Few people have quietly changed the world for the better more than this rural lad from the mid-western state of Iowa in the United States. The man in focus is Norman Borlaug, the Father of the ‘Green Revolution’, who died on Saturday, (September 12, 2009) at age 95. Norman Borlaug spent most of his 60 working years in the farmlands of Mexico, South Asia and later in Africa, fighting world hunger, and saving by some estimates up to a billion lives in the process. An achievement, fit for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“I am a product of the great depression” is how Borlaug described himself. A great-grandson of Norwegian immigrants to the United States, Borlaug, was born in 1914 and grew up on a small farm in the northeastern corner of Iowa in a town called Cresco. His family had a 40 hectare farm on which they grew corn, oats, maize and hay and raised pigs and cattle. Norman spent most of his time from age 7–17 on the farm, even as he attended a one room, one teacher school at New Oregon in Howard country.
Borlaug didn’t have money to go to college. But through a Great Depression era programme, known as the National Youth Administration, Borlaug was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis to study forestry. He excelled in studies and received his Ph.D in plant pathology and genetics in 1942.
From 1942 to 1944, Borlaug was employed as a microbiologist at DuPont in Wilmington. However, following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Borlaug tried to enlist in the military, but was rejected under wartime labour regulations.
In 1944, many experts warned of mass starvation in developing nations where populations were expanding faster than crop production. Borlaug began work at a Rockefeller Foundation-funded project in Mexico to increase wheat production by developing higher-yielding varieties of the crop. It involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. The goal of the project was to boost wheat production in Mexico, which at the time was importing a large portion of its grain.
Borlaug said that his first couple of years in Mexico were difficult. He lacked trained scientists and equipment. Native farmers were hostile towards the wheat programme because of serious crop losses from 1939 to 1941 due to stem rust.
Wheat varieties that Borlaug worked with had tall, thin stalks. While taller wheat competed better for sunlight, they had a tendency to collapse under the weight of extra grain–a trait called lodging. To overcome this, Borlaug worked on breeding wheat with shorter and stronger stalks, that could hold on larger seed heads. Borlaug’s new semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties, called Pitic 62 and Penjamo 62, changed the potential yield of Mexican wheat dramatically. By 1963 wheat production in Mexico stood six times more than that of 1944.
Green Revolution in India
During 1960s, South Asia experienced severe drought condition and India had been importing wheat on a large scale from the United States. Borlaug came to India in 1963 along with Dr.Robert Glenn Anderson to replicate his Mexican success in the sub-continent. The experiments began with planting of few of the high yielding variety strains in the fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa in New Delhi, under the stewardship of Dr. M S Swaminathan. These strains were subsequently planted in test plots at Ludhiana, Pantnagar, Kanpur, Pune and Indore. The results were promising, but large scale success, however was not instant. Cultural opposition to new agricultural techniques initially prevented Borlaug from going ahead with planting of new wheat strains in India. By 1965, when the drought situation turned alarming, the Government took the lead and allowed wheat revolution to move forward. By employing agricultural techniques he developed in Mexico, Borlaug was able to nearly double South Asian wheat harvests between 1965 and 1970.
India subsequently made a huge commitment to Mexican wheat, importing some 18,000 tonnes of seed. By 1968, it was clear that the Indian wheat harvest was nothing short of revolutionary. It was so prolific that there was a shortage of labour to harvest it, of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, of jute bags, to store it. Local governments in some areas were forced to shut down schools temporarily to use them as store houses.
United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) observed that in 40 years between 1961 and 2001, “India more than doubled its population, from 452 million to more than 1 billion. At the same time, it nearly tripled its grain production from 87 million tonnes to 231 million tonnes. It accomplished this feat while increasing cultivated grain acreage a scant 8 percent.” It was in India that Norman Borlaug’s work was described as the ‘Green Revolution.’
Africa suffered wide spread hunger and starvation through 70s and 80s. Food and aid poured in from most developed countries into the continent, but thanks to the absence of efficient distribution system, the hungry remained empty stomach. The then Chairman of the Nippon Foundation, Ryoichi Sasakawa wondered why the methods used in Mexico and India were not extended to Africa. He called up Norman Borlaug, now leading a semi-retired life for help. He managed to convince Borlaug to help with his new effort and subsequently founded the Sasakawa Africa Association. Borlaug later recalled, “but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, ‘Let’s just start growin`”
The success in Africa was not as spectacular as it was in India or Mexico. Those elements that allowed Borlaug’s projects to succeed, such as well-organized economies and transportation and irrigation systems, were severely lacking throughout Africa. Because of this, Borlaug’s initial projects were restricted to developed regions of the continent. Nevertheless, yields of maize, sorghum and wheat doubled between 1983 and 1985.
For his contributions to the world food supply, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Norwegian officials notified his wife in Mexico City at 4:00 a.m., but Borlaug had already left for the test fields in the Toluca valley, about 65 kms west of Mexico City. A chauffeur took her to the fields to inform her husband. In his acceptance speech, Borlaug said “the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet, 50 per cent of the world population goes hungry.”
Green Revolution vs Environmentalists
Borlaug’s advocacy of intensive high-yield agriculture came under severe criticism from environmentalists in recent years. His work faced environmental and socio-economic criticisms, including charges that his methods have created dependence on monoculture crops, unsustainable farming practices, heavy indebtedness among subsistence farmers, and high levels of cancer among those who work with agriculture chemicals. There are also concerns about the long-term sustainability of farming practices encouraged by the Green Revolution in both the developed and the developing world
In India, the Green Revolution is blamed for the destruction of Indian crop diversity, drought vulnerability, dependence on agro-chemicals that poison soils but reap large-scale benefits mostly to the American multi-national corporations. What these critics overwhelmingly advocate is a global movement towards “organic” or “sustainable” farming practices that eschew chemicals and high technology in favour of natural fertilizers, cultivation and pest-control programmes.
But Borlaug and those who followed his lead argue that older methods of sustainable farming or for that matter, organic farming, cannot produce enough food to prevent hunger in poorer regions of the world.
Of environmental lobbyists Borlaug once said “Most of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels.”
On the sustainability of organic farming, Borlaug argues that the world consumes some 82 million metric tons of chemical fertilizer per annum to supply the nitrogen crucial to plant development. Replacing these nitrogen inputs would require some 3 billion tons of cattle manure. This means to produce the required amount of organic manure, the cattle population needs to increase six times to 800-900 crore heads from the current 134 crore cattle heads. Now imagine the destruction of vast swaths of wilderness to make room for grazing land.”
Biotechnology is the Future
Borlaug was also an enthusiastic proponent of biotechnology. He believed biotech will be key in meeting the enormous demands that will strain the globe in the next 30 years. He says global food production will have to nearly double to keep pace with the projected population of 10 billion people by 2050. While biotech has yet to improve yields by any appreciable level, it shows promise in alleviating global malnourishment through the engineering of vitamin-and mineral-enhancing characteristics into cereal crops.
Despite his yeomen service to the humanity, Borlaug largely remained an un-appreciated American. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. The beneficiaries of his innovations and energies are primarily the people from Third World countries. Desperate hunger is an alien affliction in the United States, where malnourishment is more likely to result in obesity than flattened bellies. India though, did not forget to repay its tribute, by releasing a postage stamp in the honour of the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’, way back in 1968.