Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity

Norman Borlaug, the agronomist whose discoveries sparked the Green Revolution, has saved literally millions of lives, yet he is hardly a household name

TO Borlaug, the argument for high-yield cereal crops, inorganic fertilizers, and irrigation became irrefutable when the global population began to take off after the Second World War. But many governments of developing nations were suspicious, partly for reasons of tradition (wheat was then a foreign substance in India) and partly because contact between Western technical experts and peasant farmers might shake up feudal cultures to the discomfort of the elite classes. Meanwhile, some commentators were suggesting that it would be wrong to increase the food supply in the developing world: better to let nature do the dirty work of restraining the human population.

Yet statistics suggest that high-yield agriculture brakes population growth rather than accelerating it, by starting the progression from the high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies of feudal cultures toward the low-birth-rate, low-death-rate societies of Western nations. As the former Indian diplomat Karan Singh is reported to have said, "Development is the best contraceptive." In subsistence agriculture children are viewed as manual labor, and thus large numbers are desired. In technical agriculture knowledge becomes more important, and parents thus have fewer children in order to devote resources to their education.

In 1963 the Rockefeller Foundation and the government of Mexico established CIMMYT, as an outgrowth of their original program, and sent Borlaug to Pakistan and India, which were then descending into famine. He failed in his initial efforts to persuade the parastatal seed and grain monopolies that those countries had established after independence to switch to high-yield crop strains.

Despite the institutional resistance Borlaug stayed in Pakistan and India, tirelessly repeating himself. By 1965 famine on the subcontinent was so bad that governments made a commitment to dwarf wheat. Borlaug arranged for a convoy of thirty-five trucks to carry high-yield seeds from CIMMYT to a Los Angeles dock for shipment. The convoy was held up by the Mexican police, blocked by U.S. border agents attempting to enforce a ban on seed importation, and then stopped by the National Guard when the Watts riot prevented access to the L.A. harbor. Finally the seed ship sailed. Borlaug says, "I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved, and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan."

Nevertheless, Borlaug and many local scientists who were his former trainees in Mexico planted the first crop of dwarf wheat on the subcontinent, sometimes working within sight of artillery flashes. Sowed late, that crop germinated poorly, yet yields still rose 70 percent. This prevented general wartime starvation in the region, though famine did strike parts of India. There were also riots in the state of Kerala in 1966, when a population whose ancestors had for centuries eaten rice was presented with sacks of wheat flour originating in Borlaug's fields.

Owing to wartime emergency, Borlaug was given the go-ahead to circumvent the parastatals. "Within a few hours of that decision I had all the seed contracts signed and a much larger planting effort in place," he says. "If it hadn't been for the war, I might never have been given true freedom to test these ideas." The next harvest "was beautiful, a 98 percent improvement." By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production. India required only a few years longer. Paul Ehrlich had written in The Population Bomb (1968) that it was "a fantasy" that India would "ever" feed itself. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Pakistan progressed from harvesting 3.4 million tons of wheat annually when Borlaug arrived to around 18 million today, India from 11 million tons to 60 million. In both nations food production since the 1960s has increased faster than the rate of population growth. Briefly in the mid-1980s India even entered the world export market for grains.

Borlaug's majestic accomplishment came to be labeled the Green Revolution. Whether it was really a revolution is open to debate. As Robert Kates, a former director of the World Hunger Program, at Brown University, says, "If you plot growth in farm yields over the century, the 1960s period does not particularly stand out for overall global trends. What does stand out is the movement of yield increases from the West to the developing world, and Borlaug was one of the crucial innovators there." Touring the subcontinent in the late 1960s and encountering field after field of robust wheat, Forrest Frank Hill, a former vice-president of the Ford Foundation, told Borlaug, "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."


FOR some time this augury seemed mistaken, as Borlaug's view of agriculture remained ascendant. In 1950 the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people; by 1992 production was 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people—2.8 times the grain for 2.2 times the population. Global grain yields rose from 0.45 tons per acre to 1.1 tons; yields of corn, rice, and other foodstuffs improved similarly. From 1965 to 1990 the globe's daily per capita intake grew from 2,063 calories to 2,495, with an increased proportion as protein. Malnutrition continued as a problem of global scale but decreased in percentage terms, even as more than two billion people were added to the population.

The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres -- a 170 percent increase from one percent more land. "Without high-yield agriculture," Borlaug says, "either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation—losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion."

The trend toward harvesting more from fewer acres, often spun in the media as a shocking crisis of "vanishing farms," is perhaps the most environmentally favorable development of the modern age. Paul Waggoner, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says, "From long before Malthus until about forty-five years ago each person took more land from nature than his parents did. For the past forty-five years people have been taking less land from nature than their parents."

In developing nations where population growth is surging, high-yield agriculture holds back the rampant deforestation of wild areas. Waggoner calculates that India's transition to high-yield farming spared the country from having to plough an additional 100 million acres of virgin land—an area about equivalent to California. In the past five years India has been able to slow and perhaps even halt its national deforestation, a hopeful sign. This would have been impossible were India still feeding itself with traditionally cultivated indigenous crops.


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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His most recent book is A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1995). He was named a Fulbright Fiftieth Anniversary Distinguished Fellow this year. Easterbrook lives in Brussels.

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