Genetically Modified Organisms: Another Green Revolution?

(Master’s Degree Essay. 1999.)


The scenario is the same: global hunger; a wide gap between the rich and the poor; the development of new ‘seeds’ and new technologies by Western countries; the introduction of the new ‘package’ to developing countries. First there was the Green Revolution; Now there is modern biotechnology in the form of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – the Gene Revolution. Will the outcome be the same?

The media has given a lot of attention to GMOs recently, as concerned citizens question the benefits and morality of them (e.g. Kluger, 1999). However, genetic modification of plants by humans is not new. Cultivation of new varieties of maize by the Anasazi of Colorado began at least as early as 700 A.D. (Balick and Cox, 1996). Ancient Amazon inhabitants cultivated manioc that is harvestable in 6 months, as opposed to the normal 16 to 18 months, as a solution to the yearly flooding of the varzéa (Carneiro, 1983). Gregor Mendel perfected the “modern” plant breeding with peas in 1860 (Steinbrecher and Mooney, 1998). Additionally, many plant breeders cross-pollinate flowers in order to achieve a desired colour of petals.

The introduction of exotic species into an ecosystem is also not new, as exploration, immigration, trade and other vectors aided in the spread of plants (Carter, 1961; Balick and Cox, 1996, Arnold, 1996). However, introductions of new plant species have often had dramatic consequences. The introduction of the potato to Ireland from the Americas, seemingly a blessing, brought dependence upon the new crop and eventually with only a few varieties of the tuber, left the crop open to a massive epidemic that brought starvation to the country. In turn, this caused the death of many and the fleeing of more to North America (Salaman, 1949). Sugar cane changed the cultural scene of Europe as it first became a symbol of wealth, and then became a household staple. The need for sugar, as well as other crops, such as cotton, began the European slave trade, which was responsible for the inhumane treatment of millions of Africans and others. Later, it moved many more immigrants to various sugar producing regions around the world. And the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the Canary Islands destroyed all of the natural flora and fauna, bringing most of the indigenous species to extinction (Mintz, 1985).

Could the introduction of GMOs have similar social and economic consequences?   GMOs are plants or animals whose genes have been altered, not through selective breeding, but through the physical cutting and pasting of genes from one organism to another which under natural circumstances would never be able to combine (Steinbrecher, 1998). Their introduction is intended to be much more rapid than historic introductions of exotic species, and much larger in scope as test sites are currently emerging around the world.

The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70spresents a scenario similar in comparison to the introduction of modern genetically modified plant varieties. After some successes in Japan, the United States and Belgium (Dasgupta, 1977), new and genetically altered varieties of several crops (e.g. wheat, rice, maize), along with new technologies, were introduced into many developing countries with the hope that larger amounts of food could be produced, and thus could have the “potential…to alleviate global hunger” (Brown, 1970: xi). Because of this promise, they were referred to by many as the ‘miracle seeds’ (Brown, 1970; Dasgupta, 1977).

These new crops, termed High-Yielding Varieties (HYVs) or Modern Varieties (MVs), could potentially produce greater amounts of food than traditional varieties (TVs), based on their increased nutrient uptake from the soil. They needed to be stronger in order to synthesise greater amounts of nutrients, so dwarf varieties were produced (Pearse, 1980). But in order to produce higher yields, more nutrients needed to be available for uptake by the varieties. Thus increased application of fertilisers, particularly petro-chemical fertilisers, were a must (Brown, 1970). Also, High-Yielding Varieties were more susceptible to pests and climatic changes, because, contrary to traditional varieties, they were not accustomed to the new environment, and the new crops, contrary to traditional agriculture, were homogenous and spread over much larger areas (Dasgupta, 1977; Palmer, 1973). This made the risk of loss of any one crop much greater than previously, reinforcing the need to adopt pesticides along with the seeds. Furthermore, greater outputs of crops required greater effort in maintenance and harvesting, as well as greater amounts of water for the crops. Thus more labour (often eventually replaced by machinery) and irrigation systems were also needed (Chinnappa, 1979; Griffin, 1979). Without fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation systems, the new seeds were useless, thus the combined ‘package’ of new seeds and new technologies needed to be accepted as a whole if the Green Revolution was to be of any success (Pearse, 1980). Yet, purchasing the various components of this ‘package’ was not a one-time event. Pests and diseases built up resistance causing greater amounts of chemical applications, and eventually replacement of the crops with new ‘pest’- and ‘disease-resistant’ varieties after one or two years (Pearse, 1980, Shiva, 1997).

Initially, the new ‘package’ showed much potential as the few preliminary farmers that adopted the new technology experienced double, and in some cases quadruple the amount of yields during the first few seasons. For example, “rice production in the Ivory Coast more than doubled during the ‘sixties… [and] Brazil and Paraguay each achieved dramatic gains in wheat production in 1968” (Brown, 1970: 5). Also, “in two of the leading wheat producing states [of India], Haryana and Punjab, …yield per hectare of wheat increased from 789 kilograms in 1965/66 to 1,307 in 1970/71…[and],…yield per hectare [of rice] increased from 845 kilograms per hectare…to 1,123 kilograms” (Dasgupta, 1977: 46). However, as with contemporary attitudes toward GMO crops (Bruno, 1998), initial successes gave way to pessimism as it soon became clear that the new HYVs were not producing miracles (Dasgupta, 1977).

Access to Food During the Green Revolution

The two main objectives of the United Nations’ unleashing of the Green Revolution were to allow “freedom (for the people) from hunger and malnutrition” and “freedom from ‘food-dependence’ that is, from the unwelcome necessity of importing food” (Pearse, 1980: 208). In many places the Green Revolution appeared to be successful, as most farmers reported higher yields, and often national incomes rose. But did this help to alleviate hunger? In the Philippines, the “food situation of the majority of Filipinos showed no improvement [with] 60 to 70 percent of all young people [being] undernourished” (Pearse, 1980: 214). Lappé and Collins found, the same to be true for Mexico in 1988 (p. 51): “While two-thirds of Mexico’s people are undernourished and its population is growing fast, no greater area is planted today in the foods most consumed by the poor – corn and beans – than 20 years ago.” In fact, wheat was originally introduced as the Green Revolution crop to Mexico, but it has since been largely replaced by sorghum, which is used to feed livestock. Additionally there is an increasing trend toward growing ‘luxury’ crops for export. As one farmer explained to Lappé and Collins (1988: 52) “An entrepreneur in this area can make 20 times more by growing tomatoes for export than food for Mexicans.”

Many studies show that as income rises, so does the demand for both amount and variety of food (Willet, 1973). Also, with a rising income, the supply of calories changes from mostly plant-based to mostly animal-based. Furthermore, increased income promotes market goods and with them, industrial growth (Griffin, 1979). Thus the income that wealthy farmers generated from successful crops was not distributed among the peasants, but more often used to feed their own increasingly demanding diet, their increasing need for marketed goods, or the “accumulation of land and other assets” (Manning, 1988: 4). As was the case in Java, traditional patron-client relationships began to break down, as farmers tended to “think and act more commercially… This desire to improve one’s position in relations to the community welfare is in direct conflict with the traditional values of the village community.” (Collier, quoted in Manning, 1988: 5).

Therefore, while rates of production increased for a time, food was not distributed to those who needed it. As Lappé and Collins (1988) point out, one of the greatest myths surrounding the issue of world hunger is that ‘there is not enough food.’ In fact, historical rates of population increases have often paralleled increasing rates of production. The distribution – not the amount – of food, is often the problem. Will GMOs alleviate this?

Socio-Economic Factors of the Green Revolution

While the malnourished remained malnourished, the rich farmers became richer, and the poor farmers became poorer. The initial success of HYVs in India was attributed, in part, to the selectivity of farmers endowed with the new technologies. Wealthy, willing farmers in areas where there was known ‘developed’ infrastructure, such as transportation, irrigation and credit facilities, were selected to experiment with the new seeds, and thus their successes were based on their abilities to acquire all necessary inputs (Dasgupta, 1977; Shiva, 1997). Studies on the impacts of the Green Revolution have showed that there was a positive correlation between farm size (and thus usually relative wealth), and proportion of farmers adopting the new technologies in most countries, including Mexico, Kenya and India (Dasgupta, 1977; Lipton and Longhurst, 1989).

Generally, it has been found that most small-farm holders either never adopted HYVs, or they did so much later than their larger, wealthier counterparts. Whether they adopted depended on whether policy was in place to provide them credit and subsidies (Lipton and Longhurst, 1989). Those small farmers who did eventually adopt the new seeds and technology, found that the new technology has reinforced [their] needs for patronage (their brokers may be big farmers or traders), while the big farmers, because of their own growing involvement in urban activities have come increasingly to share relations with millers and traders in the towns. As the village élite of large farmers come to participate more and more in a regional trader -farmer élite, so a new group of village leaders is emerging (Harriss, 1979:242-243).

Not only did wealthier farmers have a headstart in the Green Revolution but, because they could buy in bulk, and because they had greater clout, they were also given price and credit advantages. Price advantages for large farms were found to exist in Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zambia and “in Thanjavur, interest on loans for ‘paddy production’ fell steadily from 13 per cent for holdings below 2.5 ha. to 9 per cent above 20 ha. and differentials on informal-sector loans are often much larger than that” (Lipton and Longhurst, 1989: 130). As mentioned earlier, petro-chemicals needed to be applied in increasing amounts, and often new seeds would need to be purchased, raising costs each season. Thus it became increasingly difficult for small farmers to compete with rising economies. For instance, Punjab farmers experienced an average annual loss of Rs1512.17 and Rs1648.19 in 1976-77 and 1977-78 respectively. As a result, between 1970 and 1980, total land holdings in Punjab dropped by almost 25%, most of those being smallholder operations (Shiva, 1997). This produced a vicious circle of debt and dependency.

Along with greater differentiation between rich and poor farmers came a larger gap between land-owners and the landless. For some time, increased land acreage devoted to agriculture, and increased need for technological inputs, required more labour. Thus, there was a time when the landless had more opportunity for work on the farms. A 1969 report on New Delhi labour wages showed that almost double the amount was paid out to labourers of the new rice than of the traditional varieties (Brown, 1970). However, in Punjab, “the rise in money wages lagged behind price changes, leading to reduced real wage rates for most operations between 1965 and 1968, and again in 1974, 1975 and 1977” (Bhalla, quoted in Shiva, 1997). Labourers had to meet an ever-increasing economy, while not receiving wages to meet those demands. Eventually, tractors and other modern machinery replaced labourers who were forced into urban areas to seek work that was already hard to come by. In 1971 in Chilalo, Ethiopia, for example, 20 – 25% of the farm household tenants were evicted three years after the introduction of MVs, as they were being replaced by “heavily subsidized mechanization” (Lipton and Longhurst, 1989: 145).

Environmental Factors of the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution also had major environmental impacts. It reduced the amount of non-cultivated land in existence (only 4% of Punjabi land is now under ‘forest’ (Shiva, 1997)) and decreased biological diversity (Dahlberg, 1979). With transitions to large-scale monoculture many traditional species were lost, along with native varieties, or landraces, that had been selected for specific ecosystemic conditions. In Punjab, “wheat has spread at the cost of gram, barley, rape and mustard which were usually sown as mixed crops with traditional wheat varieties. Similarly, the area under paddy has increased at the cost of maize, kharif pulses…., groundnut, green fodder, and cotton” (Shiva, 1997: 83-86). With the replacement of certain plant species, the habitats and/or the food sources of many animals are also lost, disrupting predator-prey relationships and the delicate balance of ecosystems. And the use of herbicides and pesticides kills many of those species, beneficial or neutral plants and animals, that have survived dramatic land-use changes (Dahlberg, 1979).

Some plants, such as legumes, return nutrients to the soil, but their replacement by HYVs of wheat or rice which are designed to take up more nutrients, without crop rotation, has led to soil erosion and land degradation. In Punjab, while “the area under wheat has nearly doubled and the area under rice has gone up by five times since the start of the Green Revolution…the area under pulses (legumes) has been reduced by one-half.” (Shiva, 1997: 110). Also dwarf varieties of wheat or rice, produce much less straw than traditional varieties. Straw is used as natural fodder to return nutrients to the soil. But this, together with less nutrient-cycling plants, has reduced soil productivity. Again,more fertilisers are needed. However, chemical fertilisers only contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Many crops in Punjab have begun to fail due to lack of important micronutrients, such as zinc and iron (Shiva, 1997).

Monocultures are more susceptible to diseases and pests. Because there is not a variety of plants in one agricultural system, entire crops can be lost due to one pest or disease, as with the potato in Ireland during the early 1800s (Salaman, 1949). In addition, plants that have been genetically manipulated to resist pests and diseases, have been shown to actually increase the rates of harmful pests and diseases (Shiva, 1997). The spraying of extra pesticides will kill beneficial insects as well as harmful ones, and the target insects, without their natural predators, will build up a resistance to such chemicals. In the long run, increasing amounts of petro-chemicals will need to be applied to the new seeds, which eventually will need to be replaced by ones that have been altered again to be pest- or disease- resistant. But pests and viruses continue to adapt, and the introduction of the ‘miracle seeds’ has only made formerly insignificant pests and disease more powerful. In Punjab, rice is now vulnerable to 40 pests, including the rice leaf folder, Enaphalorrocis medinalis, and the whitebacked plant hopper, Sogatella fureifers, and 12 diseases, including brown spot, false smut and sheath rot, that never presented problems before (Shiva, 1997).

Also the immoderate use of fertilisers and pesticides has polluted the environment. While no explicit examples of such pollution were found in the literature, present day studies by the Environmental Protection Agency show that excess nitrogen and phosphorus cause a chain reaction of excessive algae growth which causes greater oxygen depletion in the water, blocks out sunlight to fish and shellfish, and has even caused the fish-killing bacteria Pfiesteria piscicida to bloom in the East Coast rivers of the US (Landsberg, et al., 1998). The HYVs needed up to three times as much water as traditional varieties, and this increased use of water with the implementation of irrigation systems has led to a decline in water tables in India and Pakistan (Dahlberg, 1979). Such dramatic changes in water use has lead to the building of large dams for irrigation systems, causing water-logging in some areas of Punjab, and desertification and salinity problems in other areas (Shiva, 1997: 128). Additionally, new dams and larger-scale agriculture has led to deforestation, soil erosion, and “the generation of dust through agriculture” (Dahlberg, 1979: 83). The same will inevitably happen with the use of new Genetically Modified Organisms.


Today, Genetically Modified Organisms are produced by physically tampering with specific genes. The Biotechnology Information Center separates GMOs into four major categories (Meister and Fogel, 1994). The first is the “adaptation to the damaging effects of chemicals, i.e. herbicide or heavy metal tolerance” (Meister and Fogel, 1994). For instance Monsanto, a US-based biotechnology company has a line of products that are resistant to Roundup, the largest selling herbicide in the world (Tokar, 1998) and one of Monsanto’s own products. There are currently Roundup Ready cotton, soybeans, corn, beets and canola (Mendelson, 1998). A second category of genetically modified organisms are those that exhibit “adaptation to other environmental or climatic conditions” (Meister and Fogel, 1994), such as strawberries that are induced with the anti-freeze gene of flounder to render it frost resistant. A gene that produces an insecticide to kill the corn borer insect has also been spliced into maize and human genes have been inserted into pigs (Steinbrecher, 1998).

Thirdly, there are GMOs whose “product quality’ has been adapted (Meister and Fogel, 1994), such as the delayed ripening of tomatoes by the reversing of its softening gene or the modification of the flavour of rape seed (canola) oil to make it less bitter (Meister and Fogel, 1994). Also, Monsanto’s Terminator seed has the quality of producing crops with sterile seeds so that new seeds are needed after each growing season (Steinbrecher and Mooney, 1998). Finally, there are GMOs that are developed to resist certain insects or diseases (Meister and Fogel, 1994). Some food crops have been induced with scorpion or spider venom. “More commonly, a toxin form the soil bacteriaBacillus thuringensis (Bt) is engineered into crops such as tomato, corn, cotton and tobacco” (Meister and Fogel, 1994).

Genetically engineered organisms have now been introduced into most continents with the optimism of the private sector, but the majority of public opinion is against such introductions (Bruno, 1998).One of the greatest reasons for the public’s outcry against GMOs, and biotechnology in general, concerns the morality of tinkering with nature. When news that a sheep named Dolly had been successfully cloned from an adult cell, with implications that human cloning was next, “many of the concerns articulated had a religious character that is particularly noteworthy” (Klotzko, 1997: 430). Even HRH the Prince of Wales spoke out: “I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone” (HRH the Prince of Wales, 1998: 252). The unknown consequences are another fear, as no one knows how far science will go in its mixing and matching of genes.

Will GMOs Alleviate World Hunger?

The private sector, rather than the development agencies of the Green Revolution, is largely responsible for the development and implementation of GMO programmes in agriculture. These multinational corporations claim that their products can end world hunger, while simultaneously being environmentally beneficial. Sound familiar? In 1997, Monsanto sent a letter to the leaders of developing countries, asking for their endorsement of Monsanto’s products, and promising that biotechnology will provide “healthier more abundant food. Less expensive crops. Reduced reliance on pesticides and fossil fuels. A cleaner environment” (Monsanto, quoted in Bruno, 1998)[1]. Can these claims be true?

Large expanses of monocultures did not allow for much choice in the markets, during the Green Revolution. In Punjab, an excess of rice and wheat in the markets “had been in part, achieved by creating a scarcity in oilseeds and pulses, necessary for a nutritional balance in vegetarian diets” (Shiva, 1997: 181). Also, Green Revolution plants were often deemed inferior in taste or quality so, in some cases, the modern variety actually sold for much less than the traditional varieties, such as in the Philippines where “the new variety has been known to sell at half the price of the old one” (Palmer, 1973: 7). Similarly, the introduction of GM crops on large scales will decrease food variety and, in the opinion of some, food quality. For instance, genetically engineered soya beans containing a Brazil nut gene caused reactions in people allergic to nuts, and it is thought that the genetic alteration of bacteria used to produce the food supplement Tryptophan may have caused 37 deaths and up to 1500 permanent disabilities in the US since 1989. This major problem was caused by such a tiny amount that it is doubtful whether it would be detected by current food safety tests (Soil Association, 1998).

Many people do not want to ingest plant foods that have toxic genes, that have been sprayed with heavier doses of herbicide, or that may contain human or animal genes. These attitudes are reflected in the 20 percent per annum increase in the organic food market of the US (Cummins and Lilliston, 1998), and the refusal of Sainsbury’s and Spar supermarkets, as well as the House of Commons and the catering committee of the Palace of Westminster, to provide genetically engineered foods to their customers (Thomas, 1998).

Socio-Economic Risks of GMOs

Harry Collins, vice-president of Delta and Pine Land (a subsidiary or Monsanto), says the new Terminator seed, which produces infertile offspring “will help [farmers in the developing world] become more production-oriented rather than remaining subsistence farmers” (Kluger, 1999: 59). However, becoming more production-orientated only increases the needs and risks of farmers. Subsistence farming assures that a farmer can feed his or her family independently, without having to rely on market fluctuations. And for consumers in the West, eating a GM food is not always a matter of choice. Many processed foods already on the shelves of grocery stores contain GMOs (most without labels), and “there is evidence that low income consumers rely on cheaper processed foods” (Genetic Engineering Alliance, n.d.).

Those that can afford to buy the new herbicide resistant plants will also have to buy the herbicide for the plant to be of any use. But “what will the farmer’s costs saving be if they buy the genetically engineered seed – and then have to buy still another product?” (Lappé and Collins, 1988: 49). Furthermore, farmers will spend more money and become even more dependent as they are forced to buy new seeds every season. This will only create the cycle of debt and dependency already seen in the Green Revolution, with greater differentiation between the peasantry and the wealthy. Some tropical crops, such as canola are being genetically engineered so that they can grow in the temperate climates of developed countries. “This could destroy the livelihood of millions of people in countries such as India and the Philippines” (Genetic Engineering Alliance, n.d.). The disparity between developed and developing countries will only continue to widen, as developing countries will be forced into reliance upon Western technologies and subsidies.

Environmental Risks of GMOs

The environmental risks of GMOs are far-reaching. Again, as seen in the Green Revolution, biodiversity will decrease as even larger areas of land are devoted to monocultures of ‘super’ plants. Also, the introduction of a new species into an ecosystem has seen dramatic consequences in the past. For example, the Adriatic zebra mussel was introduced to the Michigan Great Lakes via ballast water from cargo ships. Without predators to keep it in check it flourished. “Utilities and industries that draw cooling water from mussel-infested waters have suffered repeated shutdowns and costly cleanups as a result of the invasion. Layer upon layer of zebra mussels build up inside the intake pipes, clogging then and shutting off the water supply” (Nair, 1998) What will plants with ‘super’ traits do to their environment? Historically hare and deer have shunned rape because of its bitter taste, but in genetically modified rape the bitterness is concealed. This has led to population declines of both animals in Switzerland, Germany and Austria as they have eaten the poisonous plant (Meister and Fogel). It is now feared that the transgenic cultivated strawberry (Frugaria ananassa) may be able to transmit its genes to the wild strawberry (Frugaria virginiana), “since these species occur in proximity, have overlapping flowering periods and produce fertile hybrid offspring” (Abbott, et al., 1997). And once the transgenes have been released into the wild, there can be no recovery of them. The crops of the organic farmer, the traditional agriculturist, or the backyard gardener are in danger of developing the genetically modified traits as well.

On the other hand, if the genetically modified plants find that they cannot compete in an environment where similar varieties have co-evolved for generations, there is always the option of using more fertilisers and pesticides and creating even greater irrigation systems. Again, the consequences are the same as those experienced in the Green Revolution. Greater pollution by agro-chemicals, greater losses in biodiversity, and risks of desertification or waterlogging. But these are only the known risks, that past experience has illuminated.


While superficially the Green Revolution showed initial success, Griffin’s studies (1979: 5) found that during the overall period of the Revolution (1955-1975) “in no region has there been an acceleration in food production.” Griffin’s notion that the Green Revolution was a failure is echoed by many (e.g. Dahlberg, 1979; Pearse, 1980; Shiva, 1997). The United Nations did not meet their intended objectives: to alleviate hunger and to free developing countries from dependence on food imports. How can the introduction of GMOs be any different? The proponents of HYVs suggest that it is not the new seeds, but the existing social constructs that allowed for the adverse affects of the Green Revolution. Why, then, did traditional methods of agriculture succeed over colonial plantations of rubber, in South East Asia (Dove, n.d.)? It has been demonstrated that “even after the ‘Green Revolution’… many of the most successful innovations in food-crop production have been based on indigenous knowledge” (Cotton, 1996).

Perhaps, as Griffin (1979: 134) says “a more equitable distribution of income would ensure a more equitable distribution of food.” But the solution is not so simple. As developing countries are forced to rely more heavily on the technologies and seeds of the developed countries, inequity has already reared its head. As year after year farmers in developing countries find that their new seeds are infertile, they will have no choice but to continue to buy from the West, only increasing inequity. While powerful multi-national corporations advertise the benefits of their products, serious peer-reviewed evaluations into the full effects of these products would be the most beneficial to all.


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[1] The all the African delegates to the FAO, except South Africa, sent a response protesting “the image of the poor and the hungry from our countries…being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us.” A copy of this letter in full, as well as Monsanto’s original letter can be found in Bruno (1998).