The puzzle of Norman Borlaug

Why did the father of the Green Revolution remain afraid of the ‘population monster’?
Christopher Blunt | Sep 15 2009 | comment  

Norman Borlaug. Photo: WikipediaOne of the most important people you’ve probably never heard of passed away last weekend at the age of 95. Dr. Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist, is generally recognized as the father of the “Green Revolution,” the explosion of crop yields and farming productivity that occurred after World War II. His work is the reason why food today is cheap and widely available, and why famines have become relatively rare events. Various sources have estimated that Dr. Borlaug’s green revolution is responsible for having saved hundreds of millions of lives.

In the post-war years, improvements in medicine, sanitation, and hygiene led to plummeting death rates around the world. Food production could not keep up with the new demand, which led to widespread hunger and starvation, particularly in third world nations. Working in Mexico with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr. Borlaug and his team were able to breed new strains of “semi-dwarf” wheat (and later rice) that increased grain yields by upward of six-fold. He was also responsible for discovering ways to synthesize enough nitrogen fertilizer to feed these new crops. Dr. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary includes a fascinating description of how his research was carried out, and just how profoundly his work transformed agricultural practices and the resulting outputs.

Particularly in sustainable agriculture circles, many point out that Dr. Borlaug’s green revolution, like every revolution, included its share of unintended consequences and created problems of its own. Chief among these: the industrialization and corporate domination of agriculture, the depopulation of the countryside, and squeezing out of small family farms. Modern farming is no longer conducted on a “human” scale, and the overwhelming majority of people in developed countries have lost all connection to where their food comes from.

I understand these sentiments well, and sympathize in spirit with much of the critique of modern industrial agriculture. Such concerns are among the most important reasons why our family moved to the country several years ago and took up small-scale farming. However, having observed the world of agriculture up close, I am under no illusions that it is possible --- or even desirable --- to put the genie of modern farm practices back into its bottle.

Fertilizer is a prime example. Large confinement livestock operations have never been better at capturing animal waste, but even all that manure falls far short of what is needed to grow crops on the scale needed to feed the world’s population. Dr. Borlaug estimated that the amount of nitrogen available from natural sources would support a worldwide population of only four billion or so people. We would need another five billion head of cattle to supply the manure needed to fertilize current levels of crop production. Those new cows would themselves require considerable feed, meaning more cropland diverted from human food production. Other potential natural sources of nitrogen, such as the planting of cover crops like clover or hairy vetch, are impractical and would also remove a great deal of land from production while those cover crops are growing.

Don’t get me wrong: I highly recommend the small-scale agriculture that our family is engaging in, and I hope that more families follow us in adopting this lifestyle. But it’s difficult to imagine “yeoman farmers” like ourselves ever being able to feed the world with what we’re doing. We count ourselves fortunate when we can supply a significant portion of our own family’s food needs ─ and some of our livestock production is made possible by the cheap feed grains grown by local “industrial” farmers.

Perhaps the most important by-product of Dr. Borlaug’s green revolution is the shattering of Malthusian theories. Thomas Malthus argued that because population increases geometrically, but agricultural production only increases arithmetically, human populations would eventually outstrip the ability of farmers to feed them. Malthus and his modern disciples, such as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich, therefore argued that stringent population-control measures were the only way to solve this dilemma.

However, Malthus failed to anticipate the extraordinary manner in which technology and innovation could change the rules about agricultural output. As the late Dr. Julian Simon pointed out, human beings are not mere consumers of resources. Rather, as he argued in a famous book by the same name, we are truly “the ultimate resource.” Humans, because of our brains and intellectual ability, are equipped to solve problems and produce far more than we consume. Particularly when markets are allowed to function freely and offer incentives for meeting the needs of other people, and governments protect property rights, human beings have proven themselves capable of coming up with extraordinary breakthroughs to solve the problems of food production. As others have put it, every child is born with a mouth to feed --- but two hands to help work. And, as Dr. Simon would add, a brain to help innovate.

That leaves us with a puzzling final observation. Despite his personal experience in revolutionizing the way food is produced, and despite having witnessed first-hand the ability of the human intellect to find new ways of feeding a growing world, Norman Borlaug remained an advocate for the population-control movement. His references to “the population monster,” and other similar formulations, even hint at an underlying misanthropy in his beliefs --- as if the problem is too many people in the world, rather than not enough freedom and market incentives for innovators to find ways to supply the needs of those people. I greatly admire what Dr. Borlaug was able to achieve in his work, but I am left wondering why he could not recognize the profoundly anti-Malthusian implications of his achievements.

Dr. Christopher Blunt writes from Michigan, where he and his family are doing their best to emulate Thomas Jefferson’s ideal Yeoman Farmer.

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