Development Co-operation Directorate (DCD-DAC)

Pakistan’s Green Revolution by Joseph C. Wheeler - DACNews November 2007



I think of Pakistan’s Green Revolution in terms of the wheat crop – though it is really much broader than that – including rice, maize and other crops. Pakistan’s farmers have achieved an enormous success with wheat production going from 4 million tons in 1967 to over 9 million tons in 1977 to a crop today of some 20 million tons. Since Pakistan’s population has increased more than five-fold since independence from about 30 million in 1947 to perhaps 165 million today, the successful increase in food production has been essential.

I was USAID’s Mission Director for eight years from 1969 to 1977 and was privileged to see Pakistan’s great success story in food production unfold.

The Green Revolution in wheat came from research that produced improved varieties, better water management and adoption of a new fertilizer strategy – and, of course, from the hard work of Pakistan’s farmers.

The research breakthrough was the development of so-called short-straw varieties of wheat. If more nutrients were applied to traditional varieties, the plants grew taller and tended to lodge, producing little more grain. The new varieties used additional nutrients to put out more stems or tillers, each stem producing grain. These new varieties were developed through research at international and national research centers.

Norman Borlaug, who is well known in Pakistan, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in seed development. I recall his annual visits to Pakistan’s agricultural research centers where seeds developed in Mexico, Pakistan and elsewhere were tested out and propagated. It was a matter of considerable pride to me that Dr. Sadar Ahmed Qureshi, the Pakistani scientist Borlaug visited, was among the first Pakistanis given a training opportunity in the United States when the U.S. assistance began in the 1950s.

Back in the days of Abraham Lincoln, our federal government, through land grants, encouraged American states to develop agricultural universities, each with its agricultural research station. Over time we discovered that coordination among these stations was poor and our Department of Agriculture developed a national research station in Beltsville, Maryland to facilitate coordination among state scientists.

A similar problem developed in Pakistan. For example, to speed up wheat variety trials, the Punjab research station needed to plant a crop in the Frontier’s Swat Valley where the difference in climate permitted an off season crop. However, the Punjab scientists ran into inter-provincial coordination problems. Following the American example, Pakistan established the Pakistan National Research Council with a research station in Islamabad. While most research is still done in the Provinces, the existence of the national station helps achieve cooperation and coordination. An efficient stream of new research is vital to the continuation of the Green Revolution.

The second leg of the Green Revolution stool was water. As every Pakistani knows, water comes to the wheat fields primarily from glacial melt through a system of rivers, canals and water courses.  Painstaking research told us that most of the water entering the canals was lost along the way. Furthermore, a rise in groundwater levels was causing massive salting – putting millions of hectares out of production.

Over the years Pakistan has attacked these problems in many ways. The most dramatic tactic was the Salinity Control and Reclamation Program (SCARP). Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) brought electricity to the affected areas to power tube wells. Groundwater, which tended to be too salty, was pumped out and diluted with canal water. The groundwater level was thus lowered so that irrigation, in addition to providing water to the wheat, flushed the accumulated surface salts back into the ground. While many Pakistani and American scientists were involved, the person who articulated the scheme to Pakistan’s President was Roger Revelle, one of America’s Renaissance Men.

The next big problem was the inefficient use of water at the farmer’s field. For many years USAID financed a team from Colorado State University to work with agriculture department scientists. Extensive research found the problem both in the water courses and in the fields. As a step in the right direction, Pakistan’s scientists developed the pucka nakka to reduce leaking where the water enters the field. Then they developed “precision land leveling” because a perfectly level field meant better coverage of the whole field with less water – and increased production. A key here was the development of Pakistani-made inexpensive land leveling machinery. A USAID agricultural engineer worked with small Pakistani machine shops. I recall visiting one of these in Mian Channu. The enthusiasm and skills of these rural equipment manufacturers was wonderful to behold.

The third leg of the Green Revolution stool was soil nutrition. USAID was involved in support of fertilizer production and imports. Critical policy issues related to production, distribution and prices. One of our mottos was that “a good policy is worth a lot of money.” I recall the dialog between USAID’s agriculture chief Richard Newberg, a gifted economist, and the brilliant Secretary for External Affairs, Aftab Ahmad Khan, about prices and production. Newberg developed a table of several policy options and predicted the production increase likely with each option. After full discussion of these issues in the Pakistan government, which included with the Prime Minister, the government chose a policy package which Newberg thought would produce a harvest of 8.5 million tons. To make this work, USAID persuaded its Washington superiors to offer Pakistan $100 million worth of fertilizer to supplement Pakistan’s own fertilizer production. We also agreed to invest in a new fertilizer plant in Pakistan – the Fauji plant.  It was with considerable relief to me – and I am sure to the Government – that the next wheat crop came in at an estimated 9 million tons. Of course today – thirty years later – the wheat crop is more than twice that level.

This great success story resulted from continued attention to research, water management and policies related to plant nutrition. These are the tools for continuing the Green Revolution to meet the needs of this new century.

On one of Norman Borlaug’s visits to Pakistan I invited him to my Islamabad home for a discussion of long term Green Revolution issues with USAID staff.  Borlaug concluded his remarks with the statement that the Green Revolution simply bought time for countries to mount successful programs in the field of population. I find it instructive that both Borlaug and Revelle supported efforts to help families make decisions about family size – decisions found to dramatically reduce fertility rates, as in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Pakistan remains behind other Asian countries in this area and this is a worry for the future.

Today – looking to the fifty years ahead – I would add one more worry: Global Warming.  Pakistan gets much of its water from the mountain glaciers and if reduced ice formation changes river flows, future generations will suffer. While I would be the first to say that my own country is a generation behind in facing up to climate change issues, I believe it is also true that Pakistan has an equal stake in the issue and should also be giving a high priority to international efforts to slow global warming.

Meanwhile, with the Green Revolution, Pakistan has proven that good science, good policies and great farmers can change the world for the better.

JCW 2/19/07