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Norman Borlaug's Complicated Legacy

Norman Borlaug never liked being called the father of the green revolution.  It was “a miserable term,” he felt, for the modernization of global agriculture, and he knew no one scientist could claim all the credit. His obituaries this week repeated it anyway, along with another accomplishment he never disputed, that his work had saved “hundreds of millions of lives.”

It is a low estimate.  Writers for The Atlantic and Reason magazines claim “billions” owe their lives to Borlaug.  They cite no data or source.  Rather, the claim is based on forecasts made in the 1960s that without a major jump in food output the world would be ravaged by famines.  It began in 1966 with René Dumont’s Nous Allons á la Famine followed by William Paddock’s Famine 1975!  “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb announced.  “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

Instead, in the spring of 1968, India and Pakistan reaped the largest wheat harvests on record.  After two drought years, the sudden abundance caught officials off guard.  They commandeered school buildings and theaters to hold the overflow, but it was not enough.  Thousands of bushels, piled on roads and railway sidings, rotted for lack of storage.  Nonetheless, the governments of Indira Gandhi and Ayub Kahn—along with the Rockefeller Foundation—claimed credit, attributing the turnaround to rural revitalization programs emphasizing fertilizer, irrigation, and new dwarf strains of wheat developed by Borlaug.

Trusting both the forecasts and the press releases, the Norwegian parliament awarded Borlaug the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for lifting the “menace of doomsday hanging over us.”  There were other explanations for what had happened on the Punjabi plains.  Central Intelligence Agency analysts were deeply skeptical of “the so-called green revolution.”  Noting that too few acres were planted in the new wheats to account for the statistical gains, and that China, without dwarf varieties, had also seen a major turnaround, they chalked up the bumper crop to a pronounced shift in the weather, a phenomenon later known as the El Nino cycle.

Others wondered if only the statistics had changed .  Despite India’s declaration of self-suffiency, the Bombay tabloid Blitz found that 80 percent of pupils in the city’s schools still showed signs of chronic malnutrition.  The ratios of population to food supply brandished by Malthusians and green revolutionaries alike had little bearing on the jobs or incomes of the millions struggling to buy enough to eat.

Leading economists also questioned the theory that a Malthusian barrier had been broken.  Simon Kuznets pointed out that food output had outpaced population growth throughout human history, defying the predictions of Ehrlich and his gloomy forebears. The slight downward trend in Asian food production in the early 1960s could be easily explained; the United States was dumping tons of surplus grain on Asian markets through the Food for Peace Program, depressing food prices and forcing farmers to grow cotton instead.  When US shipments declined in 1967, they returned to wheat.   Borlaug’s own estimate of the increase, 11 million tons, matched exactly the amount sent from Kansas in 1966.

Another Nobelist, Amartya Sen, convincingly refuted the claim that either food supply or population had anything to do with famine.  Famines regularly occurred at times and places where food was plentiful, and in the most thinly populated places, like Darfur.  But while Borlaug had little respect for the doomsayers, their prophecies were the best justification for a second green revolution for Africa, which Borlaug campaigned for alone before gaining the support of the Rockefeller and Gates foundations and the Obama administration.  Africa produces enough to feed itself and Europe; no French market would be complete without citrus from Ghana, cut flowers from Kenya, or lobster from Mozambique.  But because it is poor, it also receives millions in U.S. food aid, generosity which discourages local farmers from growing cheap grain for local consumption, just as it did in Asia in the 1960s.  A new scientific push is needed, the foundations claim, to save “tens of millions of people who are living on the brink of starvation in sub-Saharan Africa.”

So, inevitably, Borlaug’s life achievements are summed up this week in the context of the mythic food/population race. “His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties,” the New York Timeseulogized, “helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history.”  But Borlaug did more than prevent an imaginary catastrophe.  The Malthusian fable blinds us to the real-life history he made.

 Seen from Washington in the 1960s, rural Asia was the most dangerous place on earth.  Guerrilla wars in Southeast Asia and separatist movements in India and Pakistan drew strength from the fierce anger of peasants, whose sudden restlessness mystified American leaders.  The spike in the birth rate of the domino nations after 1945 foreshadowed bigger crises to come. Aid programs, land reforms, the Peace Corps, counterinsurgency teams, and village development all aimed to transform this traditional rural world into stable, urbanized, modern societies, but there was little to show for the millions invested until Borlaug came along.

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations set out to change the mentality and politics of rural Asia.  Food was their tool.  “I’ve worked with wheat, but wheat is merely a catalyst,” Borlaug explained.  “I’m interested in the total economic development in all countries.”  Development meant installing progressive leaders, like military dictator Ayub Kahn, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos who ran for office on the slogan “progress is a grain of rice.”  By requiring imported fertilizer and fuel, the new grain production strategy broke India’s planned economy, forcing Gandhi to divert resources from industry and devalue the rupee.  Borlaug and President Lyndon Johnson saw this as a victory.  In retrospect it’s less clear.  China and India were evenly matched in 1966, but China continued its industrial drive without letup. 

Borlaug believed the process of high-yield agriculture would change the mentality of farmers.  The dwarf wheats required cultivators to precisely regulate water and chemicals, to set aside beliefs in nature and custom and put trust in technology.  It made peasants into scientists.   He expected this new attitude to affect their relations with their leaders, each other, and their families.  They would follow the profit motive, and he hoped, have fewer children.  The link between the new seeds and state birth control and sterilization programs was so plain that in many countries it was rumored that the seeds caused impotence. “If only that were true,” Borlaug sighed.  “We would really merit the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The political effects of agrarian modernization were hard to predict.  In the Philippines a Maoist rebellion swept the countryside.  In Pakistan, absentee landlords raised rents, and six months after the bumper harvest tenant farmers declared jihad and overthrew Ayub’s junta, paving the way for a brutal Islamist regime, civil war, and the eventual independence of Bangladesh.  In Lahore, Borlaug watched as an enraged mob sacked a smallpox clinic. “Pakistan’s fate will certainly have a numbing effect on the world’s general approach to development,” the Washington Post predicted.  And it did.  The green revolution was declared the greatest success since the Marshall Plan, but the scale and ambition of foreign aid dropped sharply in the 1970s.  Instead of transformation, programs sought only to be “sustainable.”

At a time when farming was marginalized in his own country, Borlaug recognized that agriculture was intimately connected with human life, and consequently with every political act.  More than feed the world, he aimed to change it.  Asked if he considered himself an extension agent to the world, he shook his head.  “No,” he replied.  “We move governments.”