Monday, September 28, 2009

Norman Borlaug, RIP

On September 12, agricultural innovator and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug died at age 95. Mr. Borlaug is best known as the primary force behind the "Green Revolution," a series of innovations that allowed for the greatest increase in agricultural productivity in human history.

Mr. Borlaug's single greatest innovation was the development of hardy, high-yielding strains of wheat in Mexico in the early 1950's. By carefully selecting and breeding wheat varieties, Borlaug was able to shrink the size of the wheat plant without reducing the size of the seed head that produces grain. These compact plants increased yields by allowing more plants to be grown per acre, while their stocky, durable structure also proved more resistant to the elements.

Borlaug's contributions to agriculture, however far exceeded the development of superior wheat varieties. By studying farming practices and their shortcomings in the developing world, Borlaug was able to help develop a comprehensive set of agricultural practices that laid the foundation for what would come to be known as the Green Revolution. By demonstrating how a combination of hardier plant varieties, irrigation, and pesticide and fertilizer use could be adapted to and utilized in agriculture in the developing world, Borlaug enabled historic gains in agricultural productivity. His success was later replicated with the development of new, more productive rice varieties.

Borlaug's efforts paid enormous dividends by virtually eliminating large-scale famine in South Asia and Mexico through increased crop yields within those regions, and by enabling already productive regions to produce greater amounts of food for persons and places without. Estimates of the number of lives saved by Borlaug's innovations range from hundreds of millions into the billions--a truly staggering and unparalleled contribution to human welfare, all made possible by a dedicated plant scientist from Cresco, Iowa.

Borlaug's legacy, and the Green Revolution generally, have come under criticism for promoting unsustainable agricultural practices. Critics point to the Green Revolution's emphasis on:
-Crop monocultures, and the concomitant loss of biodiversity;
-Irrigation, which can lead to groundwater overdraft and other water shortage problems; and finally,
-Pesticide and Fertilizer use, and the related ecological and health effects.
General criticism is also directed at the idea that the green revolution encourages unsustainable population growth and hasn't proven adaptable to all regions.

In spite of this criticism, Borlaug's contribution to the way humans produce and consume food unquestionably ranks among the most significant achievements in human history--his work continues to provide us with reliable, plentiful food, and has allowed hundreds of millions of stomachs that would otherwise have sat empty to be filled.

Most of the criticism leveled at the Green Revolution generally, and at Borlaug in particular, is best understood as a recognition of the limits of the methods and innovations advanced in the Green Revolution, and of the ever-present need to consider the environmental and human context into which the methods must be placed. Overuse of pesticides, for example, can have negative ecological and health effects. The solution to overuse, however, doesn't necessarily have to involve a Luddite-like rejection of pesticide use; instead, we should seek to make use of Borlaug's methods in conjunction with our developing understanding of their potential downsides.

When he was a young man, Borlaug was encouraged to continue his education by his grandfather, who told him, "You're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on." Grandpa Borlaug's advice rings equally true today--we should continue the process of researching and developing how food grows, so that we might be able to do so in a manner that produces enough for all in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. This work, so essential to human life, will undoubtedly proceed from the foundation that was laid by Norman Borlaug over the course of a truly remarkable and significant life.


CityMouse said...

More to come on Borlaug - Adam and I both felt this was newsworthy but decided to pursue our blogs independently. Stay tuned!

Yooli said...

What a great first blog post on Borlaug! I agree with Adam that its important to take what we've learned about agriculture and apply it forward to create better results.

I don't find persuasive the argument by critics of the Green Revolution that somehow increased food production has created untenable population growth. There is dignity in all life and it deserves to eat and to live and to be healthy.

I am, however, glad that we're beginning to evolve our idea of "good agricultural practices" to include sustainability. Its always been somewhat terrifying to me that in the 90's we pushed so many genetically manufactured crops into the developing world, without knowing yet what the truth longterm health effects would be. (Remember Golden Rice in Africa?) Obviously, deep famine in the 80's and 90's undoubtedly fueled such rapid dissemination of aggressive production methods. But now, we're seeing the effects: the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers have created big problems in places like India. The crops simply wont grow in the soil anymore.

It will be fascinating to see in the years to come how we overcome our present day challenges while trying to feed each other and give farmers around the world a means to make an honest living. I think Borlaug has a lot to be proud of, but we have a lot of work still left to do.

Thanks for the post!

LT said...

I also really take issue with the criticism of Mr. Borlaug that his innovations in food production somehow encourage unsustainable population growth. Sustainability should, of course, be a tenet of any agricultural philosophy, but are we supposed to ignore the hungry mouths there are today because providing them food may lead to population growth? I think the problems fueling unsustainable population growth obviously lie elsewhere and it seems a bit ridiculous to me to point the finger at someone who simply tried to ameliorate large scale starvation.

tcruse said...

I agree with the notion that "encourages exploding population growth" is not a good reason to ban the use of Mr. Borlaug’s crop-enhancing technologies - especially if we don't have any other viable alternatives that are capable of fixing or helping to fix the starvation problem and are ready for use today. It doesn't seem logical to me that people sit around saying, "wow, look at all the food we can grow...let's have twice as many children." Conversely, I don't think that in the absence of these technologies, people would seriously study the (un)availability of food before having a child. People have babies, and then presumably try to make it work - if there isn't enough food, everyone eats a little less - spreading what they do have among themselves.
That said, I do think there is merit in the criticisms that these technologies encourage unsustainable crop monocultures (and lower biodiversity), over-irrigation, and increased pesticide/fertilizer use. The technologies arguably make farming somewhat easier, and by doing so, make it easier to forget about the potential negative effects they may have on humans and the environment.