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Norman Borlaug
September 13, 2009 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Norman Borlaug, "the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself," has died at age 95. On the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, Borlaug "developed a “miracle wheat” that tripled grain output and moved the country to self-sufficiency. Dr. Borlaug then took his high-yield, disease-resistant wheat to Pakistan and India, averting the mass famine and starvation that had been widely predicted." Yet, despite his achievement, and being one of only five people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, Borlaug was hardly a household name: a 1997 Atlantic profile described him as the "forgotten benefactor of humanity."
posted by NotMyselfRightNow (118 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm sorry to hear this. I work with someone who worked with Borlaug, and it's like hearing about the heroic age. My colleague is retired, technically, but he keeps having to come back for special projects because there is no one left with his training in plant breeding. People no longer know what Borlaug knew, and the younger generation just dismisses the work with "Ugh, pesticides!".

There's a new rust race in Africa. It could destroy wheat crops. My friend has just been called back to help.
posted by acrasis at 6:47 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


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Borlaug was certainly a great humanitarian. He made a greater contribution to fighting world hunger than anyone in history.
posted by lexicakes at 6:49 AM on September 13, 2009


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The world needs - and will always need - more people like him.
posted by flippant at 6:57 AM on September 13, 2009


I like to think of myself as reasonably literate. I'm in a major Ag state and work at a University with world-class facilities for all things Ag-related.

Yet, I'd never heard of this man until I saw the obit.
posted by RavinDave at 7:07 AM on September 13, 2009


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This man is truly one of the greats. His work radically changed the way we as a society think about food. It's unfortunate that today we have many people who would dismiss his work due to various issues.

The man saved lives. Millions, if not billions. While global crowding is a serious issue, any man that comes up with new ways to feed the hungry and the impovershed deserves to be remembered. We lost one of the greats today.
posted by SNWidget at 7:14 AM on September 13, 2009


.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

(plantings)
posted by Mr. Anthropomorphism at 7:29 AM on September 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


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posted by edd at 7:42 AM on September 13, 2009


Now this is how to do an obit.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:43 AM on September 13, 2009


Needs a hero tag.
posted by starman at 7:44 AM on September 13, 2009


(that wasn't a reply to you Cunning)
posted by starman at 7:44 AM on September 13, 2009


Done.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


A simply amazing life story. How many people could credibly claim to have saved literally millions of lives? The world is better for having had him in it.
posted by Gilbert at 7:48 AM on September 13, 2009


Anybody know if Borlaug was religious, or only nominally so, or an unbeliever? I've scoured the net for any info at all, but can't find it.
posted by fermi at 7:48 AM on September 13, 2009


So true that he was not well known for his contributions. I think the first time I heard of him was on a West Wing episode.

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posted by lazaruslong at 7:54 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by eclectist at 7:59 AM on September 13, 2009


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posted by bbuda at 8:16 AM on September 13, 2009


I think he used to have a higher profile and was widely recognized as a hero; there was certainly a lot of publicity about this work in an earlier era (mid-late 20th century). His achievements may have been diminished somewhat by association with GMO concerns. Many people are also more suspicious of science, and of the idea that science necessarily changes the world for the better. In his case, it did, but things seem more complicated now, there's blowback, unanticipated consequences, etc.
posted by cogneuro at 8:22 AM on September 13, 2009


Probably the only person to save more lives than Maurice Hilleman.
posted by djb at 8:25 AM on September 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


An interesting snippet of Borlaug bio: he was a small-farm kid from Iowa who wanted to go to the University of Minnesota, and got a wrestling scholarship, but didn't meet the U's admission requirements (he'd been educated in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse). He did, however, get admitted to a new college at the U--General College--which had been created to admit promising but underprepared students and prepare them to transfer to regular degree programs. He went on to finish his BA, MS and PhD at Minnesota, and then to his distinguished career, while General College went on for many years to work with underprepared students (in recent decades, more often from poor inner-city schools than from one-room rural schoolhouses), many of whom went on to their own successful (albeit not Nobel-Laureate-level) careers.

When the U of M decided a few years back that General College was no longer central to their mission and should be shut down, Borlaug--who was around 90 and a long, long ways from that "not-good-enough", unwanted freshman--graciously provided some statements in support of the College's fight to stay open. It was a classy gesture from a man who, at the time, was still very busily engaged in his life's work.

(Oh, andi n fact-checking my memory on some of these points, I discovered he not only made Minnesota's wrestling team, he in fact was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 1992. Wow.)
posted by Kat Allison at 8:29 AM on September 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Never knew about this man, but I'm glad now that I do.
posted by fuq at 8:36 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Penn and Teller mentioned him a few years ago in their cable show as a true hero. That was nice.

Things are more complicated now; his legacy is complicated. Many cultures gave up their biodiverse, multicrop planting systems and now grow patented soybeans to be sold to feed US pigs. However, that wasn't his intent.
posted by acrasis at 8:39 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm sure he meant well.
posted by flabdablet at 8:41 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


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If only the world were righteous enough to honor him more than the ridiculous ceremonies that followed Regan and Kennedy.
posted by FuManchu at 8:43 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


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posted by jonp72 at 8:46 AM on September 13, 2009


A hero. Read more at worldfoodprize.org which was established in his honor and in particular the stories of the men and women that have won the prize. Some of them are politicians and many are scientists and engineers but all have done astonishing things to fight hunger.
posted by Fiery Jack at 8:46 AM on September 13, 2009


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posted by elmer benson at 8:52 AM on September 13, 2009


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posted by Mach5 at 8:52 AM on September 13, 2009 [21 favorites]


Not to speak ill of the lifework of a great man, but ...Borlaug's Green Revolution remains directly responsible for many of today's ecologically based challenges: the diminished biodiversity in crop species; the deleterious effects upon soil fertility and water quality (e.g., eutrophication) that are due to all the inorganic fertilizer applications needed to effect the higher yields; crop monocultures are typically dependent upon the use of heavy pesticide applications often having important secondary effects; perhaps most importantly, the Green Revolution supported much human population growth and put pause to the then nascent notions of zero population growth ---which remain as a significant component of future human success..
posted by JL Sadstone at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2009 [10 favorites]


What an intelligent man, and an amazing life story.

However (though I hate to be the one to break rank in a thread filled with so much praise), reading a transcript of a speech he gave about the Green Revolution in 2002, several things are immediately clear.

He failed to recognize population growth as a result of food production:

I often ask the critics of modern agricultural technology what the world would have been like without the technological advances that have occurred, largely during the past 50 years. For those whose main concern is protecting the “environment,” let’s look at the positive impact that the application of science-based technology has had on land use.

Had the global cereal yields of 1950 still prevailed in 1999, we would have needed nearly 1.8 billion ha of additional land of the same quality – instead of the 600 million that was used – to equal the current global harvest (see Figure 1 at the end of text). Obviously, such a surplus of land was not available, and certainly not in populous Asia, where the population has increased from 1.2 to 3.8 billion over this time period. Moreover, if more environmentally fragile land had been brought into agricultural production, think of the impact on soil erosion, loss of forests and grasslands, biodiversity and extinction of wildlife species that would have ensued.

He takes population growth as a given. But why did the population explode over the time period between 1950 and 1999? The answer I keep coming back to is that basic ecological rule that says if you produce more food, the population will grow accordingly. I repeat, population is a function of food production. So in hindsight he saw population growth as inevitable (for some reason), not as something made possible by his own spectacular successes.

There's also this:

In the last 20 years, biotechnology has developed invaluable new scientific methodologies and products which need active financial and organizational support to bring them to fruition. In animal biotechnology, we have bovine somatatropin (BST) now widely used to increase milk production.

Perhaps Borlaug wasn't familiar with rBST beyond it's effect on milk production?

For better or worse, I think his death marks the tail end of the Green Revolution. Especially as we stride boldly into a future with less and less energy available with each passing year, the input of which is a necessity for many of the agricultural processes and policies he advocates. What comes next? Only time will tell. The only thing I know for sure is that his successors have a hell of a shadow to walk in.

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posted by symbollocks at 9:10 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's not like he was unaware of problems we are now facing: "Borlaug says the answer is family planning."

More here, from a star-struck fan who met the man recently.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:16 AM on September 13, 2009


Not to speak ill of the lifework of a great man, but ...Borlaug's Green Revolution remains directly responsible for many of today's ecologically based challenges

As far as I'm concerned, that just means we have some more work to be done. I'd rather have our current situation, than better biodiversity and millions of people having starved to death.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:18 AM on September 13, 2009


See, that's the thing. How many millions of people do you want to starve to death? Because the more billions there are, the more millions will starve.
posted by flabdablet at 9:23 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anybody who denigrates Borlaug's legacy is basically saying that starvation is a valid means of population control. Which is obviously hateful. So, hats off to the man, and let's work on those ecological problems that are due to Mankind's lack of self-control, rather than to its ingenuity.

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posted by Skeptic at 9:28 AM on September 13, 2009 [12 favorites]


I repeat, population is a function of food production.

The flipside of this is that the mechanism by which lack of food production keeps populations low is through disease brought about by malnourishment, and death by famine.

Once societies reach a certain level of comfort, populations tend to stabilize (see: Japan, South Korea, Europe, and to a lesser extent, the US) and make environmental issues a priority - so the trick is to increase prosperity rather than to increase genocidal starvation.

Jeeze, this stuff isn't that hard to think through...
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:30 AM on September 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


Anybody who denigrates Borlaug's legacy

Raising questions about his work is hardly "denigrating Borlaug's legacy."
posted by mediareport at 9:31 AM on September 13, 2009


If only the world were righteous enough to honor him more than the ridiculous ceremonies that followed Regan and Kennedy.

Or Michael Jackson.


As far as I am concerned, Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives. Think of that -- a significant percentage of today's world is here because of him. Fuck dots on MeFi: the entire planet should observe a moment of silence.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:33 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


flabdablet: You're being profoundly dishonest and sleazy when you link Noman Boralug to the problems outlined in your link.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:55 AM on September 13, 2009


Anybody who denigrates Borlaug's legacy is basically saying that starvation DEATH is a valid means of population control. Which is obviously hateful.

ftfy

Sad but true, whether or not you like it. And no, I don't like it any more than you do. But you've got to stare it in the face and either accept it or do something about it (hopefully in a way that does not tangentially increase suffering as I fear Bourlag--or at least his people--has done).

Jeeze, this stuff isn't that hard to think through...

But it IS. Do you have any idea how intractable our situation on this front is? We have overshot our environments carrying capacity temporarily through the use of cheap and abundant energy. Which is causing environmental degradation. But more importantly it's really unsustainable. Especially with energy getting more and more scarce... A problem we have no solution for, a catastrophe just waiting to happen.

I respond, with complete and utter seriousness (and a touch of despair): this stuff isn't that hard to think through...
posted by symbollocks at 10:07 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


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posted by Lutoslawski at 10:22 AM on September 13, 2009


Anybody who denigrates Borlaug's legacy is basically saying that starvation is a valid means of population control. Which is obviously hateful.

Anybody who can't see past emotional distress regarding ecological truths should probably not be making important policy decisions, because their cost/benefit calculations will be all skewed.

The simple fact is that even before the Green Revolution there was enough food to feed the starving, but inequitable allocation meant that people starved anyway. The Green Revolution solved the wrong problem. The real problem - the problem which is still starving people today - was and is political, not technical. We still haven't even got close to addressing that on the world scale.

As long as we are collectively content to continue spending more on methods of killing each other than of feeding each other, starvation will continue to happen. If we continue to choose to fiddle about with food supply technologies instead of actually addressing the equity problem, we've made an implicit choice in favor of continued starvation; the only remaining question is how much starvation we are willing to create the conditions for.

the trick is to increase prosperity rather than to increase genocidal starvation

The main feature of Green Revolution agricultural methods in India has been to use up groundwater at rates far in excess of replenishment. The benefit has been a sharp increase the amount of cash crop grown. And the cost? Anybody capable of taking a view more than one or two generations long can see that turning arable land into a topsoil and water mine is the most efficient method yet devised for increasing starvation to levels that might indeed be justifiably described as genocidal.

There isn't enough Brawndo.
posted by flabdablet at 10:26 AM on September 13, 2009 [16 favorites]


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posted by signalnine at 10:29 AM on September 13, 2009


You know if we blew up a bunch of nuclear weapons over New York and Chicago and Mexico City and Rio de Janerio and London and Paris and Lagos and Bombay and Calcutta and Beijing and Tokyo we could take care of overpopulation right quick.

Crikey did somebody beam into this thread from caps lock day or something?
posted by bukvich at 10:31 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


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posted by Jon_Evil at 10:41 AM on September 13, 2009


population is a function of food production.

I always thought population was a function of people fucking.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


[A couple comments removed. If it's getting to the point where we're wishing choking deaths on each other, it needs to go elsewhere or just not happen. Please cool it a bit.]
posted by cortex at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


It kind of shows how long I've been on Metafilter when the first thing I think before clicking 'more inside' is "this thread will very quickly descend into yet another 'we're all doomed' discussion." (Links date from August 2000 to 2 weeks ago)



But more to the point-

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posted by Ndwright at 10:50 AM on September 13, 2009


Norman Borlaug prevented millions of people from starving to death, I don't think that's necessarily an unmitigated good, and I don't think that makes me a bit of a swine.

It seems very, very likely to me that population increase in excess of ecological carrying capacity, due both to the survival of those people and to the depletion of soils and water caused by the industrial agriculture that's generally credited with that survival, will cause their descendants to starve in greater numbers. It also seems very, very likely to me that those of us who live in places not generally subject to starvation will generally continue to think about these issues as percentages rather than people.

In my view, 2N people starving in 2009 is not a better outcome than N people starving in 1940 simply because the world population is now seven billion instead of three billion.
posted by flabdablet at 10:52 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


flabdablet, surely the right solution is to convince people to use birth control, rather than to starve them to death?
posted by lbergstr at 10:54 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Clearly, the production advances of the Green Revolution are no myth. Thanks to the new seeds, tens of millions of extra tons of grain a year are being harvested. But has the Green Revolution actually proven itself a successful strategy for ending hunger? Not really."
posted by parudox at 10:58 AM on September 13, 2009


Depends what problem you're trying to solve.

If you're trying to solve the problems of people who have so little that access to birth control might as well be access to the moon, the right first steps are to cut military spending across the board and spend the resultant savings on providing clean water and education to those people who have access to neither of those things.

If you're trying to solve the problem of not having to feel squeamish about living in a society that countenances mass starvation as it shoots the poor with machine guns while handing out band-aids, then yeah, the birth control marketing angle is probably fine.
posted by flabdablet at 11:00 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're trying to solve the problem of how the hell to respond any of this stuff as a paid-up and fully indoctrinated member of the miner/extractor/consumer top-dog culture, you might consider curtailing your own reproduction, looking after existing kids who don't already have somebody to look after them (you will find plenty of those nearby - talk to your local foster care agencies) and arguing for a more compassionate refugee policy in the country where you live. This approach is kind of neat because it makes your contribution to the solution the same order of magnitude as that of your contribution to the problem. Works for me, anyway.
posted by flabdablet at 11:20 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Anybody who denigrates Borlaug's legacy is basically saying that starvation is a valid means of population control.
I have no time for Malthusian nonsense and from what I have read of Norman Borlaug have the impression he was a good man operating from the best of motives, but there have been a number of serious (in the sense of being made by serious persons also concerned with eliminating world hunger) criticisms of the Green Revolution that do leave his legacy open to dispute, including those made by Dr Shiva linked above. There's also the debate about the latest Green Revolution initiative, for example as discussed in this interview about AGRA (longer PDF critique here). My point being that organisations like Action Aid, which is consistently pro-poor, raise questions about the Green Revolution too.
To underline how politicised the whole question is, it is worth recalling that the Rockefeller Foundation funded the initial work in Mexico as part of an anti-communist programme (having spotted the link between food insecurity and agrarian revolution) and Cold War dynamics played a large part in the subsequent history of the the Green Revolution (again, not something Borlaug has any responsibility for to the best of my knowledge).
posted by Abiezer at 11:32 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


A normal dot isn't enough. •
posted by CrystalDave at 12:29 PM on September 13, 2009


This approach is kind of neat because it makes your contribution to the solution the same order of magnitude as that of your contribution to the problem. Works for me, anyway.

but. . . Borlaug made his contribution several million orders of magnitude larger than his contribution to the problem.

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yes, like many solutions, the fixes aren't permanent and they lead to problems later on down the road. We find new solutions to fix those problems, and then later we will have to fix the new problems that arise out of our old solutions. No matter what, Borlaug developed a program to save MILLIONS of people, who were starving, right then and there in his own time.
posted by Think_Long at 12:37 PM on September 13, 2009


Borlaug innovated ways to produce more food, with less energy and water.

He was not in the field of population control, so it hardly seems fair to blame him for the resulting increase in population once starvation becomes more rare, and it really does not seem fair to blame him for the greater water and energy usage as agriculture expands yet more, to previously unarable land, to feed the exploding population.

He was not an economist, so it hardly seems fair to blame him for the fact that economic failures kill people in famines moreso than crop failures do.

This man was in favor of birth control, but that was not his field. He saw his imperative, in his chosen field, as making sure that those who live are fed.

Don't blame him for overpopulation, blame the governments and religions that ban and supress humane methods of population control - those are the ones making famine or ecological disaster our two only options.
posted by idiopath at 12:45 PM on September 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think that it's important to recognize that family size only initially spikes when there's a surfeit of food. Once the local economy diversifies and GDP/capita rises, total fertility rate drops exponentially.* Zero population growth happens naturally as a result of increasing wealth, not as some top-down policy instituted by some chiding elite.

Step 1: End Hunger (e.g. Ethiopia, kcal/person/day= 1857.3; GDP/cap(PPP)= 897; TFR= 5.78)
Step 2: End Poverty (e.g. Botswana, kcal/person/day= 2151.4; GDP/cap(PPP)= 13,392; TFR= 3.18)
Step 3: Zero population growth, (e.g. USA! USA!, kcal/person/day= 3774.1; GDP/cap(PPP)= 47,000; TFR=2.04)
Step 4: Profit!


*You'll note that the biggest outlier, Saudi Arabia, is ill-served by its GDP/capita figure due to its terrible distribution of income and not because of some cultural norm.
posted by The White Hat at 12:49 PM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Step 4: Profit!

Actually, that's more like:

Step 4: Below replacement rate (e.g., Japan, Singapore, ohshitohshit where are our pensions)
posted by FuManchu at 1:04 PM on September 13, 2009


He was not in the field of population control, so it hardly seems fair to blame him for the resulting increase in population once starvation becomes more rare, and it really does not seem fair to blame him for the greater water and energy usage as agriculture expands yet more, to previously unarable land, to feed the exploding population.

Again: population is a function of food production. There wasn't an exploding population before the green revolution. There were starving people for sure, but they weren't starving because the population was exploding. It was because of local things like droughts, floods and other natural disasters.

What Borlaug made possible was to flood the food system with increased yields so that food would be farther distributed. AKA Trickle down economics, with food. He used brute force (cheap energy + genetic engineering) to overcome some of the problem of distribution, but he did not solve the problem of distribution... he merely covered it up for the time being.

And let's not forget what else flooding the food system caused: population growth on a scale never seen before. He probably did save people. Whether that balances out with the effects of overpopulation remains to be determined. But we'll all know within the next 50 years or so as cheap energy disappears. I'm crossing my fingers, but I'm not exactly optimistic.
posted by symbollocks at 1:30 PM on September 13, 2009


Reason magazine interview with Norman Borlaug.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:43 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


symbollocks: "population is a function of food production"

Your attitude of treating humans as if they were animals that unthinkingly breed disgusts me and I refuse to continue this discussion with you.
posted by idiopath at 1:48 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Step 1: End Hunger (e.g. Ethiopia, kcal/person/day= 1857.3; GDP/cap(PPP)= 897; TFR= 5.78)
Step 2: End Poverty (e.g. Botswana, kcal/person/day= 2151.4; GDP/cap(PPP)= 13,392; TFR= 3.18)
Step 3: Zero population growth, (e.g. USA! USA!, kcal/person/day= 3774.1; GDP/cap(PPP)= 47,000; TFR=2.04)
Step 4: Profit!


Wait, what? The USA ended poverty? Did I miss the memo?
posted by symbollocks at 1:49 PM on September 13, 2009


symbollocks: "Did I miss the memo?"

I fight sarcasm with statistics.

% of population below poverty line:
Ethiopia: 50%
Botswana: 30.3%
United States: 12%
posted by The White Hat at 1:57 PM on September 13, 2009


That's the given national poverty line, which results in Taiwan with 1% poverty and Serbia with 7% poverty, which is goddam ridiculous.

% of Population Living below $2 (PPP) a day:
Ethiopia: 77.5%
Botswana: 49.4%
United States: much less than 2%
posted by FuManchu at 2:06 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


There wasn't an exploding population before the green revolution. There were starving people for sure, but they weren't starving because the population was exploding. It was because of local things like droughts, floods and other natural disasters.
This is untrue - one example off the top of my head is the population boom in the mid-Qing [PDF of a critical estimate that still concedes major increases between 1750 and 1850] associated with the introduction of New World crops allied with improved agricultural techniques; a similar impact was felt in Europe (we may recall how new crops in a colonial situation worked out there) and this of course was combined with the effects of a massive increase in global trade.
posted by Abiezer at 2:07 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, that's demonstrably untrue: the population explosion very much predates the Green Revolution. As these historical figures show, world population nearly doubled between 1900 and 1950, and this despite two world wars and famines on a huge scale, such as the Bengal famine. Indeed, while there have been famines after the Green Revolution, there haven't been any on the scale of the Bengal famine or the Great Leap Forward.
posted by Skeptic at 2:16 PM on September 13, 2009


Ack, I was responding to symbollocks assertion that there was no population explosion before the Green Revolution.
posted by Skeptic at 2:18 PM on September 13, 2009


Your attitude of treating humans as if they were animals that unthinkingly breed disgusts me and I refuse to continue this discussion with you.

Humans aren't animals? I disagree. Human populations statistically follow trend models the same way as any animal.

I think that it's important to recognize that family size only initially spikes when there's a surfeit of food. Once the local economy diversifies and GDP/capita rises, total fertility rate drops exponentially.* Zero population growth happens naturally as a result of increasing wealth, not as some top-down policy instituted by some chiding elite.

I have used this thought with some comfort in the past but I am increasingly worried about the growth rates in countries like the US and UK. Most recently the Uk population has started to show an upswing in fertility rates again. So if the growth stagnation as countries gain in wealth turns out to be a temporary phenomenon - a 'bump' in the curve - what then? This is the kind of thing that I prefer not to think about and yet here I am.
posted by Catfry at 2:42 PM on September 13, 2009


Ok I retract; Humans don't follow trend models as ANY animal, but the same trends are largely true for animal populations as for humans.
posted by Catfry at 2:44 PM on September 13, 2009


Do you have any idea how intractable our situation on this front is? We have overshot our environments carrying capacity temporarily through the use of cheap and abundant energy.

This is an article of faith and not an immutable law of nature. I suspect the Earth's carrying capacity is significantly higher than you think it is.
posted by Justinian at 2:45 PM on September 13, 2009


Here is a bit of well-sourced criticism of intensive monoculture from Michael Alteiri. I'm a bit late to reading Abiezer's links and he may have covered the same ground.

Diverse crops, while they have lower single-crop yield, have bigger output:
In overall output, the diversified farm produces much more food. In the United States the smallest two-hectare farms produced $15,104 per hectare and netted about $2,902 per hectare. The largest farms, averaging 15,581 hectares, yielded $249 per hectare and netted about $52 per hectare.
Small farms contribute to food security:
In Latin America, there were about 16 million peasant production units in the late 1980s, occupying close to 60.5 million hectares — 34.5 percent of the total cultivated land. The peasant population includes 75 million people representing almost two-thirds of Latin America’s total rural population. The average farm size of these units is about 1.8 hectares, although the contribution of peasant agriculture to the general food supply in the region is significant. These small units of production were responsible for 41 percent of the agricultural output for domestic consumption.
Small farms are more resistant to climate change and drought:
In general, traditional agroecosystems are less vulnerable to catastrophic loss because they grow a wide variety of crops and varieties in various spatial and temporal arrangements. Researchers have found that polycultures of sorghum/peanut and millet/peanut exhibited greater yield stability and less productivity declines during a drought than in the case of monocultures.

One way of expressing such experimental results is in terms of “over-yielding” — occurring when two or more crops grown together yield more than when grown alone (for example, when one hectare of a mixture of sorghum and peanuts yields more than a half hectare of only sorghum plus a half hectare of only peanuts). All the intercrops over-yielded consistently at five levels of moisture availability, ranging from 297 to 584 mm of water applied over the cropping season. Quite interestingly, the rate of over-yielding actually increased with water stress, such that the relative differences in productivity between monocultures and polycultures became more accentuated as stress increased.
Surveys conducted in hillsides after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 showed that farmers using sustainable practices such as the legume “mucuna” cover crop, intercropping, and agroforestry suffered less “damage” than their conventional neighbors. The study spanning 360 communities and 24 departments in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala showed that diversified plots had 20 to 40 percent more topsoil, greater soil moisture, less erosion, and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbors.
Another point to consider is that intensive agriculture needs a lot of energy to create fertilizers, contributing to about 20% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, (CH4 and N2O are greenhouse gases more potent than CO2).
posted by Tobu at 2:50 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I know I said I was done here, but...

For those that argue for limiting food availability in order to control human population, I submit that someone who gets shot in the back of the head suffers significantly less than someone who is starved to death.
posted by idiopath at 3:44 PM on September 13, 2009


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posted by sien at 4:00 PM on September 13, 2009


Yes, idiopath, it is very compassionate to notice that starvation is a terrible way to die. But certain critics of the Green Revolution see it as potentially producing far more starvation in the long term: by enabling an unsustainable population, it therefore enables the death-by-famine of the excess part of that population if and when the Green Revolution collapses. And meanwhile we get the other bad side effects of the Green Revolution as well, such as loss of biodiversity. It's a tough choice, you know - humans can find innumerable ways to starve themselves to death, and, hey, extinction only happens once.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:10 PM on September 13, 2009


Catfry: My understanding was that US population growth is largely the result of immigration and immigrant populations; it's driven by those who haven't had the education and hunger-free lives that lead to zero-population growth elsewhere.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:15 PM on September 13, 2009


And of course we have no humane or reasonable way to limit human population other than enforced starvation.

Increased food production is one small part of a complex of human innovations that have caused our current population explosion. These include, but are not limited to, better understanding of nutrition, more efficient food storage and transportation, reduced homicide and war casualties, better public hygiene and disease control leading to lowered child mortality and significantly longer life span.

We could reduce world population by reducing food supply, reversing improvements in sanitation and disease prevention, and withholding prenatal care. We could also reduce world population by painlessly murdering excess humans. Or, alternatively we could invest in education, which consistently correlates to reduced population growth, in particular sex education when combined with access to reliable birth control methods.

Here in a first world country renowned for its overuse of resources and obscene waste, I hear people talk about overpopulation as if people in developing nations were herd animals whose welfare we are charged with, as if we should just stop sending them food aid, and let nature take its course. This attitude is obscene.
posted by idiopath at 4:22 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here in a first world country renowned for its overuse of resources and obscene waste, I hear people talk about overpopulation as if people in developing nations were herd animals whose welfare we are charged with, as if we should just stop sending them food aid, and let nature take its course.


Point to where in the thread anyone is arguing this.
posted by Ndwright at 4:46 PM on September 13, 2009


Ndwright: "Point to where in the thread anyone is arguing this."

OK

JL Sadstone: "the Green Revolution supported much human population growth and put pause to the then nascent notions of zero population growth"

symbollocks: "basic ecological rule that says if you produce more food, the population will grow"

kaibutsu: "producing far more starvation in the long term: by enabling an unsustainable population"

This is reasoning you use with populations of game species. Humans are capable of learning and adapting to novel situations. Education reduces birth rates, even into the realm of negative population growth, in the presence of excess food.

Saying that the problems with food supply tend to be logistical is a nitpick in this instance: if you want to be able to produce less food, sure, improve food distribution*, but in the meantime producing more food with less energy per kcal and less water and energy used, and better shelf life and more robust survival of shipping gets more people fed.

* which requires fixing the global system of trade and the local economic system to be humane and equitable, which means revolution
posted by idiopath at 5:06 PM on September 13, 2009


.
posted by buzzman at 5:17 PM on September 13, 2009


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posted by Kinbote at 5:23 PM on September 13, 2009


Without doubt, V. Shiva is an essential and important figure in the anti-GMO movement, and I agree with her about 99% of things. Still, I never got her criticism of Borlaug. Borlaug is a guy who gave up the potential to make multi-millions patenting cash crops, and instead devoted himself to Mexico and India. He's the perfect example of the kinds of crops that we could develop all the time if not for the repressive life patent regime we have in place, which benefits crops that grow in the global north exclusively. He's a scientist's scientist, and while he may not have emphasized small farms enough, and while we may disagree on population control, he saved one billion people. One billion. With a B.

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posted by l33tpolicywonk at 6:00 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


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posted by NikitaNikita at 6:44 PM on September 13, 2009


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posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:56 PM on September 13, 2009


Still, I never got her criticism of Borlaug.

Her criticism of Borlaug is essentially this: that his Green Revolution addressed the wrong problem by the wrong means, and his ideas and methods caused tremendous damage when applied on the scale and at the speed that they were applied in India.

If the problem that cries out to be addressed is the issue of mass hunger - and I think we can all agree that this the problem that Borlaug also sought to address - then history shows that attacking that problem by improving food production technology is simply not effective. It pays off bigtime in the short to medium term, earning plaudits for its architects - but it always causes population increases that end up making more people starve.

The only way to prevent ongoing episodes of mass starvation is to stabilize the population at a level that can be supported indefinitely using only renewable resources. And the only humane way to achieve that is to work towards an economy that gives everybody enough water, food, shelter, security and access to education and healthcare that the incentives to have lots and lots of children become less compelling than the incentives not to.

Borlaug was very good at what he did. And, as I said first up, I'm absolutely sure he meant well. That doesn't change the fact that the technologies he developed and was so instrumental in spreading worldwide have caused, and will cause, more people to starve than would otherwise have been the case - largely by acting as a distraction from and impediment to the main game, which really ought to be demilitarizing the planet and getting some true resource equity underway.

Any food production method that gets its results by using up unsustainable amounts of topsoil and water is, in my view, morally equivalent to eating the seed grain. And to sweep aside thousands of years of local knowledge as if it didn't matter, in order to implement unsustainable production systems that must inevitably destroy the places where you're implementing them, is hubris of the highest order.
posted by flabdablet at 7:10 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


For those that argue for limiting food availability in order to control human population...

For those who are determined to dismiss any criticism of Western technological prowess as pseudo-religious carping from know-nothing tree-hugging non-scientific rabble, I guess it's fairly natural to mistake an observation that population has historically risen in response to higher food availability for an argument in favor of letting people starve.

For those who are determined to measure all progress by means of economic indicators rather than look squarely at what's actually happening to people, I guess it's fairly natural to mistake increased cash crop yield per worker for overall reduction of suffering.
posted by flabdablet at 7:23 PM on September 13, 2009


That doesn't change the fact that the technologies he developed and was so instrumental in spreading worldwide have caused, and will cause, more people to starve than would otherwise have been the case

Have caused? It is your argument that more people have starved in the last 30 years than would have starved without the advancements we're talking about. That's a pretty stunning claim and one that looks absurd on its face to me.

I see the argument that more people will starve in the future because of his contributions. I think it's a poor argument based more on ideology than facts, but I understand it. But the claim that more people have already starved than he saved seems ridiculous.
posted by Justinian at 7:24 PM on September 13, 2009


Borlaug made his contribution several million orders of magnitude larger than his contribution to the problem

Personally, I have that filed squarely under "hubris".
posted by flabdablet at 7:28 PM on September 13, 2009


Quite wrong, idiopath. I'm not arguing that we should enforce starvation on the third world, and I also believe strongly in education for reducing population growth. Again, for emphasis, no one here argues that we should enforce starvation on the third (or any other) world.

The concern is that the Green Revolution enabled a population far above what is sustainable by the fossils that fuel said Revolution. Should an energy crunch undo the Revolution, we will see massive starvation directed against the most vulnerable parts of the world's population. The question going forward is not whether to undo the green revolution, but how to a) actually get governments to educate their populace to the point where fertility rates reduce, and b) set up a viable and sustainable food system. Neither is a trivial problem, and neither involves mass enforced starvation in their solutions, I can assure you. Please set up your straw men elsewhere.

For your edification I present a dramatic allegory.


SCENE: Aboard a train, which may or may not be heading towards a cliff face. The conductor seems to have checked out in some previous scene, and it is left to the passengers to decide on a course of action.

Passenger 1: Hey everyone! If we don't find a way to switch to a different track, it looks like we might run into that cliff up ahead! Then we would probably all die.

Passenger 2: Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you? Trains are an incredible invention! If not for them, we would always be late for work and wouldn't have freshly slaughtered meat to eat for lunch! Why do sick bastards like you always have to diss on the marvels of modern technology?

Passenger 1: I didn't say anything about... Wait, I'm not even going to worry about this. We have bigger things to worry about. Hey, has anyone seen the conductor?

Passenger 2: We don't NEED a conductor! We're HUMANS! We can grow wings and defy gravity if we need to, because we're just that awesome! Hey, did you notice that we're on a TRAIN? Going, like, a thousand miles an hour? You know who did that? That's right, bitches! HUMANS did that! Not only did we INVENT this thing, we set it to running. We are the fucking bomb. And because we are so goddamned smart, we don't need any stupid conductors. If there WERE a problem, and there's clearly NOT, then we could INVENT our way out of it, if we needed to, but we don't, because our train is so damned cool.

Passenger 1: Did anyone see that switch we just passed? Shit, that cliff wall seems to be getting closer. Hey, guys, we really better come up with, you know, a Plan or something, and quick.

Passenger 2: Hey, don't listen to him, he's just a stupid luddite. Screw this, I'm not even INTERESTED in this conversation; I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Passenger 1: Ok, that's cool. I'm just going to be over here, reading this instruction manual...

[Cliff wall approaches with alarming haste, massive block letters appear on screen:
TO BE CONTINUED!]

posted by kaibutsu at 7:32 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Justinian: how many people starve now, worldwide, every year? How many people would now be starving now, worldwide, every year, if the Green Revolution had never happened? Because unless you can clearly demonstrate that the first number is smaller than the second number, using some respectable methodology, it seems to me that remaining skeptical about the alleged benefits of the Green Revolution is the correct position by default.
posted by flabdablet at 7:37 PM on September 13, 2009


Please set up your straw men elsewhere

No! No! Keep setting them up here!

I can use the mulch.
posted by flabdablet at 7:38 PM on September 13, 2009


flabdablet: The world currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone. People aren't currently starving because there isn't enough food, they're starving for geopolitical reasons.

A whole lot of people starved recently in North Korea. I assure you it wasn't because the population grew too high for the world to easily feed.
posted by Justinian at 7:50 PM on September 13, 2009


flabdablet: "For those who are determined to measure all progress by means of economic indicators rather than look squarely at what's actually happening to people, I guess it's fairly natural to mistake increased cash crop yield per worker for overall reduction of suffering."

You've neglected to address a single one of my points not only refuting your claim that increasing food supply always triggers a population boom, but also proving that working to end hunger and poverty are complementary and additive goals. You haven't presented a single statistic, not one lick of data, and while I'll be the first person to stand up for the validity of suffering as experiential evidence, recommendations still need to be evidence-based.
posted by The White Hat at 8:02 PM on September 13, 2009


Who is setting up the fucking straw man? We are talking about a particular human being. An advocate of population control, who lived through the dust bowl of the American 1930s and decided to apply technological techniques to prevent the kind of rampant erosion and soil depletion that led to this event.

I am not saying that industrial agriculture as it is now practiced is sustainable on a scale of centuries. But it does substantially increase the yield of edible calories for the amount of fuel, human work, and water applied to a particular acreage. The problems of cash crop monoculture is an economic one, and needs economic solutions - this is a political discussion, not an agrarian one. Organic and small scale agriculture use MORE WATER and MORE ENERGY for a given amount of food eaten by human beings, even when you eat locally.

I am not saying that industrial agriculture as it is practiced today is perfect, but it would flatly be impossible to sustain the population distribution we have now with traditional small scale agriculture (we could have same population, but spread out wider, with less density in cities, and much less uncultivated land). And a majority of us would have to work on a farm, out in the field, instead of sitting at a computer arguing about agriculture on metafilter. And a much larger percentage of your budget would be spent on food. Cheap food like we have today is something we have thanks to Norman Borlaug.

Starvation was a fact of life globally until the green revolution. It simply does not happen on the same scale and frequency any more. And sometimes it was actually caused by food shortage rather than political and economic problems. And if we give up on the progress of the green revolution, people will be going hungry on a massive scale again.

Please forgive me, but "oh my god we are all going to crash into a cliff and die society is doomed" only works for the first 500 false alarms.
posted by idiopath at 8:05 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


March, 2009: 42.5% of Indian children are underweight. The same article states that 230 million Indians are classified as 'hungry,' or 21% of the population, in spite of massive economic growth over the last ten years, and about 40 years since the GR came to India (approximately 1968). I see this as further support for the claim that hunger is a social problem, not a technical problem.

Assuming a 21% hunger rate in 1961, prior to the 1968 near-famine and before the start of the GR in India, and a population of 450,000,000 (as suggested by this graph from wikipedia), then there would have been 94.5 million hungry people, or less than half of the hungry we have today. So on the face of it, it seems that the Green Revolution doubled the amount of hunger in India. This is very simplistic, though, as it would be impossible to guess what today's population would be without the GR. Perhaps it would be 800 million with a fifty percent hunger rate.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:09 PM on September 13, 2009


flabdablet: That doesn't change the fact that the technologies he developed and was so instrumental in spreading worldwide have caused, and will cause, more people to starve than would otherwise have been the case - largely by acting as a distraction from and impediment to the main game, which really ought to be demilitarizing the planet and getting some true resource equity underway.

Any food production method that gets its results by using up unsustainable amounts of topsoil and water is, in my view, morally equivalent to eating the seed grain. And to sweep aside thousands of years of local knowledge as if it didn't matter, in order to implement unsustainable production systems that must inevitably destroy the places where you're implementing them, is hubris of the highest order.


Bourlaug didn't systematically destroy local agriculture. Monsanto did that. Borlaug crafted a temporary solution to a really important problem.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:35 PM on September 13, 2009


I am not saying that industrial agriculture as it is now practiced is sustainable on a scale of centuries. But it does substantially increase the yield of edible calories for the amount of fuel, human work, and water applied to a particular acreage.

Cite, please.

Note that Tobu has already cited respectable research that disagrees with this claim.
posted by flabdablet at 8:48 PM on September 13, 2009


I have a close relative, a scientist, who was an early proponent of organic agriculture (no chemical inputs via fertilizer or pesticides), and he always felt Borlaug did more harm than good in the long run.

Borlaug maximized crop yields through better seeds, but they also demanded a high chemical input. For a few seasons, you would have amazing results. Then, with the necessary minerals in the soil effectively burned out, you'd get nothing.

People scoffed at the idea of organic agriculture back in the 70's because it was all about magic seeds and chemicals that required third-world farmers to become beholden to American agricultural firms. That's over simplifying things a bit, but the recent success of the organic movement in general was a reaction to the short-term, high-yield "success" that Borlaug created, not to mention the fact that organic agriculture, while providing a lower yield season to season, is actually much more sustainable in the long run because farmers don't need access to fancy and expensive seeds and chemical inputs (or a tractor, for that matter).

"Bourlaug didn't systematically destroy local agriculture. Monsanto did that. Borlaug crafted a temporary solution to a really important problem."

This is a fair point, but for the few scientists who thought organic was the way to go back in the 1970's before it was fashionable, they don't really see much of a difference. Borlaug's methods required high chemical inputs by design, and Monsanto was happy to provide 'em.
posted by bardic at 8:59 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: "Cite, please."

Paper cited in this comment on another thread.
posted by idiopath at 9:10 PM on September 13, 2009


idiopath: Paper cited in this comment on another thread.

You linked a comment that links a Google cache of a post (with critical comments) that links to a sensationalist magazine article which doesn't even seem to address your specific claims here. And the claim in your own linked comment seems to be an exaggeration of a short out-of-context quote from some unlinked report.

Again: cite, please.
posted by parudox at 10:33 PM on September 13, 2009


I must applaud flabdablet. The arguments presented are very much in line with my reasoning and long view of the food/population situation and ignore the political/economic ephemera. It is nice to know some people actually understand the larger and longer term ramifications of current technological and economical short term gains.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think what Borlaug did with his life and career was commendable, however short sighted.
posted by daq at 11:11 PM on September 13, 2009


Starvation was a fact of life globally until the green revolution. It simply does not happen on the same scale and frequency any more.

Cite, please.
posted by flabdablet at 11:26 PM on September 13, 2009


It is nice to know some people actually understand the larger and longer term ramifications of current technological and economical short term gains.

Wow. I mean, I know lots of people feel like someone who agrees with them obviously has a keen insight and superior intellect while those who disagree are clearly deluded and haven't thought things through, but they usually don't spell it out quite so clearly.
posted by Justinian at 11:42 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


I completely agree with flabdablet that saving a million now will only cause a billion to starve in future. Borlaug was well meaning but short sighted in not seeing this obvious fact.
On this list of well meaning but myopic scientists and engineers we should also include Pasteur, Koch, Jenner and Salk.
Their advances in germ theory, vaccination and antibiotics tragically removed the natural population controls that work so well in other species.
The 20-30% human infant mortality rate before these 20th century advances, is a particularly useful method of population control that alas, is no longer prevalent.
As a species well on our way to exhausting the planet's resources, we should learn from these mistakes and be a little more proactive in managing our global population targets.
Some small steps:

1. Malaria is a wonderful tool for making vast tropical regions uninhabitable for humans. To preserve species biodiversity we should stop the free/subsidised distribution of malaria netting/medication. A billion malaria infested mosquitos is a more effective, cheaper guarantee of rainforest security than a thousand forest rangers.

2. Stop all flu vaccine development immediately. Global flu pandemics are a golden opportunity to prevent future mass starvation. H1N1 may a particular blessing because it disproportionately affects young adults and children. A modest reduction of about 1-2% (60-100 million) of the global population is achievable.
While this admittedly falls far short of what the Black Death achieved (10-50% depend on where or when you lived), it is nonetheless an ambitious target given the constraints of the modern medical system.

3. Enforced sterilizations in the developed world. Because of the wildly disproportionate use of resources by individuals in the developed world, this method has the potential to be extremely effective. We could do it randomly (I envision some kind of Ed McMahon-like castration sweepstakes) or selectively. It would make intuitive sense to prevent the reproduction of high income, high resource-consuming individuals. Perhaps those with the luxury of a laptop, an internet connection and time enough to write to Metafilter.

It will seem like a sacrifice, I know. But that's only because you're not thinking of the future.
posted by garglebreath at 6:07 AM on September 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


Regarding energy usage, the actual content that link led to this article in Mother Jones

I am not finding hard statistics on crop yield in consumable calories vs. water and petroleum usage, at least not in a form I can understand and make use of. My understanding is that the singular goal of industrial agriculture is maximum yield with minimum labor and cost. The information I am finding leads me to believe that water usage increases track with food production increases. We can ethically produce less food when we reduce world population, but not beforehand.

Regarding the prevalence of famine: Nothing like the Bengal Famine can happen in India again. (this was one article among many making such claims).

Any agriculture we have today that could feed the kind of world population we have today would be devastating to our soil, our water supply, and our energy resources. As I said before, the agriculture we have now is not perfect, but it has all but eliminated famine (to the extent that food supply can do so). Subsistence farming and a local diet leads to cycles of starvation. I like to hope that we can keep the labor saving and yield increasing innovations of the green revolution, and the leisure and technological lifestyle it makes possible, while reducing population worldwide by ethical means to sustainable levels.
posted by idiopath at 6:08 AM on September 14, 2009


kaibutsu: "Assuming a 21% hunger rate in 1961"

This is a bad assumption. Between 1960 and 1999 infant mortality decreased by one half, fertility by two fifths, and malnutrition by one fifth.*

*Measham, Anthony R. and Chatterjee, Meera. “Wasting Away: The Crisis of Malnutrition in India.” 1999. World Bank. Washington, DC.
posted by The White Hat at 8:08 AM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


garglebreath Moreover, if "saving a million now will only cause a billion to starve in future", we should consider those who, during the twentieth century, ensured the extinction of millions before they could breed, to be the greatest benefactors of humanity ever.

Do you know who else believed in hard-headed population control?
posted by Skeptic at 9:11 AM on September 14, 2009


kaibutsu: I see this as further support for the claim that [Indian] hunger is a social problem, not a technical problem.

India's major agricultural problems are:

1) Lack of water (too much dependence on canals, borewells and the increasingly fickle monsoons), leading to extremely uneven yields from year to year.

2) Poor distribution and price controls - the government has a monopoly on food distribution (a hangover from our more socialist era), leading to food rotting in godowns.

3) Poor choice and rotation of crops - why the fuck we grow rice in the desert (technically, pretty much all of Punjab and Rajasthan) is mind-boggling to me. There is just not enough water, and the water table is being depleted beyond repair. The wheat/rice cycle needs to be broken NOW. There is not enough water (this bears repeating again and again) and the lack of crop diversity ruins the soil.

4) Too much of the population tied up in intensive farming with tiny land-holdings. Fewer people need to make more food, and education and job opportunities need to be improved so that people don't have to live off the land themselves, and those that do, grow more than just subsistence-level yields.

5) Internal corruption - there is just too much to get into here.

6) The Western world's protectionism, in the form of massive subsidies, tariffs and blanket bans on various kinds of agricultural imports from developing countries. This is an increasingly sore point (cf. WTO Doha Round).

7) Population growth - this is improving, but is tied to a worldwide tendency of farming societies to have lots of kids. This happened (and is continuing to happen) in the developed world too.

These are just what I can think of off the top of my head. Are they technical or social? I'm not sure.

(BTW: you folks who are still arguing for less food to be produced in the face of clear analogies with medicine or education.... you're just loons)
posted by vanar sena at 2:36 PM on September 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


why the fuck we grow rice in the desert (technically, pretty much all of Punjab and Rajasthan) is mind-boggling to me.

People are starving. We have to do something. This is something. We have to do this.

There is just not enough water, and the water table is being depleted beyond repair.

Never mind. We'll worry about that later. People are starving. We have to do something. This is something. We have to do this.

The wheat/rice cycle needs to be broken NOW.

You folks who are still arguing for less food to be produced in the face of clear analogies with medicine or education.... you're just loons.

There is not enough water (this bears repeating again and again) and the lack of crop diversity ruins the soil.

Never mind. We'll worry about that later. People are starving. We have to do something. This is something. We have to do this.
posted by flabdablet at 7:22 PM on September 14, 2009


Obviously there is no third way between forcing an unsustainable population boom by force feeding people monsanto corn with the express interest of wrecking the planet and releasing a hoard of superviri to obliterate half of humanity in the interest of saving the planet. It is thus my intent to continue being a dick.
posted by The White Hat at 8:04 PM on September 14, 2009


He's an Iowan. Born not too far from where I live. Makes me proud.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:49 PM on September 14, 2009


(WTH is this, kindergarten? flabdablet, when you find yourself cutting and pasting text to do a stuck record imitation, it's time to re-examine what it is you're bringing to the debate.)

There's plenty that can be done, and that is being done, to control and redirect the political power of the farmer lobby worldwide, to educate farmers to grow sustainable crops, to manage water more sensibly.... ah why even bother, you're not here to make any real point other than PPL GOTTA DIE.
posted by vanar sena at 8:57 PM on September 14, 2009


Ah, I see you're from Oz. Given the ridiculous situation that you folks find yourself in (a hundred years of indiscriminate land clearing leading to frightening erosion, the Murray-Darling creaking under the weight of farmers getting free water to grow rice in the desert while the government asks you to install special shower-heads to save piddly litres of water), I'm hardly surprised that you've got a fatalistic view of all of this. I'll do my bit to make sure that when the time comes, you get a fair price on our agricultural excess and that none of you gotta die.
posted by vanar sena at 9:19 PM on September 14, 2009


flabdablet, when you find yourself cutting and pasting text to do a stuck record imitation, it's time to re-examine what it is you're bringing to the debate.

I'm bringing my best ironic stuck record imitation. To get the intended effect, have your bits read in your voice, and my bits read in a droning Borg-like monotone by some Green Revolution booster in a Monsanto suit.

And you're right about Australia. The Murray-Darling Basin is well fucked, and the clueless goons we have running the joint don't give two shits. I feel the same way about growing cotton on Cubbie Station as you do about growing rice in Punjab.
posted by flabdablet at 3:05 AM on September 15, 2009


...by some Green Revolution booster in a Monsanto suit.

I suppose you could make a nice suit of out Monsanto Bt cotton, but when it comes to India that's pretty much where your equivalence ends. They barely had a look-see into our market until the first yield of Bt cotton a couple of years ago - their net profit in India was a relatively tiny 10 million USD. Besides, you don't have to convince me that Monsanto is utter filth, and there are plenty of people who are continuing to fight (legally and in the media) their presence and practices in the country.

In contrast, organic farming has been growing by about 40% a year for the last few years, and is expected to grow four-fold by 2012.

Since we're on the subject of Punjab - there was no part of the country more broken by Partition in 1947 and the state was further subdivided to limit the political power of the Sikhs to as small an area as possible. To add insult to injury, the proximity to Pakistan was used as an excuse to limit the creation of a non-agricultural industrial base in the state, so agriculture was pretty much the only possible form of employment for most people (this is still the case, though the rise of BPO services has gotten around that and started to alleviate the problem). The Green Revolution took the fractured and displaced people of Indian Punjab from poverty to feeding the entire country, creating an agricultural surplus (for the first time since before the Raj, IIRC) and getting very rich. At the time I'm pretty sure the Punjabis weren't alone in assuming that there would be an abundance of everything in perpetuity (not to mention, lack of education is a bear). That attitude has been adjusted over the last decade and while things are clearly slow to change, they are changing.

There is more to this but I'm sure I've already bored everyone.
posted by vanar sena at 5:43 AM on September 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


vanar sena: "I'm sure I've already bored everyone."

On the contrary, some actual first hand knowledge was exactly what this thread needed.
posted by idiopath at 5:52 AM on September 15, 2009


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posted by MarshallPoe at 6:55 AM on September 15, 2009


There is a good obit over at The Eco.
posted by sien at 4:57 PM on September 17, 2009


while things are clearly slow to change, they are changing

That's good to know.

Here's hoping they change quickly enough that Vandana Shiva will also be generally deemed worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize before she dies too.
posted by flabdablet at 5:04 PM on September 17, 2009


My brother went to school with Norman's son, Bill. There was just a memorial service for Norman downstairs from my office, as he was a noted alumnus from this university and had his roots here in Minnesota.

I kept thinking that as much as he accomplished with the limited tools that were available at the time, what he could have done had the current technology been available for his entire career is mind-boggling.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:16 AM on October 8, 2009


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