For several decades, scholars, journalists, and activists have been beavering away to overturn triumphalist narratives regarding the Green Revolution. Earlier generations of observers had generally written positively about the revolution and its leading figures, especially U.S. crop scientist Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

This revolution involved a series of advancements in agriculture between World War II and the late 1980s that led to large increases in cereal grain output—wheat and rice primarily—in various less-developed parts of the world. The increases were the result mainly of the introduction of high-yielding crop varieties (hyvs) used in combination with a technological “package,” marked by increased use of fertilizer, enhanced irrigation works, and, often, greater mechanization.

The context for these developments was the perceived need for massive increases in grain production at a time of rapid population growth in already food-insecure parts of the world. The impetus...

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