Norman Borlaug has died. Norman (and his research team) saved more human lives than any other in history. At the end of this article is a comparison of rice yields 1968, 1997, 2008 and what is expected for 2020.
More than 30 years ago, Borlaug wrote, “One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy.” As REASON’s interview with him shows, he still believes that environmental activists and their allies in international agencies are a threat to progress on global food security. Barring such interference, he is confident that agricultural research, including biotechnology, will be able to boost crop production to meet the demand for food in a world of 8 billion or so, the projected population in 2025.
Borlaug was the Father of the Green Revolution, the dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity that swept the globe in the 1960s. For spearheading this achievement, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich also said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.” He insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”
But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn’t work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich’s book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug’s achievement as a “Green Revolution.”
In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich’s dire predictions in 1968, India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold
Borlaug has never received much public recognition in the United States, where it is often said that the young lack heroes to look up to. One reason is that Borlaug’s deeds are done in nations remote from the media spotlight: the Western press covers tragedy and strife in poor countries, but has little to say about progress there. Another reason is that Borlaug’s mission — to cause the environment to produce significantly more food — has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world
By the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world.
Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too — though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. “World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa,” Borlaug says.
Borlaug’s reaction to the campaign was anger. He says, “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
Borlaug, Carter, and Sasakawa traveled to Africa to pick sites, and the foundation Sasakawa-Global 2000 was born. “I assumed we’d do a few years of research first,” Borlaug says, “but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, ‘Let’s just start growing.'” Soon Borlaug was running projects in Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. Yields of corn quickly tripled; yields of wheat, cassava, sorghum, and cow peas also grew.
Borlaug made progress even in Sudan, near the dry Sahel, though that project ended with the onset of Sudan’s civil war, in 1992. Only Sasakawa’s foundation came forward with more funds, but although well endowed, it is no World Bank. Environmentalists continued to say that chemical fertilizers would cause an ecological calamity in Africa.
Opponents of high-yield agriculture “took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious,” David Seckler says. “Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous.”
From the 1997 Atlantic article: rice yields 1.6 tons per acre in China
1997 Agriculture Yields
Privatization and dwarf rice have enabled China to raise rice yields rapidly to about 1.6 tons per acre — close to the world’s best figure of two tons.
Lester Brown, the head of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental organization, fears that China may soon turn from an agricultural success story into a nation of shortages
Rice plants have been greatly improved over the last three decades. Plant breeders have created plants that mature in 110 days instead 160 which means that regions with warm climates can grow three crops instead of two. The height of the average plant has been reduced from five feet to a stocky three feet, which means that the plant nutrient go into producing grains of rice and are not “wasted” on the stalks that lean over when there is too much weight. In addition, rice plants have been bred and bio-engineered to be resistant to bacterial blight, plant hoppers and stem borders.
Tall conventional rice plant used before 1968 grew in 140-180 days and yielded between 0.6 and 1.4 tons per acre. Modern rice grows in 110-140 days, produces 100 seeds per panicle, and yields between 2.4 and 4.0 tons per acre.
By the year 2020 it is believed the world’s rice crop will increase by an additional 60 percent. Current dwarf varieties have 15 productive panicles, or seed clusters per stalk (out 25 or so total stalks) that produce about 100 grains (seeds) each. New strains will have fewer, but stronger and thicker, stalks that will yield 200 or more grains each. These new plants are expected to account for most of the increased productivity
There is work to enable plants to survive on the moon and Mars. Success or anywhere close to success will also mean plants that can grow in deserts on earth.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.