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Freedom From Famine - The Norman Borlaug Story
January 28, 2013 12:58 PM   Subscribe

A documentary film about Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farm boy who saved over a billion people from starvation. (1:06:47) Americans have little knowledge of one of their greatest sons. Why do schoolchildren in China, India, Mexico, and Pakistan know the name and work of Nobel Peace Prize winner [His speech] Norman Borlaug while so few of his countrymen have never heard of him? How did a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Iowa grow up to save a billion people worldwide from starvation and malnutrition and become the father of the Green Revolution? What were the inherited traits and environmental factors that shaped his astonishing journey and led to successes that surprised even him? What can we learn from his life and views that might help the human race survive the next critical century?

Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity

The downright adorable Norman Borlaug Rap

(His Obit post previously after his death in 2009 at age 95)
posted by Blasdelb (84 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
Perhaps some will remember him as the man whose work ultimately helped feed Tribbles. (btw - that's how I first learned of him)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:12 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


while so few of his countrymen have never heard of him?

So everybody has heard of him ?
posted by Pendragon at 1:14 PM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Iowa farm boy makes it sound like he hopped off a tractor. PhD in Plant Pathology and Genetics.
posted by PJLandis at 1:24 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Like a lot of people probably, I know Norman Borlaug's name because President Jed Barlet spoke about him on The West Wing.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:25 PM on January 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


The impact of the Green Revolution is not uncriticised.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [22 favorites]


PJLandis: Well, both are sort of true... He was raised on a farm, and thus a 'farm-boy' by any measure...

From the wikipedia: [was raised]" on his grandparents' farm in Saude in 1914. From age seven to nineteen, he worked on the 106-acre (43 ha) family farm west of Protivin, Iowa, fishing, hunting, "
posted by el io at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've heard of him, but the World Food Prize headquarters is about a block away from where I work.

Also, Iowa represent!
posted by cjorgensen at 1:31 PM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


From Wikipedia, "From age seven to nineteen, he worked on the 106-acre (43 ha) family farm west of Protivin, Iowa, fishing, hunting, and raising corn, oats, timothy-grass, cattle, pigs and sheering kittens.

Wait, sheering kittens?
posted by maryr at 1:31 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Oh wikipedia
posted by Blasdelb at 1:33 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Stout, short-stalked wheat also neatly supports its kernels, whereas tall-stalked wheat may bend over at maturity, complicating reaping.

Dammit, what's the term of art for this, where the tall wheat collapses under its own weight? My country cred is at stake. I keep coming up with "deadhead" but I'm pretty sure that's from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:34 PM on January 28, 2013


One thing I've always wondered about Borlaug - why was is he so celebrated by American right-libertarians?

I remember, when he died, Reason running an obituary that was more or less a "fuck you" to the interventionist left.
posted by downing street memo at 1:34 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I use him and Thomas Midgely, Jr. as a sort of good-and-evil duo when I teach my MBAs about the ethics of technology diffusion.

In my slides, I use this picture of Borlaug, which has to be the manliest PhD agronomist picture around.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:35 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Dammit, what's the term of art for this, where the tall wheat collapses under its own weight? My country cred is at stake. I keep coming up with "deadhead" but I'm pretty sure that's from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie."

Lodging :)
posted by Blasdelb at 1:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


What were the inherited traits and environmental factors that shaped his astonishing journey and led to successes that surprised even him?

When I was a lad, I ate four dozen eggs
Ev'ry morning to help me get large
And now that I'm grown, I eat five dozen eggs
So I'm roughly the size of a barge
posted by Nomyte at 1:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The impact of the Green Revolution is not uncriticised."

Incidentally, he responded to many of those criticisms while he was alive here in this interview.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:38 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Also, many people may have heard of Borlaug from an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit! (10:08) though I didn't want to make it part of the post as it is pretty dickish.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:41 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


downing street memo: "why was is he so celebrated by American right-libertarians?"

because environmentalist / organic foodie types don't like him
posted by idiopath at 1:42 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Inherited traits?
posted by OmieWise at 1:42 PM on January 28, 2013


I recently read a pulp fiction novel in which one of the characters wants to develop a new plant like Borlaug.

I really don't think he's that obscure anymore.
posted by jb at 1:45 PM on January 28, 2013


"an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit! (10:08) "

I wouldn't give a ha'penny jizz for whatever this libertarian douchenozzle spouts.
posted by ts;dr at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The impact of the Green Revolution is not uncriticised...It jacked up yields, but its narrow technical focus offered no vision for how to distribute the bounty equitably.

The green revolution doubled the amount of wheat produced in Pakistan between 1965 and 1970. That bought us time. Decades without mass starvation where we could have gotten population growth under control. Decades where higher yields on farmland made it less necessary to bulldoze and plow our remaining forests. To the extent that we have continued to let the earth's population grow, continued to savage the environment and continued to distribute the benefits of increased productivity unequally, I submit that the man who developed new varieties of wheat is not to blame.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [31 favorites]


I only read about him once, but I still use the example in my classes.
posted by whatgorilla at 1:49 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


One criticism I heard in an anthropology course on agriculture is that countries like India, Pakistan, and Mexico were already in the process of intensifying their agriculture, so attributing this increase to the Green Revolution gives credit where it isn't due.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:01 PM on January 28, 2013


Mexico was in the process of intensifying its agriculture in part by hiring Borlaug.
posted by maryr at 2:20 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


(That's not to say Mexico shouldn't get credit too. Without CIMMYT none of this would have happened - at least, not at the rate it did.)
posted by maryr at 2:21 PM on January 28, 2013


"One criticism I heard in an anthropology course on agriculture is that countries like India, Pakistan, and Mexico were already in the process of intensifying their agriculture, so attributing this increase to the Green Revolution gives credit where it isn't due."

That is actually one I haven't yet heard. While both India and Pakistan were rapidly cultivating what had previously been wildlands to some but insufficient effect, there were mean doublings and documented tripplings of yield in the same fields from one season to the next. Both countries were also in the middle of a vicious, expensive, and man-power-consuming war while this dramatic increase was happening. Mexican agriculture on the other hand was in the middle of collapsing and re-tooling itself towards export crops to the United States, while importing food that only the rich could afford - Borlaug and his colleagues were the sum total of the Mexican governments efforts to revitalize its staple agriculture.

Indeed all three examples were still smack dad in the middle of the post-imperialist problems that prevented agricultural industrialization and caused so much of the famine problem to begin with.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:22 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]



Dammit, what's the term of art for this, where the tall wheat collapses under its own weight?

Lodging?
posted by jamjam at 2:24 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


By Mr. Toenniessen’s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.

Wow. Thanks for posting this. That's pretty astonishing.
posted by nevercalm at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I know about him from The West Wing, where an African President whose country is seeking solutions for their AIDS/HIV epidemic brings him up as an example of the kind of revolutionary miracle needed to solve his crisis.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:27 PM on January 28, 2013


"Lodging?"

It really is Nature's ultimate fuck you to farmers. OH, YOU THINK YOU'VE GOTTEN GOOD AT THIS WHOLE FARMING THING? WELL IF YOU GROW YOUR WHEAT TOO WELL IT ALL DIES AND MOLDS AND YOU GET NOTHING.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:28 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


dammit, why didn't search in page show me you'd answered that, Blasdelb-- because I didn't capitalize?
posted by jamjam at 2:29 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I recently read a pulp fiction novel in which one of the characters wants to develop a new plant like Borlaug.

Is that in one of Pablo Bacigalupi's books?
posted by JauntyFedora at 2:31 PM on January 28, 2013


As usual, The Economist published a well-written and to-the-point obituary.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:32 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, it was a cheesy romance novel in which one of the characters was a biology student. Really, really pulpy. My point is that Borlaug has definitely made it into the mainstream.

That said, after reading the interview with Borlaug, I don't feel like he has answered the most thoughtful criticisms of the Green Revolution, maybe because they are not scientific concerns, but social and economic ones largely to do with how capitalism and agriculture relate. GM is a tool, and it can be used for good (as by Borlaug), but it can also be used to increase the control of agriculture by large corporations, to the detriment of farmers' livelihoods. Round Up Ready crops (mentioned specifically by Borlaug), for example, are said to produce poor second crops, so that instead of being able to save seed, farmers have to purchase new seed. Now, maybe this is worth it for the other benefits, but I've heard presentations by very knowledgeable and thoughtful people (who know way more about contemporary agriculture than I do) which have convinced me that the Green Revolution isn't just a simple, happy miracle. It's been a very complicated process, and while some aspects have certainly been of great benefit (like Borlaug's dwarf wheat), other aspects (e.g. greater reliance on manufactured fertilizers and seed, more water-intensive crops) have undermined food security and the livelihoods of poor people around the world.
posted by jb at 2:41 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


Many of us who do not go to bed well fed on wheat derivatives are now allergic to the latent poisons in that grain.

In a compartment full of grain, we shat ourselves to death.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:50 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


He also figured in this (SLYT) episode of QI - at about 29:20 minutes in. Seems Stephen Fry hadn't heard of him either.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:56 PM on January 28, 2013


other aspects (e.g. greater reliance on manufactured fertilizers and seed, more water-intensive crops) have undermined food security and the livelihoods of poor people around the world.

I don't doubt that there are thoughtful criticisms of those aspects of the Green Revolution, but I would caution that we should not get too romantic about the living conditions of farmers in India, Mexico, and Pakistan prior to the Green Revolution. That is, food security wasn't so great during the 1940s and 1950s.
posted by Area Man at 3:01 PM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't understand the criticism. Regardless of whether you choose to eat high-yield crop varieties or not, it's always better to have the choice to do so. Especially if you're literally starving to death.

(Keep in mind that Borlaug developed crops through breeding, not through genetic modification in the modern sense.)
posted by miyabo at 3:13 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Iowa farm boy makes it sound like he hopped off a tractor. PhD in Plant Pathology and Genetics.

In Iowa, "Iowa Farm Boy" almost always means "PhD." All of my uncles are Iowa Farm Boys, and they all have PhDs.

Also, Norman Borlaug is amazing and this is a great post.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:17 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm glad for the post, and the opportunity to learn more about Borlaug. But damn if that cheerleading documentary didn't make some poor choices with regard to graphics and audio.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:21 PM on January 28, 2013


PhD in Plant Pathology and Genetics.

I loved this bit in his Widipedia entry:
Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, he was able to enroll at the University of Minnesota in 1933. Borlaug failed the entrance exam, but was accepted to the school's newly created two-year General College. After two quarters, he transferred to the College of Agriculture's forestry program. While at the University of Minnesota, he was a member of the varsity wrestling team, reaching the Big Ten semifinals; and helped introduce the sport to Minnesota high schools by putting on exhibition matches around the state.
The guy had energy to burn. As I mentioned in his obit thread, his son Bill went to high school with my older brother in the same class and I met him at their graduation. I don't think that Norman was there, because I don't remember meeting him.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:23 PM on January 28, 2013


Son of a North Dakota grain farmer here. As someone who was seen many fields of dwarf wheat I can promise you there are plenty in these parts that know who Borlaug was.
posted by Ber at 3:25 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I found the humility and homeliness in this little newspaper clipping touching.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:30 PM on January 28, 2013


All this talk of ending world hunger is making me hungry.
posted by Brian B. at 4:31 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seems to me farmers themselves have been partly responsible for the prevalence of lodging problems by selecting for at least three different characteristics: more seeds per head and bigger seeds, both of which make for heavier heads more likely to topple over, and seeds which don't break away from the stalk until threshing, which historically came well after the ripe wheat was harvested.

Premature seed drop is called shattering (took me 20 min. to remember that one [glass wheat? er, glassy?]), and I think selection against shattering is the most important of the three because wheat seeds have a little tail (the awn) to catch the wind and cause the seed to break free and ride the wind to a new place to establish itself, which apparently was wheat's primary seed dispersal strategy before we came along. But if the wheat is shatter-resistant, the awns will still catch the wind but will then just cause the stalk to blow over and lodge.
posted by jamjam at 4:31 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


That bought us time. ... To the extent that we have continued to let the earth's population grow, continued to savage the environment and continued to distribute the benefits of increased productivity unequally, I submit that the man who developed new varieties of wheat is not to blame.

Totally right; he is not to blame. But this is also evidence to be remembered the next time someone claims that the next biotechnological breakthrough will fix the problems of not enough food. I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but sometimes it seems like we are looking for our keys under the streetlight only because that where the light is, even though it's not where we lost them — it tempers the triumph of getting yet another brighter light.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:42 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


He was mobbed when he came to Hyderabad back in the nineties. A lot of us wanted to get his autograph. There were huge banners on the streets welcoming him, the kind you'd see for visiting politicians or movie stars in India.
posted by the cydonian at 4:58 PM on January 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Borlaug's failure to feed the world in spite of enormous technological breakthroughs is an excellent example of the Jevons paradox: "technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource."

In the case of industrial agriculture, enormous improvements in per-acre yields of crops have resulted in outrageously cheap calories, especially in the case of corn. This in turn has greatly increased our consumption, as the previously unthinkable plenty begets cheap chicken, beef and pork, along with all sorts of bizarre value-added products, such as HCFS. These hybrid grains are so damn cheap we can put them in everything, even our gas tank.

And so despite (or actually, because of) the Green Revolution's success, our arable land base continues to shrink.
posted by mek at 4:59 PM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


I point out that the General College no longer exists at UMN. The General College was designed to catch those students who did not traditionally fit the model and needed a little more help before entering the university. This discussion of Borlaug and the environment that enabled him to thrive and succeed is an interesting one, especially if we couple it with the rhetoric of the other thread on MOOCs and Learner's Rights.
posted by jadepearl at 5:08 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Blasdelb: "Mexican agriculture on the other hand was in the middle of collapsing and re-tooling itself towards export crops to the United States, while importing food that only the rich could afford - Borlaug and his colleagues were the sum total of the Mexican governments efforts to revitalize its staple agriculture."

In ChuraChura's link, there are some good details of Nick Cullather's criticism of this argument; generally, he seems to say that Mexican agriculture was in fact far from collapse, and that the USDA had proclaimed it self-sufficient in 1941. He states that the sole issue wasn't inefficient agricultural yields but a system of wealthy landownership which preferred to export to richer markets rather than sell food at home.

That seems simplistic to me. I mean: even if Mexican agriculture was doing fine in the 1940s, boosting agricultural output even more could be of real benefit in solving problems external to agricultural issues - it could, for example, help to push those landowners to keep some grain domestically.

But there are other issues Cullather points to that seem more substantive. The US agricultural climate in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was already seeing the kind of problematic fluctuations it sees today; when output soars, it is absolutely not a simple good situation, because prices plummet and the livelihood of farmers shifts dramatically. I have a hard time believing that Mexico was immune to such difficulties. And there are reasons to feel as though Mexican agriculture was suffering more than we'd like to think after the "green revolution." We know for certain that millions of farm workers from Mexico had migrated to Southern California by the early 1960s. Why? It's not a stretch to link this with soaring yields and the subsequent dropping prices they brought with them.

I am not an expert; and I'd like to learn more before I draw any conclusions. But I do begin to feel as though the story of the "green revolution" is not so simple. We look around the world and see many, many countries in the situation Mexico apparently was in in 1950 - producing plenty of food, but somehow unable to feed their people. Unfortunately I'm just not sure there's a purely agricultural solution there.
posted by koeselitz at 5:13 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


miyabo: "I don't understand the criticism. Regardless of whether you choose to eat high-yield crop varieties or not, it's always better to have the choice to do so. Especially if you're literally starving to death."

Trying to boil this down carefully: when you try to solve problems that aren't actually problems while ignoring the real issues, you can cause damage. Cullather argued that, by treating the agriculturally thriving Mexicans as though their starvation stemmed from a lack of agricultural output, Borlaug was unwittingly shifting the already-flawed balance of market power even further toward instability and away from a balance of input and output.
posted by koeselitz at 5:21 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not Borlaug's fault, but the reason the promise of the Green Revolution didn't quite come all the way to fruition, and the reason why we still have so much inequity in global food distribution, is that his technological advances were not coupled to similar advances in social and environmental consciousness. Instead of taking the extra forty years that Borlaug bought us and using them to reform ourselves into a more just and sustainable global society, we took them as license to continue doing business as usual -- except on an exponentially grander scale.

Now that we are beginning to find the limits of our carrying capacity again, we begin to hear talk of how what we need is a "second Green Revolution" in the form of GM crops. I see no evidence that social equity or environmental sustainability are part of that equation either.

Unless we are able to raise the global consciousness and reform our practices and policies to create a more just and sustainable system, we will never have a true revolution. Instead we will simply have a series of forstalled catastrophes, with shrinking middle classes and accelerating rates of environmental degradation, until the whole thing destabilizes and we reap the consequences of our procrastination.

The Green Revolution was a great thing -- indeed one of the greatest -- but it was only half a solution and the other half never came. Now we are in nearly the same position again, only with more humans, more poverty, a collapsing biosphere, and fewer natural resources. Let that be a lesson to those who think that technology alone can solve our problems in this world.
posted by Scientist at 5:42 PM on January 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


There were people (like, say, my father) who were advocating hardcore local, organic, sustainable methods for agriculture in poor countries as early as the 1970's. They were basically laughed at in the wake of Borlaug and the Green Revolution.

Maybe rightfully so but then again, so many of the problems we're now facing, while not directly his fault, come out of the idea that high chemical input (i.e., chemical fertilizers) leads to huge long-term yields and that you can do this basically forever.

Well, they do give you high yields for two or three seasons, but then the soil is depleted of necessary minerals.

As I said in the obit thread, Norman Borlaug didn't invent Monsanto but he sure as hell allowed them to do a fuck-load of harm when a poor farmer in India realizes his seeds won't grow unless he shells out extra cash he doesn't have for the appropriate type of fertilizer.

Or, what Scientist said.
posted by bardic at 6:18 PM on January 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's apparently an issue, in the long run, of soil degradation associated with increased fertilizer use required for higher yield crops? Basically, it sounds like the green revolution in practice involved some care for balancing the various inputs needed for agriculture (crops with high yield needing more nutrients, and the farming practices promoted being sometimes more water-intensive, for example), but not enough. Or, on preview, what bardic said.

(My googling also seems to indicate that soil quality is one of the regional differences affecting success of green revolution techniques.)
posted by eviemath at 6:23 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


This guy and his technology is kind of like fracking, I think. Yeah, we can extract more natural resources with this great new technology, but all that really gives us is one more exponential doubling then we're in exactly the same place we were, on the brink of starvation, only with twice as many people. It bought us some time. What we really need, though, is not time, because there will never be enough time when exponents are in play.

What we need is wisdom; the wisdom as a species to stop with the "perpetual growth" schtick.

I'd much rather celebrate a philosopher who managed to convince us that the world is finite and thus we must also be finite than a scientist who managed to figure out how to fold the paper in half one more time. Because you can't fold a phone book.... you can only tear it.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:38 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


The reason.com interview linked above started out a bit smug, implying that the projected famines never occurred, thanks to Borlaug, and therefore doomsayers were apparently wrong. The problem with that position is that it also implies that the famines would have occurred for Borlaug to have any mention, therefore the doomsayers were not only right, but that their dire predictions were the catalyst. So Borlaug did what we does well, and it postponed the problem from the supply-side, which is what you get when capitalists team up with cold warriors to save the world from slackers.
posted by Brian B. at 6:47 PM on January 28, 2013


Without high yield farming, instead increased fertilizer and water use, instead you get increased land usage - that means more and more decreasingly fertile land being converted to farms, most often by simple slash and burn methods. Because that land will be less arable to begin with, you'll see increased water and fertilizer usage anyway.

It's true, I can't fold a phone book. But I can start folding 20 pages at a time instead of burning them to make the book thinner.
posted by maryr at 7:48 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm still not getting the criticism being levied here. I get the feeling there's some real resentment that Borlaug's fiddling with agricultural practices has managed to crush the expectation/hope of humanity's imminent demise, and pushed it off into a far more uncertain date.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


I get the feeling there's some real resentment that Borlaug's fiddling with agricultural practices has managed to crush the expectation/hope of humanity's imminent demise, and pushed it off into a far more uncertain date.

Or it's just Orwellian hype that has a deeper economic slant to it. I can already imagine Reagan credited with inventing freedom in a few years.
posted by Brian B. at 9:16 PM on January 28, 2013


2N2222: No, the criticisms of contemporary agriculture - of which the Green Revolution is just one part - are more thoughtful than that. I can't do them justice, as it's well outside of my field, but I have heard talks by agricultural scientists and anthropologists that have raised concerns not so much about the science as the economic and political structures that go along with the Green Revolution.

I'm not even saying that the detriments are not outweighed by the benefits, but that a thoughtful assessment has to take into account concerns about independence and sustainability -- to better our efforts in development in the future.

Unfortunately, there are often deep divisions. The anthropologists that I've met who study development tend to be highly skeptical of it, while those on the science and technology side don't seem to be engaging deeply in the history and cultures of the places that they want to develop, which can lead to some serious problems.

My own research is only thematically related to contemporary development, but it's a good parallel: I study a very early drainage and land reclamation project that had not bad science and a perfectly reasonable development justification (at a time of food shortages) -- but which also led to massive land privatisation and the systematic dispossession of the grazing rights of poorer inhabitants in the region, undermining livelihoods in the area even as it increased productivity. There is no evidence that the local people were better off after, and (considering the higher number of workhouses in the next century) may have been worse off. Now all this happened 350 years ago, so it's a bit moot now, but similar things have happened again and again in the history of development (dam projects are often problematic).

It's because of histories like these that people ask questions about who benefits from new technology.

I don't think that should take away from the very good work done by Borlaug et al. I've never heard concerns about dwarf wheat specifically, but I have heard concerns about Round up Ready crops and that basically they lock farmers into the supply system, and Monsanto is extreme in its protection of its own copyright.
posted by jb at 9:19 PM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Without high yield farming, instead increased fertilizer and water use, instead you get increased land usage - that means more and more decreasingly fertile land being converted to farms, most often by simple slash and burn methods. Because that land will be less arable to begin with, you'll see increased water and fertilizer usage anyway."

But there are many stages between Agri-business yields and slash-and-burn. And in a global context, there are farmers and communities who will manage quite well at a subsistence level, barring war and politics (a huge "but" I'll agree, but then again people didn't starve in Ethiopia for a lack of food but for the impossibility of delivery).

Again, I think it's more criticism of the outcome of Borlaug's success than of Borlaug himself. His goals were obviously noble.

But people have taken to bio-engineered crops and high-input agriculture without question, as the norm, as the only way to do farming. And when the USAID is pumping money into developing countries things can work out for a while.

But cut those countries without a modern infrastructure off and you've got problems -- Who can fix the tractors? Who can make the parts to fix the tractors? Where's the gas for the tractors?

Monsanto isn't going to "go back" and help those guys out, they're going to actively punish them for not "keeping up" with the newest seeds and chemicals.

"I'm still not getting the criticism being levied here."

By his own admission, Borlaug didn't give a damn about the consequences of genetically engineered crops.

There are consequences.
posted by bardic at 9:20 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


2N2222: “I get the feeling there's some real resentment that Borlaug's fiddling with agricultural practices has managed to crush the expectation/hope of humanity's imminent demise, and pushed it off into a far more uncertain date.”

To be honest, that's actually one of the things that bugs me about the whole thing. Both in the documentary and in the interview, Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb is adduced as evidence of what would have happened if Borlaug hadn't been successful. But Ehrlich was a Malthusian crank; it should have been immediately clear that his predictions rested on very little beyond direful prophecies and sheer pessimism. Both the documentary and the interview seem to halfway admit this; but then they legitimize it, since they need it as evidence of Borlaug's achievement.

I'd just like to see other evidence that it was reasonable to predict that India wouldn't be self-sufficient by 1971. The Population Bomb may have been popular at the time, but plenty of thoughtful people were quite skeptical of it, even when it first came out.
posted by koeselitz at 9:28 PM on January 28, 2013


Every exponential curve is only exponential for a while, for in nature every exponential curve must become a sigmoid. (Though try explaining that to a singularity nut.) The world human population is hitting the slowing of growth phase of the sigmoid right now. Yes, it's really true, population growth is slowing! And it's not because of war, disease, soil depletion, starvation, childhood deaths, or other maladies. It's because people are choosing to have fewer babies. It's because women have more say about their lives, have more education. It's because families don't need a lot of hands working in the fields and can choose to invest in the education of just a few children instead.

So if you want to say that it's better that a billion people die of starvation than for current day farmers to deal with the difficulties of making a living, it's really just saying "Got mine, fuck you" to those who are at risk of starvation. And that's not a green attitude, it's a Western elitist attitude. Do you drive a car occasionally, never fearing where you next meal comes from? I do, and damn me to fucking hell if I'm going to be all judgey about somebody who saved a billion people from starvation. Jesus fucking christ people.

"Fracking?" This is not about driving your gas-guzzling SUV so you can live 30 miles from your job and start up your clean-burning Viking gas stove and cook your quinoa that you're overpaying for so that indigenous Peruvians can no longer afford their staple food. We're talking about whether or not a billion people are going to die of starvation. We're not talking about an optional technology for an incremental change in the cost of a commodity that comes at great environmental expense, we're talking about the difference between life and slow, agonizing death from lack of food because some Westerners are moralizing about whether a dwarf wheat is too unnatural or it might encourage someone to use fertilizer or pesticides.

Damn it people, you're making me read Reason and actually think they have a point! What type of insanity is this!?! This thread is making me believe that there's some awfully dark strains of inhumanity in the Western food movement. Moralization without pragmatism results in things like the burnings of pagans so that they'll convert. I don't see how that's different from suggesting that a billion people would have been better off starving than being exposed to the impurities of hybrid crops and the Haber process.

Critiques, my ass. Just because you can narrow your worldview to a microscope so that you can see some flaws does not mean that you can ignore the suffering of a billion people.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [11 favorites]


Just because you can narrow your worldview to a microscope so that you can see some flaws does not mean that you can ignore the suffering of a billion people.

I was just ignoring the joy of the three billion people he fathered.
posted by Brian B. at 9:51 PM on January 28, 2013


Another way to think about the Green Revolution is whether the needed inputs are sustainable in the long run. Cuba and North Korea are an extreme example of what happens when the fertilizer runs out and the fuel for the tractors is rationed. Borlaug does recognize the problem with over-reliance on costly inputs, in the (gulp) Reason article, he states "The package of practices that we have devised uses modest levels of inputs so the cost is not particularly high compared to their traditional ways of farming." What happens when the costs go up?
posted by spamandkimchi at 10:07 PM on January 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Llama-Lime: "...in nature every exponential curve must become a sigmoid."

Favorited for that line alone. That is some wisdom, right there.
posted by Scientist at 10:24 PM on January 28, 2013


Llama-Lime: "So if you want to say that it's better that a billion people die of starvation than for current day farmers to deal with the difficulties of making a living..."

I guess you haven't read any of our comments. I'll try to sum up:

Norman Borlaug did not save a billion people. Norman Borlaug did not save a hundred million people. I am not sure we can say that Norman Borlaug saved any people at all.
posted by koeselitz at 10:30 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


- And frankly it's deeply insulting, to the point where I'm not sure you even know what you're saying, when you suggest that anybody in this thread is saying that a billion lives should be traded for convenience.
posted by koeselitz at 10:32 PM on January 28, 2013


My take on this, for what it's worth, is that Norman Borlaug gave global civilization another 40-50 years to get its act together, and that global civilization then utterly squandered that incredible gift and totally failed to learn the lesson that we need to find a way to live within our means rather than hope to be able to expand in perpetuity.
posted by Scientist at 10:36 PM on January 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


"...in nature every exponential curve must become a sigmoid."

Not every one.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:55 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking as a person who was alive during Norman Borlaug's ascent, it was absolutely clear at the time that Borlaug was only postponing, and by postponing greatly intensifying, because it made possible so many more years of exponential growth, the awful reckoning to come for human overpopulation.

If anything, Borlaug's work, and his self-conscious approach of feeding more people regardless of overpopulation, will be seen by the survivors of the inevitable crash as having significantly reduced the human carrying capacity of the entire planet into the indefinite future.
posted by jamjam at 11:11 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


So if you want to say that it's better that a billion people die of starvation than for current day farmers to deal with the difficulties of making a living, it's really just saying "Got mine, fuck you" to those who are at risk of starvation.

No one in this thread, least of all me, is saying that.

in fact, I've said explicitly that I have heard no serious criticism of Borlaug's dwarf wheat, only praise. But I have heard serious questions from scholars and researchers about the Green Revolution and the idea that modern western agriculture is a panacea in general -- including about development projects which themselves led directly to suffering and starvation. The real concern about a lot of modern western agriculture being encouraged in the developing world is that, when it's not implemented under the right circumstances, it can be less productive and/or less sustainable that traditional forms of agriculture. When it works, that's wonderful. But it doesn't always work -- and then the local people are left to pick up the pieces. There was a posting on Indian cow breeds recently, for example, which pointed out that Indian breeds can be more productive than Western ones, but the Indian government has been pushing interbreeding with Western breeds for years -- threatening the existence of local breeds.

If we are going to have a thoughtful conversation, neither side can react in a knee jerk way, and if people who want development to work well, than criticisms have to be taken seriously. We wouldn't want medical researchers to just dismiss any questions about side-effects of new treatments, just because those treatments have the potential to help people. Instead, we talk about the side-effects and how to avoid or mitigate them. Development should be treated the same way.
posted by jb at 7:22 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Google "Indian farmers suicide".

This is the Green Corporate Petrochemical Revolution today; dead land that is incapable of growing anything w/out the Monsanto chemicals you can't afford, and one last shot-glass full of fertilizer for the road.

I am uninspired by Borlaug's legacy.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


- And frankly it's deeply insulting, to the point where I'm not sure you even know what you're saying, when you suggest that anybody in this thread is saying that a billion lives should be traded for convenience.

Some MF folks consistently come awful close in threads about food, growth and sustainability. This is where Metafilter begins to exhibit its own secular version of end times-style gloom with an almost death cult-like enthusiasm that rivals religionists claiming the end is nigh, where humanity's sins invariably lead to mass destruction and extinction. But not, apparently, until after it produces unprecedented prosperity.

My take on this, for what it's worth, is that Norman Borlaug gave global civilization another 40-50 years to get its act together, and that global civilization then utterly squandered that incredible gift and totally failed to learn the lesson that we need to find a way to live within our means rather than hope to be able to expand in perpetuity.

The latter Malthusian part of the sentence, however, is not well substantiated, and furthermore, has little to do with Borlaug. Which is one of the curious things about why this angle gets plugged so strongly when it comes to him. Does one curse the discovery of antibiotics because antibiotic resistance has become increasingly an issue?

What I see is a contingent unimpressed by Borlaug, because it has been, for a long time, quite able to afford the privilege. And willing to deny that privilege to the rest of the globe because it so obviously knows so much better.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:35 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Does one curse the discovery of antibiotics because antibiotic resistance has become increasingly an issue?

No, but one does criticize the over-prescription of antibiotics, and change policies to prevent this in the future.
posted by jb at 11:57 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Brilliant science in the absence of brilliant policy is not a great combination, is what I am saying.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:11 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, but one does criticize the over-prescription of antibiotics, and change policies to prevent this in the future.

I don't think people are quite as vitriolic when the discussion turns to Alexander Fleming.

Borlaug's goal was to prevent people from starving. He succeeded, and only very modestly profited from his inventions (he could have been a billionaire if he founded another Monsanto or Cargill). Sure, his inventions have unintended consequences -- every invention does. But on balance, it's clear that he did a lot of good.
posted by miyabo at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure what the critics of Borlaug would have had him do. He was a plant breeder. Was it wrong to try to bread hardy, disease resistant strains with high yields? I've read skepticism on Metafilter before about genetically modified plants, but is straight up breeding of plants now also off limits?

If anything, Borlaug's work, and his self-conscious approach of feeding more people regardless of overpopulation, will be seen by the survivors of the inevitable crash as having significantly reduced the human carrying capacity of the entire planet into the indefinite future.

Should he have avoided trying to breed good feed people until those darn breeders stopped having so many kids?
posted by Area Man at 12:42 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: The impact of the Green Revolution is not uncriticised...It jacked up yields, but its narrow technical focus offered no vision for how to distribute the bounty equitably.
As lame-ass, invented, missing-the-point-in-order-to-enjoy-the-privilege-of-sneering criticisms go, ... that's certainly one.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:51 PM on January 29, 2013


Should he have avoided trying to breed good feed people until those darn breeders stopped having so many kids?

I think I was trying to say, "Should he have avoided trying to breed good plants to feed people until those darn breeders stopped having so many kids?"
posted by Area Man at 12:51 PM on January 29, 2013


I'm not sure what the critics of Borlaug would have had him do.

I don't know about other people, I was just saying that I thought his response (linked above) didn't really address the more thoughtful criticisms. He may not have been aware of them -- like I said, it seems that the two sides of the development camp don't really talk to each other. Me, I'm kind of outside of both of them -- I'm very interested in development, but my research is on early modern European economic and social history (I stop in about 1740). But because it intersects thematically with contemporary issues, I've attended seminars by agricultural scientists, anthropologists and others dealing with contemporary development, and they raised interesting concerns. They weren't anti-development at all and many were academics from developing countries (such as India, Ethiopia and Mexico), but they recognized that successful agricultural development is more complicated than just developing a new crop (though that is also important and what Borlaug did is amazing), and involves thinking about how new technologies will fit into existing social, economic and technological systems. Not all new developments are as successful as Borlaug's dwarf wheat: some are just ineffective, and some are actively harmful. Figuring out how to do development better means that both critics and proponents of development need to talk to each other.

(It's not all one sided - I once knew an anthropology student who got very angry at me for suggesting that any development could be okay - she was seriously bitter and anti-development - and, yet, that was because she'd seen the darker side of it in her field work).
posted by jb at 2:00 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


where humanity's sins invariably lead to mass destruction and extinction. But not, apparently, until after it produces unprecedented prosperity.

The destruction has been ongoing and quite thorough in many parts, if you bothered to acknowledge any environmental issues, including the widespread abuse of pesticides that brought bumper yields for generations. We also ran out of surface water for crops a long time ago, and we're tapping ground water in the US, predicted to cause a desert someday when it runs out. I note that I often encounter religious people in these threads, who have a deep aversion to curbing human population, but try to make theirs sound like a secular argument, and when that fails, blame the secularists for acting religious.
posted by Brian B. at 4:38 PM on January 29, 2013


Does one curse the discovery of antibiotics because antibiotic resistance has become increasingly an issue?

No, one curses the USA for failing to implement a moratorium on the use of antibiotics in livestock, as many other countries have done. And if the inventor of those antibiotics was writing op-eds in the WSJ right up to his death insisting the world must embrace massively dosing all livestock with antibiotics so that more people can eat steak, consequences be damned, he's no longer part of the solution, he's part of the problem.

But let's set the analogies aside.

I am a critic of Borlaug because I believe it was grossly irresponsible for him to be advocating in 2009 for continued acceleration of agricultural production, environmental consequences be damned. He should have been saying "holy shit global grain production has quadrupled in the last half-century but people are still starving, maybe this is a distribution problem rather than a production problem!"

It doesn't take a brilliant mind to observe that the vast majority of global grain production does not go to feeding people. Borlaug's later writings demonstrate that he was either incompetent or willfully ignorant of that exceedingly obvious fact.
posted by mek at 6:45 PM on January 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


2N2222: “What I see is a contingent unimpressed by Borlaug, because it has been, for a long time, quite able to afford the privilege. And willing to deny that privilege to the rest of the globe because it so obviously knows so much better.”

It's hard to be impressed with statistics that seem dubious at best and fabricated at worst. I don't think that has much to do with privilege, though.
posted by koeselitz at 6:59 PM on January 29, 2013


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