- Europe’s Green Revolution and Others Since: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding by Jonathan Harwood
As with his previous books, Jonathan’s Harwood long-awaited study of the rise of plant breeding in Germany has turned out to be more than a simple monograph. In his preface, the author explains how a chance encounter with literature on the green revolution forced him to reassess his project, and why he left his comfort zone in order to tackle a three-headed intellectual project in which, he openly admits, the “chances of screwing up are so much greater” (p. 11). In the end, Harwood has three distinct goals in this brief and bold volume: to tell the detailed history of the rise of plant breeding sciences in central Europe around the turn of the twentieth century; to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the postwar “Green Revolution” that brought industrial agricultural technologies into the developing world; [End Page 988] and to assess what lessons the past can bring to twenty-first-century agricultural biotechnologies.
About half of the book is a straightforward history of applied science, focusing on the rise of public-sector plant breeding in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Germany. Harwood opens with a clear and helpful explanation of Germany’s complex agrarian politics at a time when farm prosperity was in decline and rural unrest loomed as a potential threat to the rural elite. Some German states, especially in the south, responded with new research institutions, several of which aimed explicitly to serve the needs of peasants and smallholders. Focusing especially on Bavaria, where the archival records are strong and the influence of Junker-type estate owners was minimal, Harwood convincingly shows how the Bavarian state and farmers’ interest groups funded and fostered dozens of small and decentralized plant-breeding stations. There, scientists and educated farmers worked together to develop seed varieties that were well-suited for local climates, soils, and markets. Although he is forced to admit that his evidence is more circumstantial than empirical, Harwood unflinchingly treats this effort as a “resounding success” (p. 73). Harwood also addresses the decline of these projects under National Socialism. In this case, the conclusion is not too surprising, as the Nazis ignored their rhetorical respect for the German peasantry when they took over the institutions that had served them well.
The book’s second section addresses an entirely different set of concerns: the postwar green revolution and its purported failure to serve the peasants of the developing world. As in Germany, scientific experts stationed in India, Latin America, and beyond believed that plant genetics and agricultural chemistry could be the keys to rural prosperity. They eventually found, as before, that improved technologies could not readily be transferred from the laboratory to the field. Also, as before, critics emerged who could argue that seeds, fertilizers, and their related policies that did not take local social, political, and ecological conditions into account were less likely to succeed. Harwood’s final aim, then, is to show that costly top-down development programs are not the only possible model, and that decentralized public-sector breeding research can still succeed in an era of genetic engineering and biotechnology.
While his prose can be repetitive and his efforts to connect the southern Germany of 1900 with the Global South of the twenty-first century can seem strained, Harwood does make a strong and persuasive case overall. Yet, he also recognizes that his claims are speculative and that a brief book on three diverse topics will invite some scrutiny. His insistence that the rise of peasant-friendly programs in southern Germany amounted to a green revolution will challenge those who assume that that term refers only to the postwar project. His assessment of the postwar development projects is unabashedly rooted in the assumption that experts should have considered [End Page 989] peasants’ needs and livelihoods, even though it is clear that many policy-makers deliberately chose instead to prioritize commercial...