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Borlaug: Feeding the hungry, saving the wildlife

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted September 21, 2009

It was 1950. World War II, with its 40 million deaths, was over. Doctors were conquering smallpox with vaccines, protecting millions from malaria and typhus with new pesticides, and treating infections with the miraculous new antibiotics.

Then we realized that humanity was still at massive risk—from hunger. With death rates falling radically, there was suddenly a real possibility that medical progress could be overwhelmed by lack of food. Experts predicted a billion people would soon starve in Asia, followed by similar disasters in Latin America and Africa.  

Norman BorlaugEnter Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. The young plant breeder from the University of Minnesota had been hired by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation, because Mexico could no longer feed itself.

The semi-dwarf wheat that made him famous was a cross between Mexican wheats and a dwarf Japanese variety that didn't fall over even under the weight of enormous seed heads. It was also disease-resistant. Given fertilizer, the new wheat could produce four times as much food per acre. It was also indifferent to day-length, so it could be planted widely across the world's good soils. The International Rice Research Institute used the same semi-dwarf strategy for similarly high-yielding new rice varieties. .  

The Green Revolution was born. Over the ensuing decades, crop yields were tripled with improved seeds, industrial fertilizer, irrigation pumps and pesticides.  The Atlantic Monthly estimated that Borlaug's seeds, and the research stations and agricultural extension services he founded, saved a billion human lives.

Tragically, Borlaug's triumph has been tarnished by complaints from the environmental movement that should have applauded him. The Greens complained the high-yield seeds benefited big farms more than small ones. Studies show both benefited, but the biggest gains went to billions of consumers worldwide through lower-cost food abundance. And to the wildlife that wasn't displaced by their habitat being destroyed for cropland.  

The Greens complained the new seeds needed too much fertilizer. But high-yield wheat takes no more fertilizer per ton of food than low-yield wheat—high yields just grow the grain on far less land

Borlaug told writer Gregg Easterbrook that "most Western environmentalists have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. . . .  If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals. . ."

I suspect much of the environmental movement blames Norman Borlaug for preventing the massive famines that would have solved the "population problem" quickly in the 1960s—with starvation.  But the starving would have raped the wildlife habitat before they allowed their children to die. Today, we've solved the population problem with affluence.

Not surprisingly, Borlaug spent the last decades of his richly productive life working to bring the Green Revolution to Africa. He hadn't yet succeeded when death claimed him. Fortunately, however, the challenge of a second Green Revolution has now been picked up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with enormous support from the Warren Buffet family.

Hopefully, they will be able to lead the completion of Dr. Borlaug's work: feeding the hungry and saving the planet's wildlife with science. It's the only food-success strategy humanity has ever found. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.

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