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September 14, 2009

Remembering the godfather of Green Revolution

Joe Pastry, one of my favorite food bloggers, remembers Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist and Nobel Laureate whose work on crop yields saved untold numbers of people from starvation. He died this weekend at the ripe old age of 95:

This weekend the world, very quietly, lost its greatest humanitarian. And I mean that literally. Superlatives like "greatest humanitarian" come cheap nowadays. Heck someone probably used the term on the podium at the MTV Awards last night. However I'm pretty sure no one in attendance there had really saved more lives than any human being in the history of the world. That was Norman Borlaug.

Who was Norman Borlaug? Well may you ask, since virtually no one recognizes his name anymore. Norman Borlaug was a poor Iowa farm boy who grew up during the depression. He spent his entire life finding ways to feed the world's poorest peoples. It's thanks to him that true famines don't exist on Earth anymore. Or at least not naturally-occurring famines. There are still plenty of politically-manufactured famines on Earth (Ethiopia, Durfur), but those are a topic for another day.

Borlaug is famous for developing semi-dwarf strains of wheat and rice, which increased yields six-fold. The head of the UN World Food Program remembered him as one of the great champions in the fight against hunger.


Thanks for writing about him. He is very much remembered in the developing world, where I am from. He was truly a great man and may he rest in peace.

I recall as a kid in the early sixties hearing predictions of seemingly inevitable mass starvation occurring across broad swaths of the planet within a decade or two. Without Borlaug the predictions, which at the time were accepted pretty much as a matter of course, would likely have come true. If anyone deserved a Nobel peace prize, certainly it's him. There's no question but that he personally has saved millions of peoples lives. Borlaug himself however kept his achievement within realistic perspective – from Beyersein's link:

To his scientific goal he soon added that of the practical humanitarian: arranging to put the new cereal strains into extensive production in order to feed the hungry people of the world - and thus providing, as he says, "a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation," a breathing space in which to deal with the "Population Monster" and the subsequent environmental and social ills that too often lead to conflict between men and between nations.

“A temporary success “. When Borlaug started his career poor farmers tending their grain in the millions and millions of small fields throughout the poorer regions of the world sowed with the seed that developed, i. e. evolved, in that particular place over hundreds or even thousands of years. The yields may have been crappy, but local strains of grain had adapted to local conditions -soils, diseases, pests, climate- and even more importantly, in the aggregate, globally, they store a vast genetic diversity. We're losing that diversity every time a farmer abandons the seed inherited locally over many generations for grain developed at a regional field station. This is not a rant about Monsanto or giant agribusiness but a comment about the inevitable creeping globalization and homoginization of all crops and agriculture worldwide. I just ate a clementine tangerine grown in Australia and a gala apple grown in Chile along with a pork chop probably from a giant swine operation in North Carolina. Orchardists in Australia and Chile have to fear ruin by diseases and pests such as citrus greening and apple maggots that are spreading worldwide. Meanwhile hog farms are now necessarily quarantined from the outside world like biohazard labs for fear the pigs will contract hog cholera, or even lately H1N1 influenza from humans. Pigs cosseted on fed high quality feed in their climate-controlled pens on these farms fatten at phenomenal rates but are losing the genetic wherewithal that would enable them to cope with say, long periods of freezing weather and poor slop that were the normal lot of their ancestors for many millenia.

Bananas, coconuts, coffee, honey bees, wheat, wine grapes, walnuts, . . . practically any crop you can name is now plugged into the global economy and is vulnerable to pests and pathogens that are not going to stop their evolution to accommodate our pleasure. The most effective and enduring guarantee of these crops' health is not pesticides and fertilizers but their genetic diversity which is being steadily eroded. Seeds, semen and tissue samples stored in refrigerators and liquid nitrogen are no long term substitute for living, evolving populations of plants and animals on countless farms. We're still playing catch up with late blight of potatoes of Irish famine fame for God's sake, and for the same reason: lack of genetic diversity among the few potato varieties that are commercially viable.

With agriculture now completely globalized and our population in the billions we're in a position described by an amusing Iranian idiom: we've got a saw up our ass and can go neither forward nor backward.

Excellent comment cfrost. Plus you rarely get to see the word slop used in the context of pig feed......brings back memories and the unique smell of slop and pig pens.

Norman Borlaug was a man of real achievements and goodwill, but I'm surprised to see the "Green Revolution" praised so uncritically here.

I agree with Nell, the green revolution is really a corporate process as opposed to social process. In India the cultural heritage is threatened by the so-called 'green revolution'. I.e genetic patents of plants species. Growing enough food is held like a gun at the head to gain concessions about the business of agriculture. I dismiss Paul Ehrlich and other doom sayers, but I think it healthy to in a biologically sound manner not buy into Borlaug's position too deeply.

Doyle, the corporate process you mention about genetic patents is an issue of GMOs, which postdate the green revolution by about 30 years, and are a way of achieving similar yields without pesticides. In China the government devours those innovations; it grows organic food as a cash crop in order to pay for them. In India people are more skeptical because of the corporate issues, and also because of other environmental issues that have cropped up, chiefly water shortages. India's main food problem right now comes from insufficient irrigation; this makes it too dependent on monsoon winds, which cause floods that kill thousands when they come a few days too soon, and drought when they come a few days too late.

The Borlaug position I'm most concerned about isn't that technological innovation reduces hunger. That's almost self-evident by now. Rather, it's that it also helps the environment - Borlaug says the green revolution helped preserve rainforests by increasing yields on existing farmland. This is factually wrong: in Indonesia, high-yield crops reduced the amount of labor needed to farm a given area, pushing farmers into the mountains, where they cleared forests to plant more crops. Jane Jacobs uses this example to argue for a greater focus on urban development, i.e. jobs in cities, rather than rural development, which makes people redundant without any way of finding new jobs for them.

The science behind the Green Revolution was sound. You can't argue with a sixfold increase in crop yields in places where people literally starved to death on a regular basis. It wasn't Borlaug's fault that his scientific advances were introduced into a world where capitalism and corporatism are very strong and democracy and public deliberation are relatively weak (especially in many regions most desperate for food).

The Green Revolution is not complete by any means. We still need to figure out how to make those gains truly sustainable and how to share the wealth equitably. But at least now, we've got a planet that can feed itself for the most part. That's huge. Unprecedented in human civilization. Borlaug's science has saved hundred of millions of lives, and counting.

I dismiss Paul Ehrlich and other doom sayers, but I think it healthy to in a biologically sound manner not buy into Borlaug's position too deeply.

I wouldn't be too sure. We've outrun famine for now, but that's only been in the few most recent decades. What of coming decades and centuries? Traditional farming can't feed a human population now in the single digit and soon to be in the double digit billions. It is simply not possible to feed six billion people without genetic manipulations of crops like those that Borlaug engineered, as well as, and perhaps even more importantly, without artificial nitrogen fertilizers prepared via the Haber–Bosch process. (Named after a couple more Nobel laureates.) To get an idea of the stupendous scale this involves, one should realize that more nitrogen is now "fixed" artificially than naturally. And that includes "natural" fixation by soybeans, alfalfa, clover, pulses, and other green manure crops.

So we've come up with some truly excellent technological fixes (and I would include here pesticides and genetic engineering in the modern sense) that have kept the wolf from the door for many, many millions of people. We should not kid ourselves however that they don't come with some very severe costs (not the least of which is enabling further geometric population growth), nor should we think that we can presently do without them.

Future agricultural hurdles will involve difficulties and complexities inversely proportional to how basic they are. Like where to find water. For instance, we're tapping aquifers at a furious rate, much of which much is "fossil" water deposited during the ice ages (e.g. the Ogallala and San Juaqin Valley aquifers) which will not be recharged even without global warming. An ominous recent development is the satellite gravimetric measurement of ground water in northern India. Enough water there has been pumped from the ground that the result can be measured from space. Global climate change is melting the Himalayan glaciers. Almost a half billion people live within the Ganges basin. Several thousand years of agriculture have already stressed the soils. The Indian government is notoriously only semi-competent. Guess they'd better come up with a really amazing technological deus ex machina or pray for wetter monsoons.

Cfrost, it's not true that famine has only been tamed in the few most recent decades. In independent democratic countries, there has never been a famine. The taming of famine came when Africa and Asia became independent of colonial rule; many countries slid into autocracy and war, but many others didn't, including India. Even an incompetent post-colonial regime will usually do better than a colonial one or a communist one: under colonialism India had famines far more frequently than before colonialism.

It is not a question of being uncritical about the green revolution. One does not have the luxury of thinking about sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture when one's society is on the brink of famine and starvation. This was very
much the case in India, where the last famine ended in 1945. Without this green revolution, feeding the population would have been much harder. Even today there are parts of the country where
hunger and starvation are constantly at the door [this is of course also a distribution problem and a failure of governance].

It is true that current land and water use patterns in much of the world, including countries like India, are not sustainable. However, the ability and the technology to grow enough food has put governments and societies in a position to seriously address these issues and begin changing patterns of cultivation and consumption.

cfroast, what do you mean when you say We're still playing catch up with late blight of potatoes of Irish famine fame? That the world produces less potatoes today than it did before the Irish potatoe blight? Something different? I can't quite understand your point here.

Lindsey paraphrasing,...'

The science behind the Green Revolution was sound. You can't argue with a sixfold increase in crop yields in places where people literally starved to death on a regular basis.'

Yes you can if the underlying agriculture is de-stabilized. Mono crops are not sustainable. The basic premise is stop gap to world food shortages. In India food shortages were as much transportation and distribution issues as lack of food long before Darfur and Ethiopia. It is estimated that a trifling 10 billion dollars would end world hunger. The precarious position of billions of people is economic/political not agricultural problem. The cautionary with Borlaug is the lack of systemic insight because of a distorted geneticists ideology. The classic capitalist solution is a commodity not a society solution.

As to Alon, I generally agree with your point about China does indulge in genetic manipulation. The problem with that all too common view of perfecting genetic strains of food is the 'doctrine' that genetics is the solution. For a direct refutation of that geneticists position see - Adaptive Minds, Evolutionary Psychology, by David J. Buller, MIT press 2006. While not pointed at agriculture, the same arguments hold about focusing on specific mono-culture plants strains as a solution to hunger. And are the basis for critiques of agri-business mono-cultures from a scientific point of view.

Doyle, the 10 billion estimate is true now, not before the green revolution.

And I don't get the part about "geneticist's ideology." The green revolution relied on fertilizer, pesticides, and tractors. It had nothing to do with genetic engineering.

Alon writes;
And I don't get the part about "geneticist's ideology." The green revolution relied on fertilizer, pesticides, and tractors. It had nothing to do with genetic engineering.

Genetics ideology preceded engineering genes. A sense that 'good' genes control destiny goes way back to the 19th century. The idea that wheat production or hunger can be resolved by the well placed introduction of special wheat strains is very flawed. Fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors degrade the agricultural system in the corporate sense. They substitute a commercial solution based upon a nexus of plants promising super production, fertilizers of dubious long term merit, and mechanization as if human labor is the problem.

Ideologically resting upon the claim by geneticists they can manufacture optimal plant production by finding the 'super' plant.

The green revolution was an American style answer to world hunger problems. In my view a radically broken promise.

A sense that 'good' genes control destiny goes way back to the 19th century.

The wedding of that type of social Darwinism with agricultural practice, though, is more recent.

Fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors degrade the agricultural system in the corporate sense.

Who cares? The reason democracies don't have famines is that the need to be accountable to the people causes them to drop ideological objections when they're on the brink. India would've loved to banish corporate solutions; it tried to develop in the style of the Soviet Union, and only discovered capitalism in the early 1990s. But unlike that other big socialist country in Asia, it placed a higher priority on avoiding mass starvation.

Alon writes,
Who cares?

Your point is really more ideological than the merits of mono-culture farming. I don't care myself which sort of government fails in what way about how to grow enough food. What concerns me is unsustainable practices that degrade growing food in the long run. I'm not saying also that finding high production wheat strains is a bad thing in itself. There are many examples in human history of shifts toward better food stuffs that facilitated human social development. What I decry is a stalwart sense that mono-culture is what stopped famines. That is a naive and unscientific understanding.

I suspect I push your button here because your comments are about democratic governments. The green revolution is similar in my mind to the unquestioned support for building dams to provide power for various nations. Eventually this hydropower resource came into question. And bedevils for example California with it's unforeseen consequences.

I think you enjoy vehement passions here. It's good for both of us to learn to enjoy those states of mind in a constructive manner.

Late blight of potato, caused by the pathogen Phytophthora infestans is still the leading cause of crop loss in potatoes. One can grow relatively resistant varieties or use fungicides, etc. but we're still fighting a pest that continues to evolve solutions to everything we've throw at it. Recently a gene from a relative of potato, conferring robust resistance to all known strains of late blight has been engineered into potatoes with very good results. But then there we are again with technological solutions that may not work forever.

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