Norman Borlaug, Happy 95th Birthday!

One of the true giants of our time, plant breeder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Norman Borlaug turns 95 today. Borlaug is the person who has saved more human lives than anyone in history. How? He was the father of the "Green Revolution" that more than doubled crop productivity in the 1960s and 1970s thus averting the massive global famines predicted by many doomsayers. I had the honor of interviewing Borlaug nine years ago for Reason. Below are just a couple of his answers from that interview:

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive...

Reason: Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will harm biodiversity.

Borlaug: I don't believe that. If we grow our food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of their plant and animal diversity. It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was recently able to set aside another 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas. That would not have been possible had it not been for the efficiency of modern agriculture.

In 1960, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops--virtually all of the important crops grown in the U.S. at that time and still grown today--was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960. If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares, about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality--which we didn't have, and so it would have been much more. We would have moved into marginal grazing areas and plowed up things that wouldn't be productive in the long run. We would have had to move into rolling mountainous country and chop down our forests. President Clinton would not have had the nice job of setting aside millions of acres of land for restricted use, where you can't cut a tree even for paper and pulp or for lumber. So all of this ties together.

This applies to forestry, too. I'm pleased to see that some of the forestry companies are very modern and using good management, good breeding systems. Weyerhauser is Exhibit A. They are producing more wood products per unit of area than the old unmanaged forests. Producing trees this way means millions of acres can be left to natural forests.

Happy Birthday Dr. Borlaug and many happy returns of the day! 

In celebration, read Reason's interview with Norman Borlaug, "Billions Served," here

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  • Kyle Jordan||

    Thanks Mr. Borlaug. Happy birthday.

  • ||

    Happy birthday to a man who did a great service to humanity.

  • ||

    What are his thoughts on ag subsidies?

  • ||

    Whenever I see this guy and the "well informed" liberal attitude towards him I think of the famous Heinlein quote.

    "Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded - here and there, now and then - are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
    This is known as "bad luck."

    Borlaug and the right thinking reaction to such a great man is a living example of what Heinlein was talking about.

  • ||

    I love technology. We can hide under our desks and cower in fear, or we can make the world work just a little better for us.

  • ||

    This guy saved millions of lives. He probably saved more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao killed. Yet, he is in some circles held in lower regard than people who have spent entrire careers apologizing and making excuses for people like Stalin and Mao.

  • Warty||

    John, what's the liberal attitude to Norman Borlaug? I'm pretty sure I've never heard anyone say anything against the man.

  • ||

    Warty,

    The liberal attitude is that the green revolution was bad for the environment and that we would be better off with organic farming. Anytime you hear some nitwit raging against the use of agricultural chemicals and the rise of corporate farming, they are really going after Borlaug.

  • ||

    Happy birthday to one of the species greatest.

  • Suki||

    This is so cool! I had forgotten his name, but in grad school I would bring him up in discussions frequently. Usually with the undergrads who were just being introduced to The Polulation Bomb, Future Shock and other nonsense like that (I hope I have the titles right).

    I think some of the milestones in those books had already passed without the mess they predicted, but those facts seemed to get in the way of the narrative the instructors taught.

  • Suki||

    make that Population Bomb

  • ||

    Suki,

    Or "pullulation."

  • ||

    I've heard Borlaug described as "famous for not being famous."

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

  • SpongePaul||

    anyone mention hemp yet! for green farming, no pun inteneded

  • ||

    It is nothing less than a sin that most people have never even heard of this great man.

  • ||

    "But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition."

    It takes a Nobel laureate to conclude that organic food is "ridiculous" based on "absolutely no research". Whenever highly respected academics cite to "no research", a red flag goes up.

  • Mister||

    While it is commendable that Mr. Borlaug prevented us from having to "chop down our forests" for agriculture, those forests were chopped down anyway to make room for all the sprawl from our booming population, supported in part by his (no sarcasm, here) laudable efforts to increase food production. While it is morally reprehensible to claim that we shouldn't feed the hungry, I do believe that we're digging ourselves into a rather large hole that we may someday want to crawl out of - and we're doing it by making growth easy. If you feed them, they will come.

    I'm no "peak population" fanatic or Malthus spouting lunatic, but, speaking practically (and globally): there will be a point at which we cannot support everyone on this planet, provided the world population continues to grow as it does. There is only so much Earth to go around. Our frequent answer to this problem is, "If we don't have the resources, let's look for ways to 'create' more of the resources." I'm not completely against that. But we need to start setting limits. Starvation used to keep the population in check. Because starvation is not an ethical option when we could prevent it (and we can), we need to find new ways to do what used to be done biologically- keep growth in check. (Not a popular sentiment at Reason, I'm sure.) If we're going to feed everyone, we need to increase our family planning and contraception education efforts (with a little prodding in the Vatican). I see no reason why libertarians should be opposed to such an idea, provided there is no coercion involved.

    At any rate, a happy birthday to Mr. Borlaug. Thanks for saving us some land space. I hope this is an issue on your mind.

  • Hacha Cha||

    first saw Norman on Penn and Teller Bullshit and have been reading about him here on reason for a while. he was a genius and has helped more starving people than just about anyone else I can think of.

  • VM||

    Happy Birthday!

  • ||

    Way to completely misunderstand Borlaug's post, Lamar.

    What he is saying is that it is ridiculous to believe something that no research supports.

  • Anvilwyrm||

    Mister,

    Pretty much everything I have read lately suggests that birthrates are falling, and that population will be peaking in the next 40-50 years. Do you have conflicting information?

  • ||

    I really hope I live to see 10 billion people on the planet. A billion could live in America easy.

    That will be awesome.

  • robc||

    Anvilwyrm,

    You are correct. That is only one of many things wrong with Mister's post.

    those forests were chopped down anyway to make room for all the sprawl from our booming population

    Also not true. Forest acreage in the US is at a very long term peak. We are primarily building on ex-farmland that isnt needed anymore.

  • ||

    "What he is saying is that it is ridiculous to believe something that no research supports."

    Like free markets? Or do we demand proof only when we disagree with the premise?

  • ||

    But we need to start setting limits.

    Who is this "we" of which you speak, Mister?

    Because I'm quite sure it won't be you, or me, or anyone we know.

    Try this, and see if you still think it sounds like a good idea:

    But government officials, or possibly unelected UN autocrats, need to start setting and enforcing limits on reproduction and economic activity.

  • ||

    Lamar, perhaps you would treat us to a comparison of the relative economic performance of market-based economies and state-controlled economies.

    From where I sit, there's plenty of evidence that free markets work, if by work you mean increase economic output.

  • ||

    Like free markets? Or do we demand proof only when we disagree with the premise?

    nice strawman - what is your point?

  • robc||

    Lamar,

    Like free markets? Or do we demand proof only when we disagree with the premise?

    Are you saying research doesnt support free markets? I have nearly 40 years of research experience that suggests that when I trade freely for goods or services that I get what I want at a price I can accept.

  • IdiotWind||

    Cow shit is not the only source of nitrogen. Thats a fallacious argument that borders on spin. This guy must be getting a nice fat check from Monsanto. Or maybe he's just a age-addled 95 year old man pining away for the days when he did something that mattered. Its also ridiculous to assume that EVERYTHING GROWN would have to switched to Organic. Another over the top observation that borders on spin. Really. Do the trees grown to make paper need to be organic? How about the corn used to make plastic? The cotton in your clothing? Trying to refute one ridiculous platitude with another one is moronic at best.

    And really, except for the die-hard nugget heads, its not the nitrogen that anyone is concerned about, its the pesticides.

    I don't now and never will accept an argument that starts with "its too hard" or "we don't know how to do that now."

    If people are demanding that their food be organic, then that is the free market speaking. Not meeting that demand because you don't like it is anti-free market. Or fascist. Either way its bad for business.

  • ||

    IdiotWind is right. The constant drumbeat toward banning organic food on this board sickens me. Barely a day goes by without a Reason article calling for people to be forced to buy conventionally grown and GMO food. I'm canceling my subscription right now.

  • ||

    IdiotWind:
    The case against Organic is exactly the same as the case against CO2 or Secondhand smoke.

    Your choice to eat Organic requires more farmland, more "organic fertilizer" and more resources, it is less efficient and therefore affects me, and my world, as well as you.

    PS: Organics use pesticides they are just natural, you need a lot more of them because they are not as effective, and result in reduced yields.

  • ||

    I am 100% on the side of Julian Simon in the Ehrlich vs. Simon wars. I also think that the arguments in favor of technology and free markets over Malthusian anti-humanism are strong and convincing. It was indeed heroic that certain individuals help put in motion the green revolution. However, the revolution has been going on for a long time and owes as much to the tractor and natural gas drilling technology(the major feed stock for fertilizer in modern agriculture) as it does to gene research(it is hard to put all agriculture yield increases over the last 200 years on one guy...and yes yields have been increasing for a long time and we have had big jumps in yields before Monsanto. Yes human innovation can help this planet support more people with a better standard of living than most humans realize is possible, especially the dimwitted malthusians.


    I am not a luddite so please at least hear me out If you manipulate a plants genes to produce a chemical that is very much like a pesticide and thus are able to decrease the amount of pesticides needed....isn't it at least possible that the same chemicals that can kill bugs might cause some harm in humans? And isn't it possible that Monsanto's test on this would tend to lean towards understating/ignoring this problem?

    MON863 Corn

    The claims here may be 100% fake, but I have heard interviews with Monsanto scientist saying that they were fired whent hey tried to speak up about this problem.

  • ||

    "Are you saying research doesn't support free markets? I have nearly 40 years of research experience that suggests that when I trade freely for goods or services that I get what I want at a price I can accept."

    Ahh, so there we go. 40 years of research have convinced you that free markets are the best resource allocator. If only Borlaug had 40 years of research into whether organics are healthier, then we wouldn't have a problem. Sue me for making a distinction between, "there's no evidence" and "the evidence suggests otherwise".

    So color me unimpressed when Johnny Big Wig waltzes in and dismisses natural food as unsupported by research. I'm not sure why the burden is on natural to prove its worth rather than the burden being placed on engineered foods. Just because I say there's no evidence that my shit stinks doesn't make it so. (FYI: jasmine).

  • ||

    "Are you saying research doesnt support free markets? I have nearly 40 years of research experience that suggests that when I trade freely for goods or services that I get what I want at a price I can accept."

    That was a trap. There are no free markets.

  • ||

    If only Borlaug had 40 years of research into whether organics are healthier, then we wouldn't have a problem.

    I think you need to read you're own pull-quote again.

    You're conflating 2 different ideas. He didn't say less healthy, he said that the idea of organic foods being more nutritious is absurd and unsupported by any research. If you have any links that show a higher nutritional content to organic foods over foods grown conventionally, please do so.

    As to healthy-er, YMMV.

  • ||

    you're, your,...bah

  • ||

    I think there are studies that show organic food doesn't provide more nutrition. The outstanding issue is whether the additives, hormones, etc., make the food less healthy. Notice I didn't say whether they make the food dangerous. I would agree with the premise that widespread organic farming is unsustainable. However, if there hasn't been research on the effect of consuming a wide variety of foods 'roided up on hormones, then we can't really say we know whether they are healthier or not. But Borlaug has his agenda. And while he should rightfully be proud of his agenda, he shouldn't undercut his credibility by citing to absence of evidence like he would cite to evidence of absence.

    I'm no hippie turd farmer. But when somebody who dedicates their lives to studying a subject, then cites to "no research", I question that conclusion. Think of it this way: Borlaug concludes that people are stupid if they believe in organic foods. They are stupid because (at least via RC Dean), they believe in something without any evidence. The basis for calling those people stupid? "No research". Just say you don't fucking know already.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    considering that organics are less efficiant and downright dangerous to less affluent places in the world, maybe it ought to be the burden of the hippie turd farmers to show some evidence that organic foods are in anyway safer.

    where is that evidence beyond superstition?

  • ||

    IdiotWind is right. The constant drumbeat toward banning organic food on this board sickens me. Barely a day goes by without a Reason article calling for people to be forced to buy conventionally grown and GMO food. I'm canceling my subscription right now.

    As I suspected. SugarFree == TofuSushi

  • ||

    gabe,

    A) The gene expressed in Bt corn is extracted from a commonly used "organic" pesticide, that comes in the form of a bacterium sprayed on plants which is poisonous to insects, but harmless to humans.

    B) The gene isn't expressed in the edibible part of the corn itself, but only in the leaves.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    I also think people are stupid if they believe in God, Unicorns, and the Tooth Fairy. because there's no research supporting their existance.

  • ||

    Hazel,

    As I suspected. SugarFree == TofuSushi

    Wha? I can't be my ruggedly handsome and sarcastic self without being accused of asshattery? You wound me Ms. Meade. You wound me to the quick.

    I am not TofuSushi. If I were, "he'd" be much, much funnier.

  • ||

    There's no research suggesting that thalidomide is harmful to babies. (circa 1956)

  • ||

    Borlaug concludes that people are stupid if they believe in organic foods. They are stupid because (at least via RC Dean), they believe in something without any evidence. The basis for calling those people stupid? "No research".

    My sister in law won't let her two year old watch TV because "there's no evidence that TV doesn't cause Autism" It's very hard to prove a negative. When I say that there's no evidence TV does cause Autism - she says she'd rather be safe. I say this is stupid, because there is no evidence that diet coke doesn't cause brain cancer - or that getting fewer than 8 hours sleep a night doesn't cause Alzheimers: yet most people go on about their lives. Organic food seems oriented toward the class of people who are prone to making this logical error. Yeah, my sis-in-law eats all organic, too...

  • ||

    There's no research suggesting that thalidomide is harmful to babies. (circa 1956)

    yeah, but then there was, and it was pretty obvious. So it ought to be easy to produce some damn evidence that conventional food IS un-healthy. get to work, Lamar.

  • ||

    I never said conventional food is unhealthy. Ever. Never ever. I even made a point to say specifically that I do not want to imply that non-organic food is dangerous.

    And I get the problem of proving a negative. I just got the feeling that Borlaug is the kind of guy who will say organic food isn't healthier because then people might demand large scale production, and that would ruin his quite noble advances. Me? I prefer simple honesty. I don't believe in God, but I don't call you stupid if you do. It's that whole, live and let live thing.

  • ||

    There's no research suggesting that thalidomide is harmful to babies. (circa 1956)

    Shorter Lamar
    Thalidomide proves that anything for which there isn't any research suggesting it's harmful must automatically be suspected of being harmful.

  • Kevin Carson||

    "Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests."

    This suggests Borlaug doesn't even have any idea what the available organic techniques ARE.

    First, as IdiotWind suggests, Borlaug seems never to have heard of nitrogen-fixing cover crops (hint: they reproduce on-site without any external inputs). And if you start with fertile soil, closed-loop use of human waste and crop residue will minimize the need for new external inputs.

    And second, Borlaug fails to control for the big-small dichotomy in comparing conventional to organic. Small-scale farming is, in fact, on average more efficient in output per acre compared to mechanized row-cropping on large tracts of land. The latter was developed specifically to improve output per laborer through capital-substitution, but did so at the cost of reduced efficiency in land use. Borlaug seems to think organic is just conventional row-cropping minus the synthetic chemicals, and never to have heard of intensive raised bed techniques. It's like listening to an anti-computer rant full of references to UNIVAC and punch cards.

    In fact, John Jeavons (who actually fucking KNOWS SOMETHING about organic farming, instead of issuing dogmatic pronouncements based on ignorance) has developed his biointensive raised bed technique to the point where it can feed one person on 4000 sq. ft. (1/10 acre) without any external fertilizer inputs. It's a fairly spartan diet (80% cereal grain, legumes and tubers, and only 20% fruit and green leafy stuff), and it requires careful composting of everything (including human waste) and returning it to the soil. But then, that's just demonstrating the theoretical limit--in reality, we're nowhere near a limit of one-tenth acre per capita.

  • Kevin Carson||

    P.S. I know someone's an ignoramus when he can't even correctly frame the issue in dispute, and instead attacks a strawman of his own choosing.

    When a registered dietitian says anything over the RDA of Vitamic C is wasted because you just get more ascorbic acid in your toilet, they miss the point: each ascorbic acid molecule in your urine has a free radical attached.

    Two examples from Borlaug's spew:

    1. "But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition."

    Absolutely? What about research showing depletion of trace minerals from the use of conventional NPK fertilizers, and higher trace mineral content in organic vegetables. He might have a legitimate argument that the research is *inconclusive*, but by overstating himself in this way he just looks like an opinionated old ass who doesn't even know what research is out there.


    2. "As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter."

    Way to miss the point. Would Borlaug say your body treats a Vitamin C molecule the same in food as in a synthetic pill? The molecule itself may be the same, but in food it exists in a synergistic relationship with numerous phytochemicals like bioflavonoids (including many that have never yet even been isolated and identified) that promote vitamin C absorption.

    Likewise, in agriculture, a plant can *absorb* the nitrate ion more effectively in a healthy soil ecosystem with proper friability, and an appropriate assortment of microflora and microfauna (e.g., nitrogen-fixing bacteria, mycorrhizae, etc.) existing in a symbiotic relationship with root hairs.

    In short, whatever Borlaug's knowledge about the kinds of plant breeding he practiced, his opinion on organic farming is of precisely the same value as that of any random guy in a bar who's never had his hands in the dirt in his life: namely somewhere between Jack Shit and Fuck All.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Kevin... When you save a BILLION people from starvation and have some 70 years as a professor of agronomy, then please come back and insult Norman Borlaug's intelligence.

    Until then, please shut the fuck up, wish this man a happy birthday and go away.

    On that note, Norman Borlaug is, and may always be my vote, for best human being of all time.

  • Kevin Carson||

    Sean... When you can actually answer my critique of Borlaug, or can demonstrate that his generalizations about organic farming are correct, or show that Borlaug anywhere demonstrates any awareness of the points of fact I raised, then please come back and tell me to shut the fuck up.

    Until then, YOU can please shut the fuck up.

    Regardless of his accomplishments as "best human being of all time," when someone makes dogmatic assertions in a churlish manner about those who disagree with him, and in the process displays an ignorance of what he's criticizing, his assertions must stand or fall on their own merit.

  • Frog Prep||

    Borlaug needs to be frog prepped for the good of humanity.

  • Suki||

    Kevin,

    I think I remember you from the Student Union. Do you wear mostly black clothing?

  • ||

    many many returns of this day and Be lated Happy birth day to Dr.N.E.Borlaug
    u give your precious time for biotechnolegy and plant breeding science to improvement in transgenic crop.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Here's the thing Kevin.

    It's a 95 year old man's birthday. The man knows infinitely more than you do about the subject you are criticizing him on, and if you want to go ask him yourself why he didn't go into book-length detail answering each and everyone of your questions, I'm sure he'll be happy to explain in greater depth - to my knowledge he is still on the faculty roster at Texas A&M, you could possibly go take a class. Answers to your criticism can alsolikely be found in many of Borlaugs books, recorded lectures & other writings or interviews, but instead of taking the time to look into that, you're debating a non-existent strawman and claiming yourself the victor.

    Congratulations sir. You win, Dr. Borlaug didn't answer your questions in an interview given by someone else therefore clearly, he's an idiot and "ignorant". Well done sir, kudos.

    I however, am not going to be "debating" you on the topic because, it's a 95 year old man's fucking birthday and what we're doing right now, is wishing him the best.

    Why? Because the man is a fucking hero.


    In conclusion, quit being a jackass and thank the man for enabling you and your family to have low-cost food and for helping millions of people in dozens of countries avoid starvation. Go read his books if you want him to answer your questions... or hell, email the man, he'll probably respond. He's pretty cool like that.

    In the meantime, you can take your faulty logic, bad assumptions and perplexing ignorance and keep it to yourself.

  • Kevin Carson||

    Fine, Sean. This will be my last post in the exchange as well.

    But here's the thing: The blog post is not, in fact, just about a 95-year-old man's birthday. Bailey's selection of a particular quote, out of all the things Borlaug has said, was about his own ideological agenda: namely, getting in yet another jab in against organic farming. And the snipes of people like John Kluge upthread, before I ever came in, weren't just about good will and congratulations; they were simply using a 95-year-old man's birthday as a pretext for some cheap shots to further their ideological agenda.

    And guess what? When I see people repeating stuff that "everybody knows" that just ain't so, that I've actually done some stufy on--and repeating it in a calculatedly offensive and obnoxious manner--I react viscerally. My ire is directed more at Bailey and Kluge than at Borlaug. If Bailey wants to do an upbeat celebration piece on Borlaug's birthday without it turning all ugly and everything, maybe he should restrain himself from tossing in the gratuitious "So there, you ignorant tree-hugging hippies! In your face! Nyah nyah nyah!"

    So if you want to pretend this is all about the happy occasion of Borlaug's birthday, and not about politics or ideology, you're a little late.

  • ||

    "Thalidomide proves that anything for which there isn't any research suggesting it's harmful must automatically be suspected of being harmful."

    Not really the point. But thanks anyway.

  • ||

    Warty:

    "John, what's the liberal attitude to Norman Borlaug? I'm pretty sure I've never heard anyone say anything against the man."


    Line up some of the more notorious Nobel Peace Prize recipients, such as Kissinger, and if you had to identify the biggest killer of all it was probably Norman Borlaug, one of the architects of the Green Revolution, which unleashed displacement, malnutrition and death across the Third World.
    The Real Al Gore

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  • sathi2000||

    I'm pleased to see that some of the forestry companies are very modern and using good management, good breeding systems. Weyerhauser is Exhibit A. They are producing more wood products per unit of area than the old unmanaged forests. Producing trees this way means millions of acres can be left to natural forests.
    http://www.mirei.com

  • دردشة يمنية||

  • ||

    It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was recently able to set aside another 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas. That would not have been possible had it not been for the efficiency of modern agriculture
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