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A Hero for Our Time

Birmingham News
By Gregory Pence and Joyce Hsu
July 23, 2000

Norman Borlaug does not look like a hero, as least, not the way Hollywood movies portray one. A typical, elderly, white male with rounded face, glasses, and thinning hair, he looks like some guy who could be walking around a retirement community. And yet, in a world that some say lacks real moral heroes, Norman Borlaug has led a life that puts him up there with Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.

So what has he done to merit such praise? Led a military raid on Entebbe? Discovered a new kind of drug for arthritis? Adopted a dozen disabled children? The answer: as a result of his life's work, a billion people now exist who otherwise would have starved to death, died of starvation-related diseases, or never have been born.

Thirty years ago, as a young college graduate, Borlaug first directed the Rockefeller Foundation's Mexican wheat program, formed initially to teach Mexican farmers new agricultural ideas. In the small beginnings of the Green Revolution, Borlaug developed dwarf wheat and techniques of so-called shuttle breeding. Serendipitously, an area a few hundred miles north in the Saner region promised more than his first location for feeding a whole country, so he expanded his program to Sonora, shuttling seedlings twice a year between the two regions. This shuttling enabled Borlaug to develop a variety of wheat that grew well in a range of climates, altitudes, and seasons.

Selectively breeding the dwarf wheat (already naturally resistant to a variety of plant pests and diseases) for semi-dwarfness forced higher yields. With the plant devoting less energy to growing a tall stalk, more energy went into growing edible grain, doubling and tripling traditional yields.

Borlaug's agricultural approaches benefit people in many ways. His work has fed billions of people in developing nations, created jobs, preserved the environment, and indirectly improved many lives. How has he done this? Well, his approaches to agriculture, which use relatively small plots intensively farmed with chemical fertilizers, do have side effects. Because these crops depend greatly on humans, their highest yields require planning and constant care. Demand for machines that sow and harvest such crops spurs regional industries that make machines. New factories in turn create more jobs. With modern technology helping out, birth rates decrease because farmers need fewer children in the fields. Managing a larger, more productive farm requires knowledge, encouraging parents to have fewer children and to educate existing children. A stabilized population results.

As for the environment, traditional agricultural practices in many developing countries employ slash-and burn techniques. Such practices destroy more pristine land than Borlaug's high-yield practices, which replenish fields with fertilizers and make the same area produce several times more food. In the past, soils would be depleted after a few seasons and farmers would then cut down more forest for farmland with no increase in production. Paradoxically, Borlaug's high-yield methods actually preserve grasslands, wildlife areas, and rainforests.

With Mexico successfully producing dwarf wheat, it made sense to Borlaug that other countries such as India could improve production by using his techniques to grow new varieties of cereal. Environmentalists protested that developing countries should grow their own, indigenous crops and grow them using organic methods. Borlaug responded simply: starving people needed food now and indigenous crops did not yet produce high yields by organic methods.

From Mexico, Borlaug moved on to Pakistan and India. Malthusian pessimists such as biologist Paul Erlich, population ecologist Garrett Hardin, and Lester Brown, head of the World Watch Institute, claimed that facts contradicted Borlaug's goals. They claimed that the population explosion would always surpass food production and that the Indian subcontinent would always suffer disastrous famines. These three prophets of doom won the war for influence on the public, which subsequently became fatalistic about famine.

Although constantly criticized by these doomsayers, Borlaug wasted no time bringing a starving Pakistan to self-sufficiency, closely followed just a few years later by India. In the last thirty years, India's population doubled, her crop production tripled, and her economy grew nine times. At one point, despite war and unrest, India even exported cereal grains.

Soon after these successes, Borlaug and his colleagues introduced a high-yield variety of rice throughout most of Asia. But then the doomsayers won. Foundations such as Rockefeller -- which had supported Borlaug's work for years -- yielded to protests of environmentalists (especially Greenpeace of Europe) and ceased funding him. Years later, backed by ex-President Jimmy Carter and funded solely by Japanese multimillionaire Ryoichi Sasakawa, an 84-year-old Borlaug sought to bring his agricultural revolution to Africa. Problems with civil unrest and a lack of infrastructure made success difficult there, but test plots still grew as he predicted.

Contrary to popular belief (and partly as a result of Borlaug's work), the amount of food per capita in the world has actually increased over the last decades. Indeed, most sides of debates about ending famine agree that the world now produces enough food for everybody. Some then argue that the problem is one of distribution: for example, getting food from North America to Africa.

Borlaug disagrees. He thinks famine will only be stopped when poor countries develop their own high-yield crops, use chemical fertilizers and genetically enhanced crops, and nurture regional food economies. The best target for charity is not buying food from rich countries and sending it to poor countries but making poor countries self-sufficient by helping them use high-tech agricultural science.

Amazingly, a large coalition of European and American organizations actively oppose Borlaug's ideas for poor countries with starving peoples. Organizations such as Jeremy Rifkin's "Pure Food Campaign" see the scientific techniques of modern agriculture as the evil knowledge of international agribusiness. Such organizations want instantaneous, egalitarian land reform combined with organic farming to create self-sufficient, eco-tourist-friendly countries. Even though genetically enhanced golden rice (rice containing a bit of carrot) could get vitamin A to African kids and hence prevent thousands from going blind, Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation oppose planting such rice.

Last week, seven academies of science urged use of high-yielding techniques --including genetically enhanced beans, wheat, and rice -- to alleviate world hunger. These academies urged us not to focus on the process of adding a desirable trait to an old crop, but on the actual affects of the new crop to people and environments. If we follow their recommendation, we will follow Norman Borlaug's wonderful legacy.


Gregory Pence teaches philosophy and bioethics at UAB, where Joyce Hsu is his summer research assistant and an undergraduate preadmitted to UAB Medical School.

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