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
10 Billion Mouths

His opponents may not know it, but Borlaug has long warned of the dangers of population growth. "In my Nobel lecture," Borlaug says, "I suggested we had until the year 2000 to tame the population monster, and then food shortages would take us under. Now I believe we have a little longer. The Green Revolution can make Africa productive. The breakup of the former Soviet Union has caused its grain output to plummet, but if the new republics recover economically, they could produce vast amounts of food. More fertilizer can make the favored lands of Latin America—especially Argentina and Brazil—more productive. The cerrado region of Brazil, a very large area long assumed to be infertile because of toxic soluble aluminum in the soil, may become a breadbasket, because aluminum-resistant crop strains are being developed." This last is an example of agricultural advances and environmental protection going hand in hand: in the past decade the deforestation rate in the Amazon rain forest has declined somewhat, partly because the cerrado now looks more attractive.

Borlaug continues, "But Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."

But "very strong" progress on yields seems problematic. John Bongaarts calculates that agricultural yields outside Western countries must double in the coming century merely to maintain current—and inadequate—nutrition levels. The United Nations projects that human numbers will reach about 9.8 billion, from about 5.8 billion today, around the year 2050. To bring the entire world's diet in that year to a level comparable to that of the West, Bongaarts calculates, would require a 430 percent increase in food production.

Lester Brown, the head of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental organization, fears that China may soon turn from an agricultural success story into a nation of shortages. Because much of it is mountainous, China already uses most of its attractive tillage area, leaving scant room for expansion. Its remarkable improvements in wheat and rice yields have come in part, Brown thinks, at the expense of depleting the national water table: irrigation water may soon become scarce. As newly affluent Chinese consumers demand more chicken and beef, feeding increased amounts of grain to animals may cause grain scarcity. If, as some experts project, the Chinese population rises from 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion, yield increases will not bridge the difference, Brown fears.

Privatization and dwarf rice have enabled China to raise rice yields rapidly to about 1.6 tons per acre—close to the world's best figure of two tons. But recently rice-yield increases have flattened. The International Rice Research Institute is working on a new strain that may boost yields dramatically, but whether it will prosper in the field is unknown. Ismail Serageldin, the chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, in Washington, D.C., believes that the "biological maximum" for rice yield is about seven tons per acre—four times today's average in developing countries, but perhaps a line that cannot be crossed.

An important unknown is whether genetic engineering will improve agricultural yields. Corn is among the highest-yielding plants. "If the high natural multiples of maize could be transferred by gene engineering to wheat or rice, there could be a tremendous world yield improvement," Paul Waggoner, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says. So far genetic engineering has not produced any higher-yielding strains, though it does show promise for reducing pesticide application. Some researchers also think that biotechnology will be able to pack more protein and minerals into cereal grains. Others, Borlaug among them, are skeptical about whether yield itself can be engineered. So far gene recombination can move only single genes or small contiguous gene units. Borlaug says, "Unless there is one master gene for yield, which I'm guessing there is not, engineering for yield will be very complex. It may happen eventually, but through the coming decades we must assume that gene engineering will not be the answer to the world's food problems."

Today Borlaug divides his time among CIMMYT, where he teaches young scientists seeking still-more-productive crop strains for the developing world; Texas A&M, where he teaches international agriculture every fall semester; and the Sasakawa-Global 2000 projects that continue to operate in twelve African nations.

Borlaug's Africa project is a private-sector effort run by an obscure Nobel Peace Prize winner and a former American President whose altruistic impulses are made sport of in the American press. Its goal is something the West seems almost to have given up on—the rescue of Africa from human suffering. Recently Western governments have been easing out of African aid, pleading "donor fatigue," the difficulty of overcoming corruption, and fear of criticism from the environmental lobby. Private organizations, including Borlaug's, Catholic Relief Services, and Oxfam, carry on what's left of the fight.

If overpopulation anarchy comes, it is likely to arrive first in Africa. Borlaug understands this, and is using his remaining years to work against that cataclysm. The odds against him seem long. But then, Norman Borlaug has already saved more lives than any other person who ever lived.

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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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