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Paradoxically, 1968 also saw the genesis of an environmentalist dogma that was pessimistic about humanity’s capacity to feed itself. In that year–when the global population growth rate peaked, at 2 percent per year–Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, intoning, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. … Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs.” The madding crowd of “stinking hot” Delhi was odious to Ehrlich: “My wife and daughter and I … entered a crowded slum area. … People, people, people, people. … [We] were, frankly, frightened.” It was a “fantasy,” he said, that India would ever feed itself. Yet Borlaug’s program delivered such stunning results that India issued a 1968 stamp commemorating the “wheat revolution,” and by 1974 it was self-sufficient in all cereals.

Nonetheless, a neo-Malthusian fear of overpopulation became endemic to environmentalist thinking. Science philosopher and Arts and Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton says, “Well-fed Greens flaunt their concern for the planet but are indifferent, even hostile, to the world’s poor with whom they share it. Some Greens I knew acted for all the world as though they relished the idea of a coming worldwide famine, much as fundamentalists ghoulishly looked forward to Armageddon.” Dutton, who served in the Peace Corps, personally saw the Green Revolution benefit India. “For the catastrophist, India becoming a food exporter was disturbing,” he says. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. They blame Borlaug for spoiling the fun.”

Not all Borlaug’s critics were catastrophists: some opposed the intensity of his agriculture, especially its use of inorganic fertilizer. Borlaug acknowledges the need for care, but he says the “natural” alternative, cow manure, “would require us to increase the world’s cattle population from around 1.5 billion to some 10 billion.” As he dryly observed in a 2003 TV interview, “Producing food for 6.2 billion people … is not simple.” He added, “[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion–I don’t see two billion volunteers to disappear.”

Raised on a farm, Borlaug thinks many of his detractors would benefit from a week or two in the fields. He cites Ghanaian farmers who use no-till agriculture (that is, plant waste is left to improve the humus and reduce erosion) and control weeds with herbicides. Their lives are improved by the reduction in weeding. “Less backache, you see,” he once said. “You know, it’s amazing how often campaigners in rich countries think poor people don’t get backache.”

A New Scourge
Many thought the work that earned ­Borlaug his Nobel brought an end to stem rust, but it is back, in the form of a variant called Ug99, which emerged in Uganda and spread to Kenya and Ethiopia. “If it continues unchecked,” says Borlaug, “the consequences will be ruinous.”

Africa, in fact, presents an especially worry­ing challenge, for the simple reason that it did not benefit much from the Green Revolution. Borlaug’s Nobel largely honored gains in Asia: there, calorie availability per person rose, wheat and rice prices fell, and increased incomes stimulated industrial output. Similar benefits were enjoyed almost everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 200 million people–a third of the population–still go hungry. In the last four decades, Africa’s average per capita food production has actually decreased.

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Credit: Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Tagged: Biomedicine

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