Father of Green Revolution Dies: Norman Borlaug, 1914-2009

“When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.”
-Norman Borlaug-

Norman Borlaug is credited with saving 245 million lives. That’s a lot of lives – especially for a seemingly nondescript plant scientist. Borlaug developed semi-dwarf high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. What does that mean?

It meant that the plants were more resistance to bacterial predators. Borlaug’s techniques, combined with modern agricultural production, improved food security and increased food supply in countries including Mexico, Pakistan and India, saving people there from starvation. China has adopted similar techniques to become the industrial giant it is.

Borlaug’s life was not without some controversy: there were arguments over the social and environmental consequences of his “Green Revolution.” As the New York Times reports, “many critics on the left attacked it, saying it displaced smaller farmers, encouraged over-reliance on chemicals and paved the way for greater corporate control of agriculture.” (Read the Times’ entire obituary for Borlaug here).

Unfortunately, sometimes the best scientific breakthroughs pass through to new hands who meld them into tools to achieve detrimental ends. Borlaug simply wanted to teach the world how to feed itself.
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  • Mark Rego-Monteiro

    Borlaug had a noble aim, but perhaps most scientists have been blinded to economic practices. While Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Andrei Sakharov promoted peace, fascism, communism, and capitalsim have created some highly destructive ideologies.
    Non-profit groups like Greenpeace and organic certifiers are smong those who have recognized important fundamental problems being perpetrated by economic enterprises seeking profit-maximization. Organic Valley, Equal Exchange, and the Arizmendi Cheese Shops in California are some examples of the alternative, employee-ownership business model which has some important examples that are community and locally oriented, and free of profit oriented investors.
    Rachel Carson was a biologist who recognized the problem of pesticides, and Michael Braungart is a chemist who worked for Greenpeace and more recently with architect William McDonagh has helped create the Cradle to Cradle certification. Borlaug was a contemporary of Rachel Carson. Maybe he would have benefited from knowing her.

    • oldclimber

      They call it “subsistence farming” for a reason – it takes all the effort a family can muster, encourages larger populations, is far less efficient, placing more actual loads on the land mass than modern agriculture in spite of reliance on gas and technology.
      “(Most Western environmentalists) have 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 in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.” (Borlaug)
      “Reflecting Western priorities, the debate about whether high-yield agriculture would be good for Africa is currently phrased mostly in environmental terms, not in terms of saving lives. By producing more food from less land, Borlaug argues, high-yield farming will preserve Africa’s wild habitats, which are now being depleted by slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture. . . In this debate the moral imperative of food for the world’s malnourished — whether they “should” have been born or not, they must eat — stands in danger of being forgotten.”
      “In my Nobel lecture,” Borlaug says, “I suggested we had until the year 2000 to tame the population monster, and then food shortages would take us under. Now I believe we have a little longer. The Green Revolution can make Africa productive.”
      “The Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of environmental and development-oriented groups, has become somewhat open to fertilizer use in Africa. “The environmental movement went through a phase of revulsion against any chemical use in agriculture,” says Robert Blake, the committee’s chairman. “People are coming to realize that is just not realistic. Norman has been right about this all along.” quotes from the Atlantic Jan 1997
      The real self-serving posers are the “farm to table organic” masters, whose “sustainabilty” depends on the average self-righteous urban hipster’s willingness to pay $50 for a mini-meal. Indulging a rich town’s foodies may feed a few dozen, but it ain’t gonna help the next 5 billion.