Why you should care

Because being able to eat is something some of us take for granted. Until we miss a meal — or 10.

Pity the wonks. Of all the types in the humanitarian pantheon — the passive resisters, the prisoners of conscience, the doctors and the search-and-rescuers — the wonks get the least love.

Maybe that’s why Norman Borlaug is so little known in the United States, the country of his birth. Agronomy isn’t sexy, and neither are fertilizer, dwarf hybrid seeds and irrigation.

Yet Borlaug, who would have turned 100 this month, was the face of the Green Revolution, which brought high-yield seeds, plant hybrids, fertilizers and other technologies to the developing world. Such agricultural innovations were credited with saving a billion people from starvation and for his work Borlaug won the Nobel in 1970. Later, he became one of five people ever to receive a three-fer: the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others in the pantheon were Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in awarding Norman Borlaug the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor on July 17, 2007.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in awarding Norman Borlaug the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor on July 17, 2007.

Not bad for a former Iowa farmboy. And though Borlaug remains comparatively obscure, he’s earned a sort of cult following among a very powerful set. Said Bill Gates after Borlaug’s death in 2008, “In the middle of the 20th century, experts predicted famine and starvation. But they turned out to be wrong, because they did not predict Norman Borlaug.”

Gates credits Borlaug for inspiring some of his family foundation’s massive investments in agriculture in the developing world, including the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa.

Borlaug thought that ramping up production was more urgent than politics.

But the Green Revolution’s legacy is decidedly mixed. For starters, it’s not clear that Borlaug’s seeds and methods saved quite so many people in the 1960s. Borlaug, who didn’t like being called the Father of the Green Revolution, admitted as much, and that wasn’t Midwestern modesty speaking but honest science.

Estimates of the number of people nourished by the Green Revolution, which ranged from the hundreds of millions to a billion, rested on doomsday predictions that likely overstated just how many were at risk of starvation in the first place. Malthusian theories had purchase in the late 1960s, with social scientists like Paul Ehrlich warning that India was basically consigned to death by mass hunger. But the situation wasn’t nearly so hopeless.

Green Revolution methods remain very controversial today, especially in developing countries that include Africa, home of Green Revolution 2.0. In India, scholar A.R. Vasavi links the high cost of Green Revolution inputs, like fertilizer and high-yield seeds, to a plague of farmer indebtedness — and suicide. Many poor countries chafe at potential dependency on multinational corporations for hybrid seeds and fertilizer. And with plenty of undernourishment in India decades after the Green Revolution, it’s clear that hunger nowadays isn’t so much a matter of production, but of affordability and availability.

Like many a post-war technocrat, Borlaug mostly dismissed the political implications of Green Revolution technologies. Ramping up production was more urgent than politics, he thought, but he didn’t necessarily see that they went together.

“The countries that adopted the Green Revolution most ardently either were or became dictatorships,” says scholar Nick Calluther, a historian at Indiana University whose 2011 book, A Hungry World, looks critically at agricultural development initiatives. By making rural populations dependent on the state for inputs, the Green Revolution “was a gold mine strategy for dictators,” says Calluther.

Borlaug had seen and felt how technology could liberate farmers like him and his Iowa brethren.

Later in life, Borlaug came to see that equitable distribution of food was a pressing issue. But for the most part, he seemed to believe that technology was apolitical, and that it bore the same promise of liberation from toil and hunger for everyone. That stance might be traced to his biography, for Borlaug had seen and felt how technology could liberate farmers like him and his Iowa brethren.

Born in 1914, Borlaug spent childhood summers picking and husking corn with his father, some half a million ears a season, all by hand. Outside harvest season, he tended workhorses and fed the livestock, chopped wood and did a thousand other time-consuming, back-aching chores.

A farm worker displays stalks of wheat on Norman Borlaug's high yield wheat and grain project at an experimental facility in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico

A farm worker displays stalks of wheat on Norman Borlaug’s high yield wheat and grain project at an experimental facility in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico

Though they didn’t starve, the Borlaugs were often hungry. Tractors and high-yield seeds came to Iowa in Borlaug’s teenage years, and though they lightened the load for a time, the Depression and Dust Bowl hit soon after. Banks went broke. Successful farmers fell into penury. As a college student in Minneapolis, Borlaug was shocked to see hundreds of people on the street, hands out for “nickels to buy bread.”

All of this conditioned him, Borlaug said later, and made him impatient with agricultural Luddites who hewed strictly organic — “extreme greenies,” Borlaug called them. Purely organic methods would never feed the whole world, he thought, and to say they would was dangerous and elitist.

“Please don’t have the extreme greenies come to the developing nations,” he told an interviewer on the eve of his 90th birthday. “People who are carrying these extreme ideas have never been involved in production.”

What the Green Revolution 2.0 will yield is still unclear. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, for instance, works with smallholders, which might result in more equitable development than came about in the 1960s, and today’s agronomists are much more cautious about fertilizer than they were back then. What is clear, though, is that the seeds of Borlaug’s revolution have spread throughout the world. How they take root is yet to be seen.

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