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Did you know? The Green Revolution began in Mexico

Tony Burton

Most people probably have a vague idea that the Green Revolution was something to do with improving crops in the developing world, but how many realize that it began in Mexico? In fact, the Green Revolution continues in Mexico through the pioneering work of CIMMYT, the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center based in Texcoco, near Mexico City.

The Green Revolution refers to the application of science and technology to increase crop yields and agricultural productivity which began in Mexico in the 1940s. In the Green Revolution, special high yield varieties (HYVs) of several cereals were developed. To grow most effectively, these needed carefully calibrated applications of fertilizers, pesticides and water. The Green Revolution allowed countries to expand their cereal production to more than keep pace with the growing demands of their rapidly rising populations.

The initial stimulus for the Green Revolution was Mexico’s desire to become self-sufficient in wheat production. Rockefeller Foundation funding helped establish the Mexican Agricultural Program in 1943, an institution which became later became CIMMYT.

Led by Dr. Norman Borlaug, a plant breeding program was begun to develop new hybrid varieties of wheat and maize. These had higher yields and more resistance to common diseases. Successful strains were then crossed with dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties to reduce the height of the plants, preventing them from collapsing under the strain of the heavier ears of grain.

By 1963, 95% of Mexico’s wheat fields were growing the new seeds. Yields were much higher. The 1964 harvest was six times larger than in 1944. Whereas Mexico had imported half its wheat in 1943, by 1964 it was exporting 500,000 tons a year. (Since that time, the combined effects of growing population and farmers changing to other crops have returned Mexico to its previous status of being a net importer of wheat).

The success of the program was repeated elsewhere in the developing world. India’s wheat production increased more than 400% between 1965 and 1986, turning India into the world’s third largest producer. Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat within three years of adopting the high yielding hybrids.

A similar breeding program in the Philippines produced IR8 Miracle Rice, which was quickly adopted with spectacular increases in yield throughout Asia. In the first eleven countries where farmers adopted the new rice varieties, the average yields for rice increased by 52% between 1965 and 1983. In countries where the new varieties were no adopted, rice yields declined 4% during the same period.

The Green Revolution also boosted agriculture in developed nations. Corn yields in the USA, for example, quadrupled in 60 years. In recognition of his pioneering work, Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

In recent years, CIMMYT has developed strains of wheat that are resistant to the deadly Ug99 strain of stem rust fungus, first identified in Uganda in 1999, which threatens world wheat supplies. Existing wheat hybrids had resistance to several other forms of wheat rust, but not Ug99, which quickly spread to wheat fields in Iran and looked set to enter southern Asia. A new CIMMYT-developed wheat variety, immune to Ug99, has been planted in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and other countries in an effort to halt its spread.

CIMMYT is part of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of agricultural research centers around the world sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank.

A review of the Green Revolution published in Science and quoted on the CIMMYT website claims that without the work of CIMMYT and its CGIAR partners, crop yields in developing countries would have been about one-fifth lower; prices for food crops would have been between one-third and two-thirds higher; imports would have been a third higher; calorie intake would have been an eighth lower; and between 32 and 42 million more children would have been malnourished.

Here’s hoping that the next developments in the Green Revolution are at least as successful as those of its first fifty or sixty years.

Further reading / sources:

To learn more about the vitally important work being undertaken at CIMMYT (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo), visit its website.

R. E. Evenson and D. Gollin. Assessing the Impact of the Green Revolution, 1960 to 2000. Science vol 300, pp 758-62, 2003.

Debora MacKenzie. Wheat in shining armor arives. New Scientist. Volume 201, No 2700, 21 March 2009.

Published or Updated on: May 1, 2009 by Tony Burton © 2009
Contact Tony Burton

Author of Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique (Sombrero Books, 2016),  Western Mexico, A Traveler's Treasury (4th edition, Sombrero Books, 2013) and "Lake Chapala Through the Ages; an anthology of travelers' tales" (Sombrero Books, 2008), available from all good book stores, and via his author's page at Amazon.com. Co-author of "Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico" (Sombrero Books, 2010). His blog is at geo-mexico.com.

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