Bob Kraft: Dr. Borlaug, the man who fed the world
Thursday, April 17, 2014 11:25 AM
CARMEL - In late March most of the United States pretty much ignored the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug, the man most responsible for the current phenomenon of engineered food in the world’s diet.
The one notable exception to the general indifference to Borlaug’s centennial was that of his native state of Iowa, which used the occasion to enshrine him as one of that state’s two honorees in the National Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol. To do so, Iowa had to remove the statue of James Harlan, a college president, U.S. senator and secretary of the interior in the Andrew Johnson administration. (For the record, Indiana’s two honorees are Civil War Gov. Oliver P. Morton and Civil War general and Ben Hur author Lew Wallace).
Dr. Norman Borlaug, born and raised on an Iowa farm, was a plant scientist and innovator who is widely known as the father of the Green Revolution. In the 1950s Borlaug introduced a dwarf gene from one wheat strain into a tropical wheat native to Mexico. This innovation led to a short stubby hybrid wheat plant that could support heavy seed heads; seed heads that were made heavy by chemical fertilizers. This combination of bioengineering and high fertilization led to a quadrupling of Mexican wheat production. The plants and methodologies developed by Borlaug and his colleagues were used to increase grain and rice production with similar results on the Indian subcontinent and in the Philippines.
In 1968, the well-known Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over…in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions will starve to death.” While famine still plagues much of the world, the scientific advances and uses of technology pioneered by Borlaug to increase the production of basic foodstuffs were accepted and adopted by governments and farmers in many of the world’s most populated countries, with the result that Ehrlich’s dire prediction of imminent famine and starvation fell considerably short. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development were quick to identify this phenomenal increase in agricultural production as the Green Revolution.
The impact of Borlaug’s work was so significant that in 1970 he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize. In presenting the prize the Nobel Committee stated, “More than any other single person of this age, Dr. Borlaug has helped provide bread for a hungry world, we have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the word peace.”
Over the last several years, the Green Revolution and Borlaug have come under attack from some environmentalists and nutritionists. It is interesting that the specific criticisms directed at the Green Revolution in developing countries closely parallel the arguments of the more vocal critics of modern agriculture here in the United States. There are those who so value traditional farming practices – whether subsistence farming in Latin America or Asia or a return to American Gothic image in the United States – that they disparage anything that hints of modern agriculture. Similarly, those who, for whatever reason, have a fear of food resulting from the genetic modification of organisms (GMOs) use that fear to denigrate modern agriculture both in the United States and around the world.
Borlaug listened to these criticisms but he didn’t agree with them. He argued that the only way to increase food production was through GMOs. The world’s supply of arable land is finite, he noted, while the world’s population growth is not. While he devoted his career to the supply side of the world’s food crisis, he never lost sight of the need to control the demand side. Indeed, this was one of major points of his 1970 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In his address, he stated, “Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster’.” In further defense of GMOs, he noted, “We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time. Long before we called it science, people were selecting the best breed.”
When it became fashionable in the 1980s to find fault with high-yield agriculture, environmentalists and the emerging Green political parties in Europe pressured their governments and the major charitable foundations who had historically supported much of Borlaug’s work not to fund or otherwise support him in Africa, where by then he was focusing his attention. His response to this criticism not only communicated the disdain he felt for those who were attacking his work but also articulated the passion he felt for his life’s work and the sense of urgency with which he pursued it.
Norman Borlaug 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 50 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.”
Dr. Norman Borlaug remained active until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.
The Green Revolution and the arguments over its impact and the impact of GMOs continues. However one might feel about modern agriculture and engineered crops, the fact remains that the work of Dr. Borlaug and the Green Revolution is credited with saving over a billion people from death by starvation. This undoubtedly is worthy of a statue in the U. S. Capitol.
Kraft is the former head of public affairs for the Indiana Farm Bureau.