Four decades ago, Norman E. Borlaug developed a wheat variety that fed the world. Now he’s battling a pathogen whose spread could cause starvation.
In 1798, the English economist Thomas Malthus argued that population increases geometrically, outstripping the arithmetic growth of the food supply. He promised “famine … the last, the most dreadful resource of nature.” It took another 125 years for world population to double, but only 50 more for it to redouble. By the 1940s, Mexico, China, India, Russia, and Europe were hungry. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s farsighted vice president-elect, former secretary of agriculture Henry A. Wallace, believed the solution lay with technology. He was right: the Malthusian tragedy never happened, chiefly because Norman E. Borlaug transformed the breeding of wheat, which feeds more people than any other crop.
From 1939 to 1942, Mexico’s harvest was halved by stem rust, a fungus whose airborne spores infect stems and leaves, shriveling grains. Anxieties about wartime food shortages led the American philanthropic organization the Rockefeller Foundation to create the country’s first foreign agricultural program: the Coöperative Wheat Research and Production Program, which was based in Mexico and which Borlaug joined, as its plant pathologist, in 1944. The program was prescient: rust hit the North American breadbasket in 1954, wiping out 75 percent of the durum wheat crop used for pasta.
“There was panic in the U.S. and Canadian departments of agriculture,” Borlaug tells me. “We had to accelerate the program to develop rust-resistant wheat varieties.” Borlaug struggled with a lack of machinery, equipment, and trained scientists. Yet by 1948, he tells Leon Hesser in The Man Who Fed the World, a recent biography, “research results, the bits and pieces of the wheat production puzzle, began to emerge, and the fog of gloom and despair began to lift.”
Before Borlaug, plant breeders sought new traits in plants by creating perhaps a few dozen “crosses” of varieties each year. For Borlaug, this would have meant “at least 10 years developing resistant varieties,” he recalls, “and there would be another epidemic in that time. I wanted to speed things up.” Collecting wheat varieties from around the world, he began a massive cross-breeding program. Such work is “mind-warpingly tedious,” he tells Hesser. “There’s only one chance in thousands of ever finding what you want, and actually no guarantee of success at all.”
The Man Who Fed The World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger
Written by Leon Hesser
Durban House, 2006
To improve those odds, Borlaug tried something unusual: doing two successive plantings of his experimental crosses each year, effectively doubling his rate of research. He was almost stymied by what he calls “the dogma of plant breeding everywhere at the time: plant in the same season and place as local farmers.” But soon he was planting in summer in low-quality, rain-fed soils at high altitude near Mexico City, and then taking any promising varieties hundreds of miles north to sow a winter crop in the warmer, drier, lower-lying Yaqui Valley. This “shuttle breeding” helped Borlaug achieve rust resistance in under five years. It also produced exceptionally adaptable varieties, suited for use across climates.
Having achieved rust resistance and plant adaptability, Borlaug now addressed the problem of structure. When Mexican wheat was heavily fertilized, it grew too tall, collapsing when irrigated or rained on–thus limiting yields. After 20,000 fruitless crosses, Borlaug heard about a Japanese dwarf variety that might confer its strength and stockiness. He started thousands more crosses, until “by 1964, we got the really beautiful short wheat varieties.” The yields were spectacular, and the variety was quickly adopted around world. In 1968, his approach, which stimulated advances in other staple foods, was dubbed the “Green Revolution” by William Gaud, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Two years later, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize.
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.
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.”
Couldn't make it to EmTech Next to meet experts in AI, Robotics and the Economy?Go behind the scenes and check out our video