who had been tasked with increasing wheat production there, including finding a solution to the stem rust problem. He found that most varieties from Canada and the US couldn't be grown in Mexico. He didn't quite understand why, but what he found was that some varieties from more tropical latitudes could be grown more widely.

Borlaug was part of a network of scientists throughout Latin and South America and also worked with the US Department of Agriculture. They started sending wheat seeds around the world to test their disease resistance. He found that those varieties, which were from a certain lineage, were growing very well in really wide geographies. He started referring to this as “broad adaptation” or “wide adaptation.” Borlaug didn’t invent those terms, but he popularized them. Before Borlaug, plant breeders thought that if you are trying to improve agriculture in a certain area you need to use local varieties and need to do local testing.

Borlaug said, No, you don't. You can use these globally tested varieties with a little bit of what we would call adaptation to the local conditions. So maybe testing a few different varieties, seeing which ones work best, or breeding them together with the local varieties to get more desirable traits.

Wide adaptation at its core is really just the idea that one crop variety does well in a lot of places. The flaw in this way of thinking is that it only really works if these places look similar to each other.  In the case of Green Revolution wheat, it was only widely adapted if the farmers look more like commercial farmers, who had access to fertilizer and irrigation, rather than what you might see in a typical small holder farmer situation. The notion of wide adaption tends to flatten those important differences. My research also shows that there was a variety of wheat already grown in India that was widely adapted and more appropriate for non-irrigated and less-fertilized areas.

Part of your critique of the Green Revolution seems to be less about whether it improved yields or not, but more how it left small farmers out in cold.

Yes, exactly. Because wheat yields did increase, that's for sure. Not just because of the varieties used, but also because of fertilizer, because of land reform, and more. My critique is that the Green Revolution approach to agricultural research has not benefitted large swath of small farmers who work under highly diverse conditions. The Green Revolution also focused on only a few crops, which are not very nutritious. They're basically sources of calories, but of course calories are not the only thing that you need to have a healthy diet. A few crops still receive the majority of global public agricultural research investment.

Why was Borlaug so successful at spreading his approach?

Borlaug was a non-conventional scientist in that he was not trained as a plant breeder. He trained in plant pathology and forestry. So coming in as an outsider, he used techniques that were not necessarily accepted by the field of plant breeding. It’s also notable that Borlaug changed an entire field without really publishing any academic papers. Part of that is because agriculture is so much more of an applied field than, say, theoretical physics. When something works, seeing is believing.

But the other interesting thing is the way Borlaug was funded to work. He was given a broad mandate and long timeline by the Rockefeller Foundation, who funded his work in Mexico. Not many scientists are funded in this way. These days, donors are looking for shorter and shorter turnaround times and looking for impact in a series of years, which in agriculture is just very difficult. I think something to think about is if you want these really radical innovations and impacts, you need longer periods of time devoted to mission-driven research.

What would you say is the biggest myth about the Green Revolution?

I would say the biggest myth is that the increase in yield came just from the plant varieties. Some scholars have argued recently that increases in irrigation were more responsible for increase in yields than the varieties. My own research also shows that some Indian wheat varieties were also high yielding, even if not to the extent that the Green Revolution wheat varieties were.

The story of the miracle seeds is what everyone latches onto, but recent works suggest that the Green Revolution could have happened even without these new seeds. As I discuss in my book, if you look at Mexico, Turkey, and the Middle East, the Green Revolution varieties alone were not enough to increase the production of wheat and increase the food security. They had to go other routes such as changing the agronomy or using local varieties. So that to me is the biggest myth: that just these seeds came along and really were magical. You see that narrative continuing today around GMOs. I don't have a pro- or anti-GMO stance, I’m just pointing out that this sort of seed-centric narrative is very prevalent there.

How do you respond to people who say that millions of people would have starved if not for Norman Borlaug?

I would say that famine narrative is highly contested. Something I've taken out of the secondary literature that I've looked into is that the claims that India was near starvation were not accurate. They were more used for political maneuvering, especially by the US who was sending grain to India and was needing to pull back on those grain exports. In India, there were times in the 1960s where certain areas had droughts and were short on food production. But at that time the bigger problem was a shortage in a jute crop, which is a fiber crop, causing loss of income more than a food shortage.

It's always hard to argue a counterfactual history. But I will say that I and some other scholars who have recently published on the Green Revolution, say in the past 10 years, disagree with the thesis that in the absence of Norman Borlaug there would've been massive global famines. That narrative takes away from the work that local scientists were doing. Borlaug tended to be very critical of Indian scientists; he thought they were chasing academic butterflies. But when you actually look at what some of these scientists were doing, they were producing good work. It wasn't necessarily nationally coordinated. It was very locally specific. But Borlaug as a sort of singular heroic figure—I think he gets a lot of credit that in fact belongs to a lot of people.

The narrative is so appealing to people, including to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee!

Yes, for sure. It just goes to show the power of narratives. I challenge that narrative in my book and I expect to get some negative feedback from people who really idolize Borlaug—as I once did! Back in my undergrad studies, I was totally enamored with the power of science and technology to change the world. But my views have changed as I've learned more.

I should also say that these narratives hold up certain ideas of who should have power and who should have influence, and that's also why they're popular today.

How did the Bio and Society program prepare you for the type of work you are doing now?

I think the greatest influence of the Bio and Society program was allowing me to take an interdisciplinary path. Just hearing the types of questions that people around me were asking and looking at the types of inquiries that they were doing was so inspiring. And then of course my mentor, Ann Kinzig, was wonderfully supportive of me and my interdisciplinary interests and approaches. She brought an interesting ecological lens to my research that countered what I was hearing from plant breeders. At the same time, she also pushed me to recognize the agency of farmers, and that their motives are also self-interested. That was very influential to the type of work that I did for my book, and also the type of work that I'm doing in my professional career.

For example, in just about two weeks I will be speaking to the Agricultural History Society about how historians can use their skills to examine the climate crisis. It's just not something that agricultural historians have paid too much attention to. One of the things that I like about the Biology and Society program is that it does connect these different interdisciplinary lenses with society relevant topics.

photo of Marci on the beach
Marci Baranski. Photo credit: Marci Baranski