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Defending Norman Borlaug

Defending Norman Borlaug
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First Published: Wed, Sep 16 2009. 08 51 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Sep 16 2009. 08 51 PM IST
It is a tragic irony of our times that we find it easier to name some of the worst mass murderers in history —Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Idi Amin, Milosevic and Stalin—but find it relatively harder to remember silent heroes who helped fight hunger. One such hero was Norman Borlaug, the agricultural scientist, who died last week at the ripe old age of 95.
Astounding though it might seem, not everyone sees him as a hero. Some environmentalists have tried blaming Borlaug for introducing technologies which made the Green Revolution possible, because they hate the idea of technology-dependent farming. They believe that agriculture that depends on chemicals and fertilizers, which experiments with the structure of seeds and may alter their genetic pattern, and which uses machinery, is responsible for much that ails humanity. And some blame Borlaug.
At heart, that argument is misanthropic. It is also morally perverse. It sees people as a problem, not as a resource. People pollute the environment; they aspire for better lives; once they prosper, if they have been vegetarians, they start eating meats; to feed them the world will need more animals, more plants, and more seeds with higher yielding potential; and to reduce the cost of operations and improve efficiency, farms will have to be consolidated, and the world will have to grow more food. The horror of it all! It will spawn wasteful consumption and reduce topsoil. It will destroy the idyllic, pastoral image of the lone farmer tilling his small plot of land. O tempora, o mores!
We have been through this ritual before. In the late 18th century, the Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus argued that the power of population was far greater than the power of the planet to produce food. Population rises in geometric proportion; food increases only in an arithmetical ratio. Malthus feared catastrophe ahead. Fast forward to 1968, and Paul Ehrlich warned of The Population Bomb. In 1972, the Club of Rome published the report it had commissioned, Limits to Growth, which provided some statistical evidence backing up Malthusian fears. China imposed its one-child policy, and during the Emergency, India forcibly sterilized thousands.
Note that the concern was about population growth among the poor—in poor countries, or in poor families. What the pessimists were missing was that Borlaug’s magic was radically transforming the rural landscape of India. In the 1960s, his techniques doubled food production in India: In a crop-breeding programme that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, he developed wheat with short stems, which shifted a much higher proportion of plant sugars into the plant’s ear, yielding significantly higher yields. Wheat yield in India grew to 20 million tonnes (mt) by the late 1960s. In 2008, the harvest stood at a record 73.5mt of wheat.
From being the poster child of international aid, it was becoming among the world’s biggest producers of certain grains and milk, and, on paper, becoming self-reliant and self-sufficient in food. The rise of China and India is due to many reasons, but being able to feed their people is certainly an important one.
But that rise requires a change in the pecking order: it means the furniture has to be rearranged (G-8 has already become G-20). And so, as the global concern about climate change becomes more serious, some alarmist environmentalists in the West are painting lurid scenarios of what might happen if all Chinese or all Indians were to start eating meat, instead of cereals. The current effort to ask China and India to restrain their insatiable demands “for the sake of the planet” is part of that piece.
Borlaug didn’t succumb to the pessimism. He saw a problem and wanted to fix it. When he saw that people didn’t have enough food, he figured out ways of producing more; he did not force people to eat less, or to reduce their numbers. As a result of his genius, today millions of people are alive, who would otherwise not have survived the spectre of shortages and droughts.
To be sure, agricultural productivity has declined, but that drop is due to a complex set of reasons: Nothing, not even population, rises at the same rate over a period of time. The drop in the size of a farm due to inheritance leads to a drop in productivity. Politicized subsidies encourage waste of water and power, as well as overuse of fertilizers and pesticides by the well-connected farmers, skewing distribution of resources. Warehouses are poorly managed, and a chunk of what is produced gets wasted in transit, or consumed by rats. Insufficient and inefficient irrigation means Indian agriculture remains a gamble with monsoon. Borlaug wanted poor farmers to be paid remunerative prices; governments avoided that, in order to placate the influential urban constituencies.
There is a lot that needs to be fixed in Indian agriculture. But don’t blame Borlaug for these problems. His legacy is the gift of life for millions.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Sep 16 2009. 08 51 PM IST
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