Green Giant

Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. So why is a small cadre of activists bent on tarnishing his legacy?

Yet some appeared to have considerable intellectual capital invested in a catastrophic outcome. As Ronald Bailey of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out, biologist Paul Ehrlich famously declared in his 1968 best seller The Population Bomb that "The battle to feed all of humanity is over." He predicted the '70s and '80s would bracket massive global famines where hundreds of millions would perish, rendering any crash aid programs futile. He insisted there was little hope for near-term food self-sufficiency in India, adding that the nation couldn't possibly feed its additional millions before the '70s came to a close. In fact, India achieved self-sufficiency in grain production in 1974 and, as Bailey has noted, Ehrlich "discreetly omitted his prediction [concerning India's food production crisis] from later editions of The Population Bomb."

In 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government sent Borlaug to India and Pakistan. Borlaug and his team set up test plots and evaluated the viability of his dwarf strains in South Asia. In the summer of 1965, food shortages and hunger had grown acute, and government officials were desperate to avert disaster, so Borlaug and his team embarked on a massive effort to import some 550 tons of his successful dwarf strain seeds.

Potentially devastating roadblocks threatened their efforts from the start. Because of bureaucratic snafus and tangles with customs officials, the order couldn't be shipped out of Mexican ports in time for proper planting, so the shipment was sent via a 30-truck convoy from Mexico to the port in Los Angeles where it faced delays crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Once the trucks crossed into U.S. territory, they were forced to take a detour; the National Guard had closed the freeway because of Watts race riots in the city.

Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug is congratulated by Norway's King Olaf after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.
Borlaug with Jimmy Carter in Accra, Ghana, in 1988. Both oversee Sasakawa Global 2000, an African agricultural program.

Impediments reached comic proportions once the seed hit Los Angeles. Because of three misspelled words in a $100,000 check drawn on the Pakistani treasury, a Mexican bank refused to honor payment. Yet somehow the seed was loaded onto a freighter destined for Bombay and Karachi.

That freighter was at sea 12 hours when war broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. At that point Borlaug received a cable from the Pakistani minister of agriculture: "I'm sorry to hear you are having trouble with my check, but I've got troubles, too. Bombs are falling on my front lawn. Be patient, the money is in the bank..."

But the delays cost them: There was no time to conduct the germination tests needed to determine quality and proper seeding levels. Planting started immediately and Borlaug and his team worked feverishly, sometimes within sight of artillery flashes.

"We did a lot of praying," he remembers. "People were dying in big numbers."

After examining his plantings a week after they had begun, Borlaug confronted another setback: His seeds were germinating at less than half the normal rate. He immediately ordered all locations to double seeding rates.

Despite these problems, yields were better than any ever harvested in South Asia, and Borlaug's scientists believed the yields would have been as much as 20 percent greater had they not suffered problems with germination. Later tests in Mexico revealed that his seed had been severely damaged in a warehouse by over-fumigation with a pesticide.

India subsequently made a huge commitment to Mexican wheat, importing some 18,000 tons of seed, the largest purchase and import of any seed crop in the world up to that time. By 1968, it was clear that the Indian wheat harvest was nothing short of revolutionary. It was so prolific that there was a shortage of labor to harvest it, of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, of jute bags, trucks, rail cars and grain storage facilities. Local governments in some areas were forced to shutter schools temporarily to use them for grain storage.

The effects of Borlaug's work across Asia have been nothing short of staggering. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 1961 and 2001 India more than doubled its population, from 452 million to more than 1 billion. At the same time, it nearly tripled its grain production from 87 million tons to 231 million tons. It accomplished this feat while increasing cultivated grain acreage a scant 8 percent. The results of Green Revolution applications have been just as dramatic as they have crept across the Asian continent. In 1961, Asian grain production stood at roughly 330 million tons. By 2001, that figure swelled to 985 million tons. At the same time the population in Asia surged from 1.7 billion to 3.7 billion: three times the grain output for 2.2 times the people. The "bomb" doomsayers with their projected millions of starvation deaths were proven wrong.

Still, Borlaug's work has met with derision. His critics, primarily from the environmental movement, charge his accomplishments have come at enormous ecological cost: the poisoning of soils and waterways where nitrogen fertilizer runoff has created "dead zones" from prolific algae blooms in many coastal waters; the loss of top soil; the disruption or destruction of crop diversity; and the creation of a costly dependence on pesticides, fertilizers and new technologies concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.

"It is a very myopic view of dealing with hunger," says Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, a Berkeley, California-based food and development activist group. "The harm outweighs the benefit." Mittal argues that because of limited access and distribution, India faces a greater threat from starvation today than it did in the mid-'60s.

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