January 10, 2008

This is an interesting (and expectedly hopeful) article about Norman E. Borlaug, especially if you are vaguely apocalyptic like I am, or if you have some sinking sense that the whole food system is going to collapse. Which it likely is. But that aside, this is worth reading:

the Malthusian tragedy never happened, chiefly because Norman E. Borlaug transformed the breeding of wheat, which feeds more people than any other crop.

From 1939 to 1942, Mexico's harvest was halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, shriveling grains. Anxieties about wartime food shortages led the American philanthropic organization the Rockefeller Foundation to create the country's first foreign agricultural program: the Coöperative Wheat Research and Production Program, which was based in Mexico and which Borlaug joined, as its plant pathologist, in 1944. The program was prescient: rust hit the North American breadbasket in 1954, wiping out 75 percent of the durum wheat crop used for pasta.

"There was panic in the U.S. and Canadian departments of agriculture," Borlaug tells me. "We had to accelerate the program to develop rust-resistant wheat varieties." Borlaug struggled with a lack of machinery, equipment, and trained scientists. Yet by 1948, he tells Leon Hesser in The Man Who Fed the World, a recent biography, "research results, the bits and pieces of the wheat production puzzle, began to emerge, and the fog of gloom and despair began to lift."...

...He started thousands more crosses, until "by 1964, we got the really beautiful short wheat varieties." The yields were spectacular, and the variety was quickly adopted around world. In 1968, his approach, which stimulated advances in other staple foods, was dubbed the "Green Revolution" by ­William Gaud, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Two years later, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize....

Nonetheless, a neo-Malthusian fear of overpopulation became endemic to environmentalist thinking. Science philosopher and Arts and Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton says, "Well-fed Greens flaunt their concern for the planet but are indifferent, even hostile, to the world's poor with whom they share it. Some Greens I knew acted for all the world as though they relished the idea of a coming worldwide famine, much as fundamentalists ghoulishly looked forward to Armageddon." Dutton, who served in the Peace Corps, personally saw the Green Revolution benefit India. "For the catastrophist, India becoming a food exporter was disturbing," he says. "This wasn't supposed to happen. They blame Borlaug for spoiling the fun."

Not all Borlaug's critics were catastrophists: some opposed the intensity of his agriculture, especially its use of inorganic fertilizer. Borlaug acknowledges the need for care, but he says the "natural" alternative, cow manure, "would require us to increase the world's cattle population from around 1.5 billion to some 10 billion." As he dryly observed in a 2003 TV interview, "Producing food for 6.2 billion people ... is not simple." He added, "[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion--I don't see two billion volunteers to disappear."

Raised on a farm, Borlaug thinks many of his detractors would benefit from a week or two in the fields. He cites Ghanaian farmers who use no-till agriculture (that is, plant waste is left to improve the humus and reduce erosion) and control weeds with herbicides. Their lives are improved by the reduction in weeding. "Less backache, you see," he once said. "You know, it's amazing how often campaigners in rich countries think poor people don't get backache."

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