“Green revolution” refers to the vast increase in agricultural yields that began in the 1930s with advanced technologies and spread worldwide beginning in the 1950s.
This year marks the centennial of the single most important individual behind the green revolution, Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in averting mass starvation. By the end of his career, though, environmentalists began to challenge his methods and achievements.
Until recently, I had never heard of Borlaug, but I had certainly read environmental criticisms of modern agricultural technology. Now that I have learned about Borlaug, I will have to re-examine everything I thought I knew about the environmental impact of agriculture.
At least some of today’s standard environmental narrative about agriculture is plain wrong.
Norman Borlaug’s education
Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa on March 25, 1914. He entered U of Minnesota as a freshman in 1933 and found living conditions shocking. He had known hunger growing up, but was not used to seeing homeless grown men and whole homeless families begging for change and food.
Eventually he earned a degree in forest management, but couldn’t get a job. So he started graduate work in plant pathology, studying rust, a fungus that kills many different crops.
The Depression coincided with some of the worst drought conditions in American history. As crops withered and died, nothing held the soil in place. The American Midwest became the Dust Bowl.
Before the late 1930s, the cornfields produced only 30 bushels per acre, but Iowa farmers had begun developing new hybrid corn and using fertilizers. As a result, as Borlaug observed first hand, they boosted yields to an average of 75 bushels of corn per acre. The farms that most systematically used the new technology suffered less from Dust Bowl conditions.
These observations caused him to dedicate his life to taking high-yield farming to the rest of the world in order to reduce crop failures and save lives.
Borlaug in Mexico
In 1943 the Rockefeller Foundation established what eventually became the International Maize and Wheat Center in Mexico. Borlaug became its director.
He and his team introduced important innovations.
- They cross-bred thousands of wheat varieties from all over the world and produced seeds that are resistant to rust. Yields of wheat increased 20-40% as a result.
- They developed dwarf wheat, which increased yields even more. Conventional tall wheat must expend energy to grow long stalks, so shorter wheat can expend more on growing edible grain. And the grain does not cause the stalk to bend under the weight of ripe wheat. Tall wheat sometimes even bent to the ground and became unharvestable.
- They pioneered a technique called shuttle breeding, growing and harvesting two crops a year in two different regions of Mexico instead of one. Being able to test two generations of wheat every year cut the time required to develop his new seeds in half. In addition, growing test crops in different regions produced seeds that could grow in many latitudes, altitudes, and soil types.
Much of the world now depends on dwarf wheat for survival. In 1950, farmers worldwide harvested 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. In 1992 they grew 1.9 billion tons of grain for 5.6 billion people.
By that time, the world had 2.2 times as many people, but produced 2.8 times as much grain—on about the same acreage.
Borlaug in India and Pakistan
India in the mid-1960s faced disaster. Its founding Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964, and India had not yet demonstrated that it could develop stable democratic government and peaceful political succession.
Nehru had focused so much of his attention on developing heavy industry that his government neglected agriculture. The new Prime Minister had to deal with droughts in both 1966 and 1967, which threatened India with massive famine.
India’s minister of Food and Agriculture learned of Borlaug’s work in Mexico and sought his help in India. The Indian government imported 16,000 metric tons of his dwarf wheat seeds. Borlaug went there to lead an effort to teach Indian and Pakistani farmers how to cultivate it properly.
He faced more difficulties there than he had in Mexico, not the least of which is that war broke out between India and Pakistan shortly after he arrived. Sometimes he had to teach farmers how to plant and care for the new seeds while artillery flashed within sight.
Far from facing mass starvation, Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968. India followed within a few years, becoming self-sufficient in all cereal grains by 1974. Food production in both countries has grown faster than the population.
Borlaug in Africa—and the critics
Borlaug turned his attention to Africa in 1984, but by this time he had come under fire from western environmental groups. He had long enjoyed financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the World Bank, but the environmentalists pressured them to stop funding him.
With encouragement and support from former President Jimmy Carter and Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, Borlaug started projects in 7 different African countries and again achieved dramatic increases in yield with multiple crops.
African political, economic, and social conditions create problems that hadn’t existed in Mexico or India. These problems would make progress difficult even without active opposition. Important environmental objections can be summarized as follows:
- Wheat is not an indigenous food in some places where Borlaug introduced it.
- High yield seeds require irrigation and more fertilizer than conventional seeds. In the US, agricultural runoff is a leading source of water pollution.
- The fertilizers most commonly used worldwide come from petrochemicals.
- Although agronomists know that pesticide use must be kept to a minimum, some environmentalists seem to lump pesticides and fertilizer together, since they’re both chemicals.
- Borlaug eventually advocated a method of developing new seeds that’s even faster than his shuttle breeding: gene splicing. That raised fears of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In addition, too many environmentalists still echo the wildly and irresponsibly pessimistic views of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. At the very time Ehrlich warned that India could never be self-sufficient in food, Borlaug had already begun to make India self sufficient in food.
This is not the place to offer a critique of Ehrlich’s views on population. Suffice it to say they represent a tradition of thought that began with Thomas Malthus. Malthusian predictions have been wrong now for over 200 years. Why should anyone think repeating the same flawed reasoning will lead to any different result?
Borlaug himself warned about the dangers of population growth. But instead of wringing his hands and waiting for mass starvation, he found ways to increase food supply.
According to a 2006 report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, malnutrition had reached its lowest point in human history. Human population in 2000 was about three times what it was in 1901, a single century earlier.
Norman Borlaug—Facts / Nobel Prize web site
Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity / Gregg Easterbrook (The Atlantic)
The Man Who Defused the “Population Bomb” / Gregg Easterbrook (Wall Street Journal)
Norman Borlaug: The Genius Behind The Green Revolution / Henry I. Miller (Forbes). Link no longer works.
Norman Borlaug: a billion lives saved / Salil Singh (AgBioWorld)
Norman Borlaug Congressional Gold Medal. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Wheat field. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Nigerians and Borlaug. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.