TCS Daily


The Man for All Seasons

By Henry I. Miller - October 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Life really can imitate art. Leon Hesser's straightforward yet gripping biography of Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution ("The Man Who Fed the World," Durban House Press, 2006, $24.95), portrays the kind of nobility and idealism shown by Jimmy Stewart in the title role of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." If the Borlaug story were a movie, this week's presentation in Des Moines of the 2006 World Food Prize, first envisioned by and spurred by Borlaug, would be the denouement.

Borlaug's life has been one of extraordinary paradoxes: a child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who attended a one-room school, aspired to become a high school science teacher, flunked the university entrance exam - but went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the death of millions.

Borlaug introduced several innovations. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20 to 40 percent.

Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties that would not fall over in the field when aggressively fertilized to achieve maximum yields.

Third, he devised an ingenious technique called "shuttle breeding"- growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed. Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.

In his professional life, Borlaug, who is now 92, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the "constant pessimism and scare-mongering" of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.

How successful were Borlaug's efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield of more than 150 percent.

Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.

Borlaug recalls without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: "bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers' customs, habits, and superstitions."

Both the need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remain, and in recent years, Borlaug has applied himself to ensuring the success of this century's equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or "genetic modification" (GM), to agriculture. Products in development offer the possibility of even higher yields, less inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.

However, extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help. Borlaug sees history repeating itself: "At the time [of the Green Revolution], Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, 'Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts.' Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later . . . The naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available" [emphasis in original].

Borlaug observes that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years."

Although we must be prudent in assessing new technologies, these assessments must not be based on overly conservative — or overtly inaccurate — assumptions, or be swayed by the self-interest of bureaucrats or the anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-globalization agendas of a few activists.

Borlaug's story is a saga of the greatness of America during the 20th Century - of opportunity, individuality, courage and achievement. He strove to exploit new technology in a way that was based on good science and good sense.

I have known Norman Borlaug personally for more than a decade. As remarkable as his scientific and humanitarian accomplishments are Borlaug's modesty, guilelessness, and the fact that the desire to contribute to society still burns in his belly.

Borlaug's modus vivendi might be summed up in several observations that he made about the importance of food and the application of science to feeding the hungry.

First: "There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse." Second: "You can't eat potential." In other words, you haven't succeeded until you get new developments into the field and actually into people's bellies. And finally: "It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don't know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be."

How to capture the essence of Norman Borlaug? I'm reminded of a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold, who described Sophocles as a man "who saw life steadily, and saw it whole."

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
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10 Comments

Heaven and Hell for environmentalists.
Deep within my soul, I have to believe that somewhere in the afterlife we will face judgment.

That leads me to believe that people like Norman Borlaug will have a place at the right hand of God. People like Rachel Carson, Paul Erlich and Jeremy Rifkin will have a special level of Hell dedicated just for them.

R.I.P., Norman. Burn in hell, all those who do nothing but *****, moan, and try to impede all human progress, while defiling the altar of science to suit their political desires.

a real hero
Yeah, it's guys like him who make progress for the world. They should have given him another noble instead of to guys like that billionaire terrorist Yasar Arafat, or the failed politician jimmy carter, or that bangladeshi guy lately for giving out charity. It's the scientists, engineers and technical people who keep us from living like cave men, not people like nancy pelosi, sigfried and roy, friends of the earth, and mr Rogers who the left wingers admire.

famines
The anti-technology folk have not been predicting famine, they've been praying for famine.

So true
They have been claiming this great famine was coming for 100 years.

Borlaug statistic
The article suggests a 150% increase in crop yield. This is not correct. The yield increase, based upon the numbers provided, is about 274%, or almost 3 times larger than initially. A monument should be erected to Norman Borlaug while he still is alive to appreciate it, but I suspect he is snowed-under with awards by now.

I agree....mostly
D-Much of what you say is true; however, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern are both big supporters of Dr. Borlaug and GM technology. Many of the scientists who developed this technology came from those bastians of liberalism-Universities. Bottom line--support for science and technology does not come from only one side of the political spectrum.

What I truly admire about Dr. Borlaug is his pragmatic approach. He understands that the first rule of a safe food supply is to HAVE enough food. He understands that growing crops cannot be environmentally friendly if it requires ever increasing acreage. He understands that the best way to insure that people in the third world have enough is to teach them to grow it themselves.

The organic/environmental crowd put the method before the result. In other words, "we in the West and Northern Europe don't like GM, so don't worry about growing your own food, we'll ship it to you." Condescending and paternalistic, to be sure.

Unsustainability of Green Revolution
To comment on "Borlaug's modus vivendi":

First: "There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse."
-----The new grain varieties developed in the Green Revolution rely on irrigation,large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides -- all of which are only possible NOW because we have abundant cheap and readily available non-renewable energy.
Al Bartlett has said that "Modern agriculture is a method of using land to covert petroleum into food". So as we enter the depletion phase of our short (several hundred years) Petroleum Interval // ? where will the energy come from for us to continue to pump water from aquifers that are being emptied, and for us to continue to make, mine and transport massive amounts of nitrogen(Haber Process, using scarce natural gas) ,phosphorus and potassium fertilizers, and to make and tranport massive amounts of pesticides -- all of which have TEMPORARILY allowed the large increase in food production written about by Sutherland. The large increase in non renewable energy dependent crop varieties has produced a doubling of human numbers, many of whom will starve when the energy to irrigate, fertilize and control pests on the HIGH YIELD varieties is no longer available.

Second: "You can't eat potential."
------ Exactly // the new high yield crop varieties offer the POTENTIAL to feed many mouths IF we continue to have the large amounts of readily available fossil fuels upon which the Green Revolution is dependent. Geological reality insists that deposits formed millions of years ago are finite!
Peter Salonius

The Green Revolution is over, make way for Biotech.
We no longer need quite so many pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers because we can use GM crops that eliminate the need. That is, unless the environuts manage to get them banned.

In the meantime, what the hell do we do about the problem you have hallucinated? Do we abandon all energy generation? Should each of us grow our own organic tofu in our basement?

unsustainability
You are making a very common 'argument from future scarcity' fallacy. You can't make a good argument for predicting the future, when the past, and to date, we've never run out of anything at all yet. So you're basically say, this time it will be different based on no evidence at all, just the scare mongering you've heard about town.

Energy future
Energy production needs are growing by leaps and bounds because 3B new capitalists are coming on market. Unless we gain a lot of new energy, we're going to have to deal with higher prices across the board. There is no one energy source that is going to handle everything.

Very likely we're heading towards a heterogeneous energy environment. Nuclear will play a role and the role of coal will likely grow. Hydrogen is most likely going to be the common middleware so that local supply and local demand can match up while maintaining mass production quantities of cheap goods.

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