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?

"Clearly the Green Revolution was not without problems," says C.S. Prakash, professor of plant genetics at Tuskegee University. "Some of that did lead to indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides leading to environmental problems, but it is absurd to say that we have far more problems than before."

Indeed, the Green Revolution could be interpreted as a boon to environment. In 1961, according to the FAO, global grain stocks were generated on 1.6 billion acres of land. By 2001, grain production surged 2.3 times while the cropland used to produce it stood at 1.66 billion acres, an uptick of just 4 percent.

Still, Borlaug's critics take issue with the historical interpretation of his work. Far from a genuine humanitarian success of revolutionary proportions, they argue his efforts amount to little more than a propaganda ploy.

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.

"A lot of people were writing in the '70s how this Green Revolution of Borlaug's was turning into a brown revolution," says plant scientist Neil Carman, who serves in Austin on the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee. "You were using chemicals that had harmful effects on the people who use them, on the environment and on the food."

"I think there are a lot of development experts who are now questioning whether the success of the Green Revolution was really a public relations campaign more than a success," adds Charles Margulis of Greenpeace. "His work is premised on the idea that if we can just produce more food, we'll avert hunger. That just hasn't been the case in the past 50 years, and it's unlikely to be the case as long as big corporations are in charge of the food supply."

What these critics overwhelmingly advocate is a global movement toward "organic" or "sustainable" farming practices that eschew chemicals and high technology in favor of natural fertilizers, cultivation and pest-control programs. This notion is gaining throngs of adherents, especially among consumers. The organic food market, though less than 2 percent of the nation's food supply, is expected to top $11 billion this year, and demand has been growing at a pace of 20 percent annually over the last decade. On October 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's national organic standards went into effect, permitting foods to be labeled "organic" if they are produced without hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic modification or germ-killing radiation.

Proponents maintain organic agriculture is not only better for the environment but also better for public health. Yet to date there are no conclusive studies demonstrating that organic foods offer greater nutritional benefits than conventionally produced foods. Likewise, there is no conclusive evidence linking deleterious human health effects to trace pesticide residues in the food supply. In fact, a 1996 study from the National Academy of Sciences determined that cancer-causing chemicals occurring naturally in foods are far more numerous and concentrated in the human diet than synthetic carcinogens. Bruce Ames, toxicologist and one-time director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says there are more carcinogens in a single cup of coffee than in the pesticide residues present in all the fruits and vegetables the typical American consumes in a year. Both are at such low levels they pose little or no threat.

But the most controversial claim proponents of organic farming have put forth is that its production is near or equal to that of conventional agrochemical farming. The only long-term comprehensive study coming close to substantiating this claim was released earlier this year: a 21-year effort from two Swiss agricultural research institutes comparing various farming methods. The researchers concluded that organic farming could be more efficient, more economical and better for the environment on small to midsize farms, but yields from their test plots were still off 20 percent on average. And the researchers pointed out that cereal yields, the food on which most of the world depends, were off by as much as 40 percent.

What does Borlaug say to those who advocate such agricultural methods? "God bless you," he says. "Use all of the organic matter you want. But don't deceive the world into believing that we can feed 6.2 billion people with organic matter alone. If we tried to do this, we would plow up all of these marginal lands, cut down much of our forests, and much of that would be productive for just a few years. Without chemical fertilizer, forget it."

Borlaug argues that the world consumes some 82 million metric tons of chemical fertilizer per annum to supply the nitrogen crucial to plant development. Replacing these nitrogen inputs would require some 3 billion tons of cattle manure, one of the most concentrated sources of organic nitrogen. According to the FAO, the global cattle population stands at roughly 1.34 billion head. To produce the required amount of manure to replace synthetic fertilizers would require that population to swell to between 8 and 10 billion, necessitating the destruction of huge swaths of wilderness to make room for grazing land.

"The maximum population that could be sustained with 'sustainable' agriculture is 4 billion people," Borlaug says. "And this would be accompanied by substantial ecological devastation."

Borlaug is also an enthusiastic proponent of biotechnology, not surprising for a plant breeder who has spent his life trying to tease out ever more yields through genetic manipulation. He believes biotech will be key to meeting the enormous demands that will strain the globe in the next 30 years, when global food production will have to nearly double to keep pace with the projected population of 10 billion people by 2050. Borlaug says biotechnology will be indispensable to farmers to help them meet the challenges of disease and pest control and drought, temperature and soil toxicity tolerance, the latter crucial as crop cultivation expands to inhospitable soils. While biotech has yet to improve yields by any appreciable level, it shows promise in alleviating global malnourishment through the engineering of vitamin- and mineral-enhancing characteristics into cereal crops.

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