Free Minds & Free Markets

Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey

Three decades after he launched the Green Revolution, agronomist Norman Borlaug is still fighting world hunger--and the doomsayers who say it's a lost cause.

Who has saved more human lives than anyone else in history? Who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970? Who still teaches at Texas A&M at the age of 86? The answer is Norman Borlaug.

Who? Norman Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution," the dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity that swept the globe in the 1960s.

Borlaug grew up on a small farm in Iowa and graduated from the University of Minnesota, where he studied forestry and plant pathology, in the 1930s. In 1944, the Rockefeller Foundation invited him to work on a project to boost wheat production in Mexico. At the time Mexico was importing a good share of its grain. Borlaug and his staff in Mexico spent nearly 20 years breeding the high-yield dwarf wheat that sparked the Green Revolution, the transformation that forestalled the mass starvation predicted by neo-Malthusians.

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

Contrary to Ehrlich's bold pronouncements, hundreds of millions didn't die in massive famines. India fed far more than 200 million more people, and it was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971 that Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb. The last four decades have seen a "progress explosion" that has handily outmatched any "population explosion."

Borlaug, who unfortunately is far less well-known than doom-sayer Ehrlich, is responsible for much of the progress humanity has made against hunger. Despite occasional local famines caused by armed conflicts or political mischief, food is more abundant and cheaper today than ever before in history, due in large part to the work of Borlaug and his colleagues.

More than 30 years ago, Borlaug wrote, "One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy." As REASON's interview with him shows, he still believes that environmental activists and their allies in international agencies are a threat to progress on global food security. Barring such interference, he is confident that agricultural research, including biotechnology, will be able to boost crop production to meet the demand for food in a world of 8 billion or so, the projected population in 2025.

Meanwhile, media darlings like Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown keep up their drumbeat of doom. In 1981 Brown declared, "The period of global food security is over." In 1994, he wrote, "The world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers." And as recently as 1997 he warned, "Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended."

Borlaug, by contrast, does not just wring his hands. He still works to get modern agricultural technology into the hands of hungry farmers in the developing world. Today, he is a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Center in Mexico and president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, a private Japanese foundation working to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

REASON Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey met with Borlaug at Texas A&M, where he is Distinguished Professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department and still teaches classes on occasion. Despite his achievements, Borlaug is a modest man who works out of a small windowless office in the university's agricultural complex. A few weeks before the interview, Texas A&M honored Borlaug by naming its new agricultural biotechnology center after him. "We have to have this new technology if we are to meet the growing food needs for the next 25 years," Borlaug declared at the dedication ceremony. If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotech, he fears, they may finally bring on the famines they have been predicting for so long.

Reason: What are you currently working on?

Norman Borlaug: Since 1984, I've been involved in the Sasakawa Africa Association. Our program has devised the best package of farming practices we could with the best seed available, the best agronomic practices, the best rates and dates of seeding, the best controls for weeds and insects and diseases, and put them into test plots in 14 countries. We have found that there is a large food production potential in these African countries which are now struggling with food shortages. The package of practices that we have devised uses modest levels of inputs so the cost is not particularly high compared to their traditional ways of farming. The yields are at the worst double, nearly always triple, and sometimes quadruple what the traditional practices are producing. African farmers are very enthusiastic about these new methods.

Reason: Could genetically engineered crops help farmers in developing countries?

Borlaug: Biotech has a big potential in Africa, not immediately, but down the road. Five to eight years from now, parts of it will play a role there. Take the case of maize with the gene that controls the tolerance level for the weed killer Roundup. Roundup kills all the weeds, but it's short-lived, so it doesn't have any residual effect, and from that standpoint it's safe for people and the environment. The gene for herbicide tolerance is built into the crop variety, so that when a farmer sprays he kills only weeds but not the crops. Roundup Ready soybeans and corn are being very widely used in the U.S. and Argentina. At this stage, we haven't used varieties with the tolerance for Roundup or any other weed killer [in Africa], but it will have a role to play.

Roundup Ready crops could be used in zero-tillage cultivation in African countries. In zero tillage, you leave the straw, the rice, the wheat if it's at high elevation, or most of the corn stock, remove only what's needed for animal feed, and plant directly [without plowing], because this will cut down erosion. Central African farmers don't have any animal power, because sleeping sickness kills all the animals--cattle, the horses, the burros and the mules. So draft animals don't exist, and farming is all by hand and the hand tools are hoes and machetes. Such hand tools are not very effective against the aggressive tropical grasses that typically invade farm fields. Some of those grasses have sharp spines on them, and they're not very edible. They invade the cornfields, and it gets so bad that farmers must abandon the fields for a while, move on, and clear some more forest. That's the way it's been going on for centuries, slash-and-burn farming. But with this kind of weed killer, Roundup, you can clear the fields of these invasive grasses and plant directly if you have the herbicide-tolerance gene in the crop plants.

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    Indeed this message is positive, however, its solutions are comparable with highways and traffic control. The roads get clogged so local authorities put in highways. People say "ooh, there's a highway going in, let's move there and build our house, raise kids and send them so to school and use the local supermarkets. " Once again, the authorities are faced with increased consumption and put in yet more highways in a cycle that never ends. The same applies to food production - population increases add to demand for food, and as this is met, populations accordingly increase. To me it's like using credit cards to pay other credit cards, the bubble is bound to burst, and the longer we leave it, the bigger the disaster is going to be. The world needs to curtail population growth and sustainably manage resources now, otherwise Mother Nature will do it for us, and I am sure we won't like the consequences for the human race.

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    The same applies to food production - population increases add to demand for food, and as this is met, populations accordingly increase.


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