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Goodbye Norman

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Thu Sep 17, 2009 1:39 am

Norman E. Borlaug was, on many accounts, a great man. Intelligent, innovative, studious and, perhaps most importantly, driven by a noble desire: a desire to reduce human suffering caused by hunger.

When Dr. Borlaug entered his professional life in 1941 physical scarcity was the driving factor of human hunger in the world. Citizens of India, Pakistan, China and many other nations faced the real and abiding risk of famine and starvation with every harvest. Even this is an understatement since many of these citizens, even in the years of a good harvest, remained dependent upon humanitarian imports of foreign grain. Utilizing the then newly developed herbicides and pesticides Dr. Borlaug helped breed improved strains of wheat that turned these perennially hungry nations into reliable food exporters.

In the face of criticism from environmentalists Dr. Borlaug was true to his original impetus while also acknowledging the fundamental problems that could not be addressed through the selective breeding of wheat: population growth. In his address accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Dr. Borlaug seemed to note that his accomplishments had only purchased us some time to deal with that more difficult problem when he said, “since man is potentially a rational being . . . he will recognize the self-destructive course he steers along the road of irresponsible population growth and will adjust the growth rate to levels which will permit a decent standard of living for all mankind.”

The problem, one I think he would recognize, is that we have not used the intervening 60 years to prove ourselves collectively rationale. Dr. Borlaug was a pragmatist, seeming to admit that it would be better if agriculture could feed the world without the inputs of artificial fertilizer and pesticides but he would remind his critics that we do not live in a world with 2 billion people, as in the 1930’s, but we currently live in a world approaching 7 billion human beings. Instead of accepting the Green Revolution as a temporary dispensation, we have treated its accomplishments as infinitely repeatable and have divorced the means from the ends. We are truly out of touch, attacking the means which alleviated a symptom of the problem (human suffering) while doing nothing to address the underlying diagnosis. Population growth, we have come to assume, is a vanquished enemy when in fact it has only been in remission.

The truth remains that the gains made in the 1940’s through the 1960’s have not been repeatable and they depend upon the use of often dangerous chemicals as well as vast amount of irrigation which depletes aquifers. India represents the most stark and immediate example of the impact of the unsustainable thirst for water of the Green Revolution but it is far from unique. Some portions of the American Midwest that are dependent upon the Ogallala Aquifer will soon be faced with the impacts of aquifer depletion, much as China has discovered having become a net food importer due restrictions on water use.

To say that current food production methods and population growth is not to say that “somebody should do something about it someday.” When a system upon which we lean upon to feed us is unsustainable it means that we either need to change the way we eat or we will experience the destruction of the way we eat. Further gains could be made in increasing the efficient use of the grains we do produce, but whatever gains remain to be made will pale in comparison to the gains of the past. Like the gains of the past, these too will only buy us so much time unless we also tackle the underlying problem of population growth.


While world population growth is predicted to level off by 2050 at a little over 10 billion, it is difficult to ascertain exactly where the food to feed that 10 billion (a 50% increase over today’s population) is going to come from when just last year world governments only nearly averted a panic which threatened to destroy the global rice trade.

Dr. Borlaug’s lifelong drive was to reduce the suffering of real people faced with the threat of starvation. When he began there were approximately 2.3 billion people on the earth. India’s population was about 1/3 of what it is today, Mexico’s was 1/5 and China’s less than half. The FAO estimates that up to 2 billion people are “food insecure,” meaning they experience some risk of hunger or famine. This is only slightly less than the population of the globe when Borlaug’s work began; and these are the best of times.

If we do not stand up immediately and confront the problem of population growth, we stand at the real precipice of a world where the human suffering alleviated by the Green Revolution shall turn out to have been purchased at an even greater cost of human suffering in terms of the total number of human persons touched by famine. Dr. Borlaug did the job of a plant scientist, he, with others, bought the world five or six decades. It remains to be seen what we will be the lasting legacy of that achievement. It remains to be seen if we will prove ourselves collectively rationale.
Last edited by wisconsin_cur on Thu Sep 17, 2009 3:26 am, edited 2 times in total.

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