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Thursday, October 22,2009

The man who saved one saved one billion lives

By Paul Danish

When Norman Borlaug died last month at the age of 95, the Associated Press and most other news agencies wrote obituaries that, almost casually, credited him with history’s most stunning achievement. They said he saved one billion lives.

Borlaug was the father of what came to be called the Green Revolution, a term he disliked. He preferred to call what he did “scientific agriculture,” but what he did was at least as revolutionary as anything Lenin or Mao ever dreamed of.

Borlaug was an Iowa farm boy who got a PhD in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota during the Depression. In 1944 the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a job on the staff of what today is known as the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center in Mexico. He took it and changed history.

Borlaug’s great breakthrough was to cross Mexican wheat, which had already been bred for resistance to wheat rust, with a dwarf Japanese variety. The result, according to the Washington Post’s obituary, was a strain that was resistant to disease and capable of producing 10 times as much grain as unimproved Mexican varieties.

By the mid-1960s Mexico, which had known starvation for centuries, was a wheat-exporting nation.

In 1963, the Center sent Borlaug to India and Pakistan, two nations that at the time seemed on the verge of finally proving Malthus right. He spent the next two years unsuccessfully trying to convince them to give his improved wheat varieties a trial.

Finally, in 1965, with the prospect of massive famine and tens of millions of deaths imminent throughout the Indian subcontinent, both governments agreed.

Borlaug arranged for a convoy of 35 trucks to take high-yield seeds from his experimental station in Mexico to the coast for shipment by sea to Pakistan and India.

What followed was a saga worthy of a Frank Capra movie.

The original plan was to ship the seeds from the Mexican port of Guaymas, but they got held up by Mexican customs and wouldn’t have arrived in time for planting.

Borlaug redirected his convoy to the port of Los Angeles in the U.S. When he got to the border he was stopped by U.S. border police trying to enforce a ban on seed importation.

When the convoy got to L.A. it was stopped by the National Guard and the Watts riots, which had blocked access to L.A. harbor.

Somehow, Borlaug got his seeds loaded on a ship, and it sailed.

Twelve hours later war broke out between India and Pakistan.

The shipment finally arrived late in the planting season, and Borlaug and local agricultural scientists immediately started planting, sometimes within sight of artillery flashes. A week later, the seeds started germinating — at half the normal rate. It turned out they had been damaged by over-fumigation in a Mexican warehouse. Borlaug immediately ordered all locations to double their seeding rates.

It is written, in the 126th Psalm, that “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” And so it came to pass.

Despite everything, Borloug’s initial yields were 70 percent better than anything in the history of agriculture in South Asia. By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production. India followed a few years later. In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million tons in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. Last year, India’s wheat harvest reached 73.5 million tons.

About the time Borlaug was putting in his first crops in Pakistan and India, agronomists at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in the Philippines developed high-yield dwarf rice varieties using his techniques. A similar explosion in rice production ensued as the varieties spread throughout Asia.

Throughout Asia, food production grew faster than population. Agricultural surpluses in India and China helped ignite their economies — and damp down their birth rates.

The world’s rendezvous with Malthusian destiny — which had widely been predicted for the mid-1970s — was postponed indefinitely.

And in 1970, Norman Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Prize.

There is no Nobel Prize for agronomy; the science prizes are given for medicine, chemistry and physics. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — on the theory that famine and starvation lead to injustice, violence and war.

So what might you suppose that the peace and justice community would make of all this?

It turns out they don’t like it. They didn’t like the fact that Borlaug’s crops required irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. They didn’t like the fact that they were monocultures, or even that they were created by cross-breeding. They especially didn’t like the fact that American seed companies made money selling seed to the Third World.

And they didn’t take it lying down. So, just when Africa was on the cusp of mass starvation in the early 1980s, they persuaded the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to quit funding Borlaug’s institute.

I wonder if they have ever figured how grotesquely self-centered and malignantly evil that act was.

The Third World sure has. The Greens’ hostility to the Green Revolution is one reason why countries like China and India consider western environmentalists’ warnings about global warming to be little more than Bourgeois conceits.

(Fortunately, in 1984, during an Ethiopian famine Japanese industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa stepped up and provided funding for bringing the Green Revolution to Africa. He also convinced Borlaug, who by then was semi-retired, and Jimmy Carter to lead the effort.)

In a few weeks, President Obama will fly to Oslo to pick up the most undeserved Peace Prize in the history of the awards. While in the air, he ought to ask himself this: Borlaug saved one billion lives. How many lives have I saved?

And the next time Steve Demos and his acolytes set out to trash scientific agriculture they might ask themselves the same question.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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