Food for Thought

A dear friend from my college days at Texas A&M University majored in agronomy. When people asked what that meant she would reply, “Soils.” Only in Lez’s East Texas accent it came out, “Souls.”

I was reminded of that after reading about Norman Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives. That is not a typo. He saved a thousand million human beings.

How is that possible?

Dr. Borlaug was a part-time professor of agronomy at Texas A&M. His full-time gig was bringing high-yield agriculture to Mexico, Pakistan, India, and Africa. His research and lobbying efforts doubled and even tripled the grain production of farmland in these countries.

Norman Borlaug, courtesy The Atlantic

Norman Borlaug, The Atlantic

As a culture we are very focused on the morality of food production. I’ve read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve tried to shift to buying organic and locally grown groceries, and I’ve even planted my own vegetable garden. What I hadn’t done was given much thought to what the shift to organics might do to global agriculture.  Reading about Dr. Borlaug has opened my eyes to the environmental and, more importantly, the human impact of such a shift.

From an interview he gave nine years ago:

Even if you could use all the organic material that you have–the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues–and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people… [note: current world population is closing in on 7 billion people]

In 1960, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops–virtually all of the important crops grown in the U.S. at that time and still grown today–was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960. If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares, about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality–which we didn’t have, and so it would have been much more. We would have moved into marginal grazing areas and plowed up things that wouldn’t be productive in the long run. We would have had to move into rolling mountainous country and chop down our forests. President Clinton would not have had the nice job of setting aside millions of acres of land for restricted use, where you can’t cut a tree even for paper and pulp or for lumber. So all of this ties together.

For perspective, 460 million acres is more than twice the size of Texas. Something would have had to have given: the land or the people.

From a January 1997 article by Gregg Easterbrook from The Atlantic:

To Borlaug, the argument for high-yield cereal crops, inorganic fertilizers, and irrigation became irrefutable when the global population began to take off after the Second World War. But many governments of developing nations were suspicious, partly for reasons of tradition (wheat was then a foreign substance in India) and partly because contact between Western technical experts and peasant farmers might shake up feudal cultures to the discomfort of the elite classes. Meanwhile, some commentators were suggesting that it would be wrong to increase the food supply in the developing world: better to let nature do the dirty work of restraining the human population.

Do I spy eugenicists in natural selection’s clothing? Continuing:

Yet statistics suggest that high-yield agriculture brakes population growth rather than accelerating it, by starting the progression from the high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies of feudal cultures toward the low-birth-rate, low-death-rate societies of Western nations. As the former Indian diplomat Karan Singh is reported to have said, “Development is the best contraceptive.” In subsistence agriculture children are viewed as manual labor, and thus large numbers are desired. In technical agriculture knowledge becomes more important, and parents thus have fewer children in order to devote resources to their education.

Anecdotally, I can vouch for this claim in my own family. My great-grandparents were sharecroppers who produced eight children to support their farm. Their second daughter became a schoolteacher and had three children. Her oldest son worked in retail management and had only two children, of whom I’m the oldest. The non-farming generations didn’t need to produce extra workers.

This excerpt summarizes the effort for which Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize:

Despite the institutional resistance Borlaug stayed in Pakistan and India… By 1965 famine on the subcontinent was so bad that governments made a commitment to dwarf wheat [the crop Borlaug developed]. Borlaug arranged for a convoy of thirty-five trucks to carry high-yield seeds … to a Los Angeles dock for shipment. The convoy was held up by the Mexican police, blocked by U.S. border agents attempting to enforce a ban on seed importation, and then stopped by the National Guard when the Watts riot prevented access to the L.A. harbor. Finally the seed ship sailed. Borlaug says, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved, and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.”

Nevertheless, Borlaug and many local scientists who were his former trainees in Mexico planted the first crop of dwarf wheat on the subcontinent, sometimes working within sight of artillery flashes. Sowed late, that crop germinated poorly, yet yields still rose 70 percent. This prevented general wartime starvation in the region, though famine did strike parts of India. There were also riots in the state of Kerala in 1966, when a population whose ancestors had for centuries eaten rice was presented with sacks of wheat flour originating in Borlaug’s fields.

Owing to wartime emergency, Borlaug was given the go-ahead to circumvent the [local rulers]. “Within a few hours of that decision I had all the seed contracts signed and a much larger planting effort in place,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I might never have been given true freedom to test these ideas.” The next harvest “was beautiful, a 98 percent improvement.” By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production. India required only a few years longer. Paul Ehrlich had written in The Population Bomb (1968) that it was “a fantasy” that India would “ever” feed itself. By 1974 India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.

This is an incredible, indescribable achievement – the more so when you realize how much opposition Borlaug faced in his efforts. That opposition still exists today with regard to improving African agriculture.

As an aside, I’d like to give a little shout-out to The Big M’s farming peeps in Iowa. Keep up the good work!

Dr. Borlaug died yesterday at the age of 95. In honor of his life’s work, I ask you please to read this article from The Atlantic and, if you have time, this interview he did for the website Reason.


Categories: Brain Workouts

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