Norman Borlaug: Humanitarian Hero Versus Doomsayers

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Norman Borlaug

I am always surprised (and disappointed) at the blank looks I get on those occasions when I mention the name Norman Borlaug. As the Father of the Green Revolution, he is the person who probably saved the most human lives in all of history. You would think that Borlaug's accomplishments would would occupy whole chapters in history books. Borlaug died at age 95 back in 2009. 

Henry Miller, over at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has written up a good brief bio of Borlaug which highlights how doomsaying environmentalists and naysaying bureaucrats tried to derail his ultimately successful efforts to prevent global-scale famines. How did Borlaug launch the Green Revolution? Borlaug directed a plant breeding project funded largely by the Rockefeller Foundation that created high yielding, disease resistant varieties of wheat. What did he achieve? Miller writes:

From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland—an extraordinary increase in yield-per-acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 pounds-per-acre. By 1968, thanks to Borlaug's varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6,000 pounds-per-acre.

Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through the drastic expansion of land under cultivation—with major losses in pristine wilderness.

By the way, global per capita grain production leveled off in the 1980s. In 2011, global grain production reached nearly 2.3 billion tons. Borlaug believed that modern crop biotechnology would help spur a new Green Revolution, but worried that doomsayers and bureaucrats would once again try to stop progress. He was right to be worried, as Miller explains: 

The need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remain, and in his later years, Borlaug turned his efforts to ensuring the success of this century's equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or "genetic modification" (GM), to agriculture. As Borlaug and other plant scientists realized, the use of the term "genetic modification" to apply only to the newest genetic techniques is an unfortunate misnomer because plant scientists had been using crude and laborious techniques to obtain new genetic variants of wheat, corn, and innumerable other crops for decades, if not centuries. Products now in development with gene-splicing techniques offer the possibility of even higher yields, lower inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.

However, small numbers of dedicated extremists in the environmental movement have been doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help. Activists have trotted out the same kinds of rumors to frighten rural illiterates that confronted Borlaug a half-century earlier—that gene-spliced plants cause impotence or sterility, or that they harm farm animals, for example. As Borlaug observed about opposition to modernizing agricultural practices in India in 1966, "The situation was tailor-made for demagogues, fear-mongers, second-guessers and hate groups. We heard from them all." In the twenty-first century, they continue to spew their lethal venom. …

Borlaug observed that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years." After slowing the progress of gene-splicing technology by advocating excessive regulation and after filing lawsuits to prevent the testing and commercialization of gene-spliced plants and even vandalizing field trials, activists have had the audacity to accuse the scientists and agribusiness companies of having overpromised technological advances.

Go here to read Miller's whole article on Borlaug's achievements and travails. And for more background see Reason's interview with Borlaug, Billion's Served, from back in 2000. Go here for my 2006 Wall Street Journal review of the Borlaug biography, The Man Who Fed the World