Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding

Europe’s Green Revolution: The Rise and Fall of Peasant-Friendly Plant Breeding in Central Europe, 1890–1945

Since the 1940s various programs for agricultural development in the "third world" have been funded by Western governments and foundations. Commonly referred to as the "green revolution," these programs have generally sought to develop high-yielding cereal varieties in an attempt to alleviate hunger and poverty. Although by the 1970s enormous increases in cereals production had been achieved, poverty remained largely unchanged, and critics explained this outcome by arguing that the agricultural technology provided had been eagerly adopted by large commercial farmers but was ill-suited to the needs of the great majority of peasant-farmers. Since the 1970s efforts have been made to develop more "appropriate" technologies for the small farmer.

Against the backdrop of the transformation of continental European agriculture from the nineteenth century ("Europe’s green revolution"), this history looks rather odd. For around 1900 several Central European states established plant-breeding stations whose express purpose was to raise the productivity of small farms (which constituted the large majority) by making the advantages of breeding available to peasants. Moreover preliminary evidence suggests that some of these stations had a substantial impact upon the regional agricultural economies they served.

In this book project, therefore, focusing upon the stations established in three southern German states, Jonathan Harwood considered why the stations were created, the nature of the stations’ organization and activities, the extent to which they succeeded in stimulating agricultural productivity, and the subsequent decline in their autonomy and influence under National Socialism. Finally he returned to the present, asking whether early green revolution programs were aware of the previous European model and if so, why they seem not to have drawn upon it. And in view of recent claims that agricultural biotechnology is paving the way for a "second green revolution," Harwood assessed how much has been learned from previous experience.

  • “Politische-Okonomie der Pflanzenzucht in Deutschland, ca. 1870-1933“ [Political Economy of Plant-Breeding in Germany, ca 1870-1933], in: Susanne Heim (ed.), Autarkie und Ostexpansion: Pflanzenzucht und Agrarforschung im Nationalsozialismus, Göttingen: Wallstein, 2002, pp. 14-33.
  • “Linkage before Mendelism? Plant-Breeding Research in Central Europe, c. 1880-1910,“ in: Hans-Joerg Rheinberger and Jean-Paul Gaudilliere (eds.), Classical Genetic Research and Its Legacy: The Mapping Cultures of Twentieth Century Genetics, London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 9-20.
  • “The Rediscovery of Mendelism in Agricultural Context: Erich von Tschermak as Plant-Breeder,” Comptes rendus de l'Academie des sciences (Serie III/ Sciences de la vie) 323 (December 2000, Mendel Centennial issue), pp. 1061-1067.
  • “The Reception of Genetic Theory Among Academic Plant-Breeders in Germany, 1900-1930,” Journal of the Swedish Seed Association 107 (1997), pp. 187-195.

Funding Institutions

Leverhulme Trust