Ug99 will be fought, at least initially, with the plant-breeding techniques Borlaug so artfully employed. However, he believes Africa’s best hopes rest with biotechnology, even though regulatory problems prevent its immediate use against Ug99. Also needed, he believes, are publicity, political will, funding, and renewed coöperation among international agricultural researchers. The work he is inspiring is nothing less than a new African Green Revolution.
The reasons for failure in Africa are complex. “Irrigation is first,” explains Michael Lipton of the University of Sussex’s Poverty Research Unit. “In sub-Saharan Africa, 4 percent of cropland is irrigated. In South and East Asia it’s nearer 40 percent.”
Then there’s soil. “Africa’s soils … [are] equivalent–and were once adjacent–to the Cerrado’s acid soils,” Borlaug says. The Cerrado, an area that extends across central Brazil, historically had some of the least productive soil in the world. But improved crop varieties of the sort that Borlaug created–along with liming, fertilizer, and low- or no-till methods–have led to the single largest increase in arable-land usage in the last 50 years.
Politics, both regional and global, were and are another hindrance. “If the Green Revolution in India was proposed to the World Bank today, it would be turned down,” says Rob Paarlberg, an agricultural-policy expert at Wellesley College. By the 1980s, he says, “public investment in roads, research, irrigation, fertilizers, and seeds was politically unacceptable to the Washington consensus on the right–and on the left, among environmentalists opposed to chemical fertilizers, road building, and irrigation projects.” Thus, real per capita levels of official development assistance for the agricultural sector in the poorest countries fell by nearly 50 percent between 1982 and 1995.
Finally, Borlaug says, “Africa needs roads. Roads bring know-how and fertilizer to farmers and ideas and business for commerce.” Africa, Borlaug argues, also needs concerted international help. Meanwhile, Ug99 has reached Yemen: from there, Borlaug warns, “it can reach Iraq, Iran, India, and Pakistan”–even the breadbaskets of Europe and America. A scramble is on to find resistant varieties, ensure that their yields will encourage farmers to adopt them, and produce sufficient tonnages of seed.
Last year, ABC, CBS, and NBC cameras were absent when Borlaug was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. And alas, Borlaug’s friend and biographer Leon Hesser has now produced a prosaic work that, while good on his hero’s early years, fades as Borlaug appears on the international stage. Borlaug deserves better, but when journalist Gregg Easterbrook sought a publisher for a popular biography, “they said he was boring,” the self-described “environmental optimist” says. “If he’d killed someone instead of saving hundreds of millions of lives, then they’d have been interested.”