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
Backlash

Nonetheless, by the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. "The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa," says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.

Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too—though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. "World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa," Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, "a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn't stand were sticking to me."

Borlaug's reaction to the campaign was anger. He says, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

In 1984, at the age of seventy-one, Borlaug was drawn out of retirement by Ryoichi Sasakawa, who with Jimmy Carter was working to get African agriculture moving. Carter was campaigning in favor of fertilizer aid to Africa, as he still does today. The former President had fallen in with Sasakawa, who during the Second World War had founded the National Essence Mass Party, a Japanese fascist group, but who in later life developed a conscience. Today the Sasakawa Peace Foundation is a leading supporter of disarmament initiatives; Carter and Sasakawa often made joint appearances for worthy causes.

Sasakawa called Borlaug, who related his inability to obtain World Bank or foundation help for high-yield-agriculture initiatives in Africa. Sasakawa was dumbfounded that a Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn't get backing for a philanthropic endeavor. He offered to fund Borlaug in Africa for five years. Borlaug said, "I'm seventy-one. I'm too old to start again." Sasakawa replied, "I'm fifteen years older than you, so I guess we should have started yesterday." Borlaug, Carter, and Sasakawa traveled to Africa to pick sites, and the foundation Sasakawa-Global 2000 was born. "I assumed we'd do a few years of research first," Borlaug says, "but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing.'" Soon Borlaug was running projects in Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. Yields of corn quickly tripled; yields of wheat, cassava, sorghum, and cow peas also grew.

Borlaug made progress even in Sudan, near the dry Sahel, though that project ended with the onset of Sudan's civil war, in 1992. Only Sasakawa's foundation came forward with more funds, but although well endowed, it is no World Bank. Environmentalists continued to say that chemical fertilizers would cause an ecological calamity in Africa.

Opponents of high-yield agriculture "took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious," David Seckler says. "Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous." Borlaug found that some foundation managers and World Bank officials had become hopelessly confused regarding the distinction between pesticides and fertilizer. He says, "The opponents of high-yield for Africa were speaking of the two as if they were the same because they're both made from chemicals, when the scales of toxicity are vastly different. Fertilizer only replaces substances naturally present in the soils anyway."

In Africa and throughout the developing world Borlaug and most other agronomists now teach forms of "integrated pest management," which reduces pesticide use because chemicals are sprayed at the most vulnerable point in an insect's life cycle. Borlaug says, "All serious agronomists know that pesticides must be kept to a minimum, and besides, pesticides are expensive. But somehow the media believe the overspraying is still going on, and this creates a bias against high-yield agriculture." Indonesia has for nearly a decade improved rice yields while reducing pesticide use by employing integrated pest management. The use of pesticides has been in decline relative to farm production for more than a decade in the United States, where the use of fertilizer, too, has started declining relative to production.

Such developments have begun to sway some of Borlaug's opposition. The Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of environmental and development-oriented groups, has become somewhat open to fertilizer use in Africa. "The environmental movement went through a phase of revulsion against any chemical use in agriculture," says Robert Blake, the committee's chairman. "People are coming to realize that is just not realistic. Norman has been right about this all along." One reason the ground is shifting back in his direction, Borlaug believes, is that the green parties of Europe have been frightened by the sudden wave of migrants entering their traditionally low-immigration nations, and now think that improving conditions in Africa isn't such a bad idea after all.

Supposing that opposition to high-yield agriculture for Africa declines, the question becomes What can be accomplished there? Pierre Crosson, an agricultural analyst for the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, calculates that sub-Saharan Africa needs to increase farm yields by 3.3 percent annually for the next thirty years merely to keep pace with the population growth that is projected. This means that Africa must do what the American Midwest did.

"Africa has the lowest farm yields in the world and also a large amount of undeveloped land, so in theory a huge increase in food production could happen," says John Bongaarts, the research director of the Population Council, a nonprofit international research organization. "If southern Sudan was parked in the Midwest, they'd be growing stuff like crazy there now." Practical problems, however, make Bongaarts think that rapid African yield increases are "extremely unlikely in the near future." The obvious obstacles are desperate poverty and lack of social cohesion. When Borlaug transformed the agriculture of Pakistan and India, those nations had many problems but also reasonably well organized economies, good road and rail systems, irrigation projects under way, and an established entrepreneurial ethos. Much of Africa lacks these.

Additionally, African countries often lack a social focus on increasing agricultural output. Young men, especially, consider the farm a backwater from which they long to escape to the city. African governments and technical ministries tend to look down on food production as an old-fashioned economic sector, longing instead for high-tech facilities that suggest Western prestige and power. Yet a basic reason that the United States and the European Union nations are so strong is that they have achieved almost total mastery over agriculture, producing ample food at ever-lower prices.

An encouraging example of an African government taking a progressive view of agriculture comes from Ethiopia, where, since the end of its civil war, Borlaug has run his most successful African project. Visiting Ethiopia in 1994, Jimmy Carter took Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on a tour of places where Borlaug's ideas could be tested, and won Zenawi's support for an extension-service campaign to aid farmers. During the 1995-1996 season Ethiopia recorded the greatest harvests of major crops in its history, with a 32 percent increase in production and a 15 percent increase in average yield over the previous season. Use of the fertilizer diammonium phosphate was the key reform. The rapid yield growth suggests that other sub-Saharan countries may also have hope for increased food production.

Whether Africa can increase its food production may soon become one of the questions of international affairs. It may be one at which, in a decade or two, Western governments will frantically throw money after a crisis hits, whereas more-moderate investments begun now might avert the day of reckoning. And one of the questions of the next century may be whether the world can feed itself at all.

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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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