Norman Borlaug: green revolutionary

…when journalist Gregg Easterbrook sought a publisher for a popular biography, “they said he was boring,” the self-described “environmental optimist” says. “If he’d killed someone instead of saving hundreds of millions of lives, then they’d have been interested.”

Borlaug is almost unknown, at least in big media, though he contributed more than any other researcher to the “green revolution”. Borlaug’s recent biography The Man Who Fed the World is a must-read.

Paradoxically, 1968 also saw the genesis of an environmentalist dogma that was pessimistic about humanity’s capacity to feed itself. In that year–when the global population growth rate peaked, at 2 percent per year–Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, intoning, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. … Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs.” The madding crowd of “stinking hot” Delhi was odious to Ehrlich: “My wife and daughter and I … entered a crowded slum area. … People, people, people, people. … [We] were, frankly, frightened.” It was a “fantasy,” he said, that India would ever feed itself. Yet Borlaug’s program delivered such stunning results that India issued a 1968 stamp commemorating the “wheat revolution,” and by 1974 it was self-sufficient in all cereals.

Nonetheless, a neo-Malthusian fear of overpopulation became endemic to environmentalist thinking. Science philosopher and Arts and Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton says, “Well-fed Greens flaunt their concern for the planet but are indifferent, even hostile, to the world’s poor with whom they share it. Some Greens I knew acted for all the world as though they relished the idea of a coming worldwide famine, much as fundamentalists ghoulishly looked forward to Armageddon.” Dutton, who served in the Peace Corps, personally saw the Green Revolution benefit India. “For the catastrophist, India becoming a food exporter was disturbing,” he says. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. They blame Borlaug for spoiling the fun.”

Not all Borlaug’s critics were catastrophists: some opposed the intensity of his agriculture, especially its use of inorganic fertilizer. Borlaug acknowledges the need for care, but he says the “natural” alternative, cow manure, “would require us to increase the world’s cattle population from around 1.5 billion to some 10 billion.” As he dryly observed in a 2003 TV interview, “Producing food for 6.2 billion people … is not simple.” He added, “[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion–I don’t see two billion volunteers to disappear.”

Raised on a farm, Borlaug thinks many of his detractors would benefit from a week or two in the fields. He cites Ghanaian farmers who use no-till agriculture (that is, plant waste is left to improve the humus and reduce erosion) and control weeds with herbicides. Their lives are improved by the reduction in weeding. “Less backache, you see,” he once said. “You know, it’s amazing how often campaigners in rich countries think poor people don’t get backache.”

Why didn’t Africa benefit from Borlaug’s advanced wheat? In short, no irrigation, soils, politics, roads.

Many thought the work that earned Borlaug his Nobel brought an end to stem rust, but it is back, in the form of a variant called Ug99, which emerged in Uganda and spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. “If it continues unchecked,” says Borlaug, “the consequences will be ruinous.”

…The reasons for failure in Africa are complex. “Irrigation is first,” explains Michael Lipton of the University of Sussex’s Poverty Research Unit. “In sub-Saharan Africa, 4 percent of cropland is irrigated. In South and East Asia it’s nearer 40 percent.”

Then there’s soil. “Africa’s soils … [are] equivalent–and were once adjacent–to the Cerrado’s acid soils,” Borlaug says. The Cerrado, an area that extends across central Brazil, historically had some of the least productive soil in the world. But improved crop varieties of the sort that Borlaug created–along with liming, fertilizer, and low- or no-till methods–have led to the single largest increase in arable-land usage in the last 50 years.

Politics, both regional and global, were and are another hindrance. “If the Green Revolution in India was proposed to the World Bank today, it would be turned down,” says Rob Paarlberg, an agricultural-policy expert at Wellesley College. By the 1980s, he says, “public investment in roads, research, irrigation, fertilizers, and seeds was politically unacceptable to the Washington consensus on the right–and on the left, among environmentalists opposed to chemical fertilizers, road building, and irrigation projects.” Thus, real per capita levels of official development assistance for the agricultural sector in the poorest countries fell by nearly 50 percent between 1982 and 1995.

Finally, Borlaug says, “Africa needs roads. Roads bring know-how and fertilizer to farmers and ideas and business for commerce.” Africa, Borlaug argues, also needs concerted international help. Meanwhile, Ug99 has reached Yemen: from there, Borlaug warns, “it can reach Iraq, Iran, India, and Pakistan”–even the breadbaskets of Europe and America. A scramble is on to find resistant varieties, ensure that their yields will encourage farmers to adopt them, and produce sufficient tonnages of seed.

Last year, ABC, CBS, and NBC cameras were absent when Borlaug was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal…