Remembering Norman Borlaug

October 2nd, 2009 · No Comments

The recent death of Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning plant geneticist credited with starting the “Green Revolution,” led to the reiteration of many of the tributes he amassed during his lifetime: that he saved the lives of millions of people, laid Malthus’ ghost to rest, and invented the production model which would enable us to continue “feeding the world.”

While some of these accolades may be well deserved, they overlook an important part of Borlaug’s own assessment of the world’s agricultural dilemma and the potential contribution his insights might make to our food and agriculture future.

Borlaug’s work certainly contributed to the evolution of the Green Revolution but he did not start it. The industrial model of agriculture which dominates much of our landscape today has roots which go back at least to the mid-1800s. Agricultural luminaries such as Justus von Liebig proclaimed that we could replace the “laborious” practice of manuring soils with synthetic inputs which could simplify farming and increase our agricultural productivity.  A further, even more significant contribution to the Green Revolution was the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in 1909, which made it possible for us to turn atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia fertilizer.  Even more important, of course, was the appearance of the first producing oil well in western Pennsylvania in 1859, which began the era of cheap energy so essential to the evolution of industrial agriculture.

Borlaug’s major contribution to the Green Revolution was recognizing that one could not solve problems with single-tactic solutions like inserting NPK into the soil.  He recognized early on that this new form of agriculture also required a new kind of plant genetics and proceeded to develop the dwarf varieties which were compatible with these new production technologies.  It was the combination of the new fertilizer technologies, the discovery of petroleum, the availability of large reserves of fresh water for irrigation, and Borlaug’s compatible plant genetics which launched the Green Revolution in 1959, enabling us to double – and in some places triple – the yields of major crops within 30 years.

Borlaug also recognized that this new way of producing more food would not wholly solve the problem of “feeding the world” for the long term.   As John Pesek, the Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences and emeritus professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, pointed out in an e-mail message recently, “All Dr. Borlaug actually claimed from the beginning, immediately after winning the Nobel Prize, was that he had gained a generation of time for the human species to get control of ‘the population monster.’ Even then he recognized the problem as being uncontrolled population growth and that his technological fix was good for only 20 to 25 years, given what we knew at the time. That phrase, ‘population monster,’ exemplifies his understanding of his world, and is as true today as it was then.”

One might add to this observation that it is not only the “population monster,” but our consumption monster that we now have to get under control. As Jared Diamond pointed out, if everyone in the world consumed at the rate we do in the United States, it would be the equivalent of having “72 billion people” on the planet!

I suspect that it is these more complex, larger picture issues that Borlaug understood and brought to our attention which are the more important gifts he gave to our future and yet are rarely included among the accomplishments attributed to him.

There are at least two very important reasons why we disregard these aspects of his thinking at our peril.  First, ignoring the more complex, systems dimensions of his thinking can easily lead us to the simplistic conclusion that we have essentially solved the main food and agriculture problems and that all we need to do in the future is more of the same.  Second, we can easily be led to the conclusion that single-tactic technological fixes will always solve all of our problems so we need not worry about feeding 7 billion people next year and 9 or more billion in the future, even in the face of climate destabilization.  Such simplistic assumptions could well result in disastrous global famine in the future.
What we desperately need to do now is to recognize Borlaug’s underlying contributions: that single-tactic solutions to complex problems never work, and that in the long term the food/population problem cannot be solved simply by producing more food.

There are other issues that we now know must be part of our effort to meet the challenges facing our food and agriculture future. Borlaug perhaps could not have anticipated these issues, but they are consistent with his more complex, systems thinking.   We now know that the intensive, specialized monocultures created to increase productivity had many unintended consequences beyond high yields.  A few luminaries like Sir Albert Howard, Rudolph Steiner, Lady Eve Balfour, Hans Jenny, and others anticipated that the new “NPK mentality” (as Howard called it) would deplete the biological health of our soils and therefore place future generations in a precarious position. Howard, in fact, referred to this new mentality as “a form of banditry.” Rattan Lal and many other soil scientists now recognize that restoring the biological health of our soils is one of the most important tasks we need to attend to if we are to have a secure food future.

We also now understand that – as the era of cheap energy comes to an end, our fresh water resources are being depleted, and global climate destabilization produces more droughts, floods, and severe weather events – the energy-intensive, specialized agriculture of the Green Revolution will no longer serve us well. Our challenge is to design a new agriculture which will feature much more biological and genetic diversity. This will especially require that we take Borlaug’s insight – that new agriculture systems require compatible plant and animal genetics – seriously.  In his new book, Where Our Food Comes From, ethno-botanist Gary Nahban makes a compelling case for diversifying our plant and animal varieties as we prepare for our new food and agriculture future.

So one would hope that we will take these more significant, but less celebrated, contributions of Borlaug’s into consideration as we plan our research agendas for the decades ahead.

Tags: 2009 · AP Issues · Cover Stories · Frederick Kirschenmann · October 2009

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