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Norman Borlaug: A Billion Lives Saved

A World Connected
By Salil Singh

One would think that saving a billion lives in developing countries, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and being regarded in many parts of the world as among the leading Americans of this age would be enough to make someone a household name within America.

And yet, very few Americans would be able to say who Norman Borlaug is, leave alone list any of his groundbreaking accomplishments in solving the problems of world hunger.

Borlaug, now in his late eighties, is a plant breeder who was born in Iowa, in 1914. The vast majority of his professional life has been spent living and working in the developing countries of the world--Mexico, Pakistan, India, China, and most recently, regions of Africa.

Seemingly indefatigable, he still holds a position at Texas A&M, where he is Distinguished Professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department and teaches classes on occasion. He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily in recognition for his work in reversing the chronic food shortages suffered by India and Pakistan in the 1960s.

Borlaug's childhood home in Cresco, Iowa As Borlaug was growing up on a small farm in Cresco, Iowa, first the Depression Era, and then the Dust Bowl of the Midwest, were formative experiences.

However, counter to the popular mythology about the Dust Bowl as the creation of "excessive technological resources" applied to agriculture, Borlaug surmised that it was actually the result of insufficient application of technology. He noticed that in places where techniques of high yield agriculture were being systematically applied, Dust Bowl conditions never developed with the same severity. (This was to be proven again in the Dakotas in the summer of 1988, where no Dust Bowl materialized despite severe drought conditions identical to those that triggered it earlier.)

Borlaug was inspired into defining a mission for his life: to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures on the scale of the Dust Bowl were a basic fact of life.

In 1964, India was reeling from the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. The world watched anxiously to see how the fledgling democracy would handle this crisis of political succession. However, there was an ever greater crisis looming on the horizon--Nehru had tried to fashion India's centralized economy by focusing almost exclusively on heavy industry, while seemingly intractable problems of food shortages and famines had arisen to plague the agriculture sector.

Two consecutive droughts in 1966 and 1967 threatened to bring on famine on a massive scale. The new prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, inherited a country on the brink of a human catastrophe. These developments seemed to confirm the worst fears of biologist Paul Ehrlich, who famously wrote in The Population Bomb, his 1968 bestseller: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," and "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."

Little did Ehrlich know that Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of 'crash program' he had declared would never work. Working in Mexico, they had developed a special breed of dwarf wheat that resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties.

C. Subramaniam, then minister of Food and Agriculture in India, came to know of Borlaug's work. It was transparently obvious to him that this was the answer to India's crisis. Acting with great urgency, the Indian government took the plunge, and several chartered Boeing 707s loaded with 16,000 metric tonnes of seeds of the new 'miracle wheat' headed for the eastern skies.

Borlaug's team began teaching local farmers in the region how to cultivate this new strain of wheat properly, in both India and Pakistan. Borlaug's work is credited with sparking what has come to be known as the "Green Revolution" in these countries, defying all predictions and achieving an astounding increase in the production of wheat within the span of a few years.

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. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million.

In the mid-1980s, India even entered the world export market for grains. 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.

Not only did Ehrlich's predictions of hundreds of millions of deaths in massive famines prove to be false, India fed far more than 200 million more people, and was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971. (Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb.)

According to Gregg Easterbrook writing in The Atlantic, "perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted. The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths."

It would seem that there is very little in the world today that could be considered of greater consequence than the wide application of ideas and techniques with the potential to elevate masses of humanity that reside on the brink of starvation and death from malnutrition.

Since 1984, Borlaug has turned his attention to the African continent, where starvation remains a most visible threat . He has been involved in Sub-Saharan African programs to revolutionize farming. As a result of his efforts, yields have been at the worst double, nearly always triple, and sometimes quadruple what the traditional practices are producing. African farmers are enthusiastic about these new methods. But almost in keeping with these successes, Borlaug's work has encountered a wall of resistance.

To return to our original question: Why isn't Borlaug better known and why is his work so endangered? For one, he has chosen to work outside the media spotlight, engaged in the rather unglamorous enterprise of improving crop yields in parts of the world that receive little attention in the Western media, except to report sensational disasters or scandals.

But, an even more significant and disturbing reason is identified by Gregg Easterbrook, when he writes: "Borlaug's mission -- to cause the environment to produce significantly more food -- has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world."

According to David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute, "The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa." As a result, high-profile yet 'image-sensitive' organizations such as The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and the World Bank, once sponsors of Borlaug's work, have begun disassociating themselves from it.

Support for the International Maize and Wheat Center -- where Borlaug helped to develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world's population now depends for sustenance -- has also dwindled. The net result, according to Easterbrook, is that "although Borlaug's achievements are arguably the greatest that Ford or Rockefeller has ever funded, both foundations have retreated from the last effort of Borlaug's long life: the attempt to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa."

This resistance from environmental groups seems especially ironical, when one considers that in developing nations where population growth is surging, high-yield agriculture holds back the rampant deforestation of wild areas. According to one calculation, India's transition to high-yield farming spared the country from having to plough an additional 100 million acres of virgin land -- an area about equivalent to California.

In the past five years India has been able to slow and perhaps even halt its national deforestation. None of this would have been remotely possible if Indian farmers were still trying to feed the country by growing traditional crops using traditional methods.

Opponents of high-yield agriculture "took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious," David Seckler says. "Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous."

Borlaug found that some foundation managers and World Bank officials had become hopelessly confused regarding the distinction between pesticides and fertilizer. He says, "The opponents of high-yield for Africa were speaking of the two as if they were the same because they're both made from chemicals, when the scales of toxicity are vastly different. Fertilizer only replaces substances naturally present in the soils anyway."

When asked about the criticisms stemming from fears of the potential hazards of biotechnology and genetically engineered crops, Borlaug comments: "As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera--that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.

Today's modern red wheat variety is made up of three groups of seven chromosomes, and each of those three groups of seven chromosomes came from a different wild grass. First, Mother Nature crossed two of the grasses, and this cross became the durum wheats, which were the commercial grains of the first civilizations spanning from Sumeria until well into the Roman period. Then Mother Nature crossed that 14-chromosome durum wheat with another wild wheat grass to create what was essentially modern wheat at the time of the Roman Empire.

Durum wheat was fine for making flat Arab bread, but it didn't have elastic gluten. The thing that makes modern wheat different from all of the other cereals is that it has two proteins that give it the doughy quality when it's mixed with water. Durum wheats don't have gluten, and that's why we use them to make spaghetti today.

The second cross of durum wheat with the other wild wheat produced a wheat whose dough could be fermented with yeast to produce a big loaf. So modern bread wheat is the result of crossing three species barriers, a kind of natural genetic engineering."

In response to the sustained campaign against his work, Borlaug has said:

Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

As Borlaug has pointed out, "Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do.

Future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."

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