Plant pathologist Norman Borlaug, 95, died this Saturday, raising questions about the legacy of industrial food in the Third World. In 1970, Borlaug received a Nobel Peace Prize for averting famine through bringing fertilizers, pesticides and new plant strains to countries like India, Mexico and Pakistan. But environmentalists argue that his plant engineering only delayed catastrophe at great ecological costs.
According to the Washington Post, Borlaug grew up in Iowa and was touched by the lines of people in bread lines during the Great Depression. He wanted to solve the issue of hunger. After getting his Ph.D in plant pathology in 1942, he worked on a team requested by the Mexican government to increase wheat production. First, he grew wheat in two seasons rather than one. Then, Borlaug developed a short-stalked “dwarf” wheat because fertilizer had made the old variety so tall the stalk fell over.
With Mexico on his resume, Borlaug went to develop dwarf rice species for Southeast Asia. By the end of his career, according to his foundation, the World Food Prize, he had programs in Latin America and Southeast Asia, along with a fat portfolio in the Middle East: Beginning in the early 1960’s, his approach to wheat breeding was introduced in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iran, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. By the mid-1980s, he was pushing for a Green Revolution in Africa, too.
But increasing food through chemical inputs has its detractors. The Post reports that Borlaug faced off repeatedly against environmentalists from the 1970s on the issue.
“They claim that the consumer is being poisoned out of existence by the current high-yielding systems of agricultural production and recommend we revert back to lower-yielding, so-called sustainable technologies,” he said in a speech in New Orleans in 1993.
At the heart of the debate is the issue that Borlaug’s Green Revolution helped a hungry world feed itself and have more kids, rather than cutting down birth rates and stabilizing population growth, writes the New York Times:
In a characteristic complaint, Vandana Shiva, an Indian critic, wrote in 1991 that “in perceiving nature’s limits as constraints on productivity that had to be removed, American experts spread ecologically destructive and unsustainable practices worldwide.”
Dr. Borlaug declared that such arguments often came from “elitists” who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. But over time, he acknowledged the validity of some environmental concerns, and embraced more judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides. He was frustrated throughout his life that governments did not do more to tackle what he called “the population monster” by lowering birth rates.
Borlaug’s innovations coupled with better health care made a Middle Eastern population boom possible. But now, as organic farmers in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank find out, it is difficult or impossible to go back in time and raise food without the fertilizers, pesticides and engineered crops that were the hallmark of the Green Revolution. The question is, as Bill McKibben would put it, what are the limits of technology to improve our lives? Borlaug walked that fine line, and the answer has not yet emerged.
:: Photo from WashingtonPost.com