Jeanie Laube wasn't sure what her father was up to in India and Pakistan in the late 1960s. He was almost never home, and he wasn't in the habit of calling, she says. That's why she was stunned one morning in 1970. While listening to her car radio in Wisconsin she heard that her daddy had won the Nobel Peace Prize. "I couldn't believe it. I had no clue," she admits.
If Laube was clueless then, the rest of America is largely clueless now. While other American Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Dr. Martin Luther King (1964), Henry Kissinger (1973), Elie Wiesel (1986, Holocaust survivor and author) and Jody Williams (1997, anti-land mine activist) might at least spark vague recognition, Borlaug's name would most likely elicit blank stares. Yet among many who know him, mention of his name draws forth a different response. "I believe that Norman Borlaug will eventually be recognized as one of the 10 greatest contributors to humankind of the 20th century," says Bruce Chassy, professor of food microbiology at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Yet the pith of his greatness is--at least to those whose bellies have never cramped from hunger--mundane: cereal grains. In the mid-'60s, Borlaug traveled to India and Pakistan in an attempt to avert massive disaster. The countries had plunged into one of the worst droughts in years. Millions teetered on the edge of starvation. For several frantic months, Borlaug and his team dodged war, struggled with bum seeds and battled entrenched bureaucrats. Yet by employing agricultural techniques he developed in Mexico, he was able to nearly double South Asian wheat harvests between 1965 and 1970. His work was coined the "Green Revolution," and it spread rapidly across Asia. Largely because of Borlaug's work, global food production outpaced surging population growth over the closing decades of the 20th century, averting the global calamity so many predicted.
When Borlaug was selected for the Nobel Peace Prize, Laube says, Norwegian officials phoned her mother in Mexico City at 4 a.m., but Borlaug had already left for the test fields in Toluca Valley, about 40 miles west of Mexico City. A chauffeur was dispatched to take her to the fields to meet her husband. "And my mom said, 'You won the Nobel Peace Prize,' and he said, 'No, I haven't.'" He refused to believe it. "'I'm not going in to talk to the press,'" Laube says her father insisted after finally accepting the news. "It took some convincing," she says. "He thought the whole thing was a hoax."
In the years since, many have struggled to frame Borlaug's accomplishments as just that: a hoax; a brown revolution that has wreaked far more environmental and cultural havoc on the planet than benefit; a Western public relations stunt designed to fatten the agro-industrial complex, not feed the hungry.
Physicist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi, decried this supposed disaster in her 1991 book The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. She blames the Green Revolution for the destruction of Indian crop diversity, drought vulnerability, dependence on agrochemicals that poison soils and waterways and for generating "pseudo surpluses" reflecting boosts in wheat and rice production while concealing declines in the production of pulses, oilseeds, millets and maize. "There was great violence at the heart of the Green Revolution," Shiva wrote in a 1994 article published in The Guardian in London. "People were at each other's throats."
Jeanie Laube says she never knows where in the world her father is. He skims the globe--sub-Saharan Africa, Oslo, Mexico, Tokyo--attending conferences, giving speeches, conducting scientific research, teaching scientists from developing nations. As a child growing up in Mexico City, she only saw her father on holidays or for special events. Infrequent family picnics would take place in Mexico's experimental wheat fields, where Laube would help her father put plastic sleeves around wheat stems to facilitate cross-pollination. But now, she says, her father is home in Dallas more than he ever has been, maybe three weeks out of the year, though technically the 88-year-old Borlaug has lived here for more than 20 years. "He's never anywhere except in an airplane," she says. "I don't know how he does it. His sleep schedule is all messed up. He probably sleeps four hours per day."
Because her mother, Margaret, now 91, is blind, Laube manages the mail that flows into her North Dallas home. The stream is heavy, with thousands upon thousands of requests from around the world for her father's autograph. She once came across a postage stamp with her father's picture on it that someone had requested her father sign. Laube doesn't remember from what country the stamp originated, but India issued a postage stamp in 1968 honoring the Indian wheat revolution her father fomented.
What confounds Laube is how little of this mail comes from the United States. "They have Time magazine with pictures of people who don't do anything for humanity," she says. "They have stamps for people who don't do anything for humanity. And here's this person, an American...I think he's really underappreciated in America."
The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. Agriculture is not a sexy subject. The beneficiaries of his innovations and energies are primarily brown and yellow people from Third World countries. Then there is simply this: Desperate hunger is an alien affliction in the United States, where malnourishment is more likely to result in obesity than distended bellies.
Yet more than that is a prevailing criticism that a cadre of elites--from activists to academics to business and governmental organizations--has leveled against Borlaug since he embarked on a radical plan to feed the desperate millions in South Asia in the mid-'60s. They thought his program was pure madness, an example of reckless arrogance.
Borlaug wrote in 1988 that this faction of "clairvoyant doomsayers" was both surprised and dismayed when his success proved them wrong. During the 1980s as Borlaug turned his attention to Africa, some environmentalists took aim at high-yield agriculture as a global ecological threat and sought to starve him of funding by pressuring foundations and donor countries to steer clear of Borlaug's work, which utilized heavy doses of chemical fertilizers. The pressure repelled the Ford Foundation and the World Bank from Borlaug's efforts.
"These people have never been around hungry people," Borlaug says of his well-fed critics. "They're Utopians. They sit and philosophize. They don't live in the real world."
In 1999, the Texas A&M University Board of Regents named its Center for Southern Crop Improvement in honor of Borlaug, who has been a distinguished professor of international agriculture at the university since 1984. But the part-time professor didn't take an office in the handsome $16 million complex. Borlaug works in the Heep Center in a shadowy section of the building drenched in drab green. There is no plaque to indicate a Nobel laureate dwells among the papers, books and pictures from Mexico and Africa stuffed into a room barely larger than a broom closet. Instead, a slip of paper with his name printed on it is taped to a raised rectangle affixed to the wall.
Despite his age, Borlaug is sharp and articulate. His speech wavers but is vigorous, and he has never been one to shy away from physical danger or discomfort. For the past 60 years he has trekked through the globe's most desperate and backward corners--Peru, Guatemala, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan--in a relentless drive to teach people how to adequately feed themselves.
For most of his adult life Borlaug has rarely indulged in the comforts of the industrialized West for any extended period of time. His choice has been to immerse himself in locales where people stare death in the face every day.
"Traveling in the back country is not very pleasant," he admits. "The hotels were miserable. The food was bad. In any of these countries I'd never eat fresh food that wasn't cooked, unless I knew where that damn lettuce came from. Chances are pretty good it was irrigated with sewage water."
He was born in 1914 and grew up on a small farm in the northeastern corner of Iowa in a town called Cresco. He and his family raised corn, oats, timothy hay, cattle, pigs and chickens. Schooling was in a one-room schoolhouse that spanned kindergarten through eighth grade.
Borlaug's main diversion growing up was wrestling, and he was a feisty competitor who in 1992 was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He also loved baseball and had it fixed in his mind that he would one day play second base for the Chicago Cubs. His more practical dream was to be a high school science teacher and coach, but a lack of money kept that pursuit at bay.
"I am a product of the worst of the Depression," he says. "I didn't have any money to go to college." So after high school, Borlaug went to work, collecting wages working the harvests and cutting fence posts and wood, as well as trapping muskrats.
Through a Depression-era program known as the National Youth Administration, Borlaug was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis to study forestry, working mostly as a waiter in a sorority house to earn his keep. What he saw when he first arrived in the city in 1933 shook him irrevocably. Huge numbers of desperate, hungry people huddled in the streets, begging for food, sleeping on newspapers spread over the sidewalks. He saw a riot sparked by a milk truckers' strike where milk trucks were stopped and their contents dumped into the street. The city was boiling with unrest. "That's how close we were to the breakdown of our whole government," he says. "Most people don't know how unstable everything was."
Instead of being repelled by the desperation, Borlaug was compelled by it. When his money ran out in 1935, he dropped out of school and got a job in the Civilian Conservation Corps supervising emergency work programs in forestry and soil conservation. The men under his charge, many 17 and 18 years old, were starving. "At the camps they were able to recover some semblance of health and self-confidence," Borlaug said in a 1991 interview published in the academic journal Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems. "I saw how food changed them...All of this left scars on me."
Borlaug was able to earn enough money to return to school, and after graduation his work with the Forestry Service brought him to the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, the most isolated piece of wilderness in the lower 48 states at the time. Yet his career in forestry changed after he heard a lecture titled "These Shifty Little Enemies that Destroy our Food Crops" by E. Charles Stakman, the renowned plant pathologist from the University of Minnesota. Stakman studied the movement of rust spores that had devastated wheat, oat and barley production across the United States. His research on the hybridization of the rust and its movement via the jet stream compelled Borlaug. "Hell, I was flabbergasted," he says.
Borlaug entered graduate school in 1938 to study under Stakman. A few years later, he took a job as a microbiologist at du Pont de Nemours in Delaware to work on agricultural chemical development, just as he was beginning his coursework for a doctorate in plant pathology. Within months a torrent of Japanese planes rained devastation on Pearl Harbor, altering his plans.
His tasks changed from fertilizers and pesticides to camouflage, canteen disinfectants and insulation for small electronics. One of his first projects was to develop glue that could withstand the warm saltwater in the South Pacific. The Japanese had isolated Guadalcanal, controlling the air and seas by day. The only way U.S. naval forces could supply the Marines stranded there was by approaching the island by speedboat at night and pitching boxes of canned food and other supplies into the surf so that they could wash ashore, but the glue holding the containers together disintegrated in saltwater. Borlaug and his team developed the adhesive within weeks. It was his first major offensive against hunger.
Borlaug's largest battles were yet to come. In 1940, Vice President Henry Wallace received a request by Mexican government officials for assistance in developing a program to train a new generation of Mexican agricultural scientists. The agrarian reforms that had been instituted in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 had not been going well. Yields were abysmal, and the Mexican leadership believed their agricultural industry was being left behind.
In 1943 the Cooperative Mexican Agricultural Program was inaugurated. Its goal was to develop the three most crucial crops in Mexican culture--corn, wheat and beans--with one overriding mandate: boost yields. When Borlaug arrived in Mexico a year later with his wife and daughter Jeanie, just a year old, he was assigned to develop a wheat research and production program.
Borlaug says those first couple of years in Mexico were unbearable. There was an acute lack of trained scientists and equipment. The farmers were hostile toward the wheat program because of serious crop losses in 1939-1941 from stem rust. He also found himself pitted against elements of Mexican culture, most notably the conviction among some of his Mexican counterparts that they were above getting dirty. His inability to speak Spanish compounded his frustrations. "It often appeared to me that I had made a dreadful mistake in accepting the position in Mexico," Borlaug writes in the epilogue to his book Norman Borlaug on World Hunger.
But he found his stride and quickly embarked on a crash plan to develop an improved stem-rust resistant strain of tall wheat. His impatience led to the development of a "shuttle breeding system" whereby wheat varieties were tested and bred in two different environments and then shuttled back and forth between the winter and summer seasons, permitting two breeding cycles per year instead of one. As a result, Borlaug and his team were able to introduce several new varieties in less than four years.
But his rapid progress drew scowls from fellow wheat breeders and geneticists who maintained wheat strains could only be bred within one specific environment. This wouldn't be the last time Borlaug's sense of urgency drew carping from the establishment.
Dramatic progress came when Borlaug hit upon the idea of incorporating Japanese dwarf wheat varieties into his breeding program. Nature favored tall wheat grasses as they can better compete for sunlight. But tall wheat is inefficient from a grain standpoint and has a tendency to fall over, resulting in spoilage, especially when the plant sustains vigorous growth spurts from nitrogen fertilizer. So Borlaug bred his wheat for shorter, stronger stalks that could better support fatter seed heads, allowing growers to charge the plant with water and fertilizer. Yields tripled.
When Borlaug set foot in Mexico in 1944, it imported 60 percent of the wheat it consumed. By 1956, it was self-sufficient. This "quiet revolution" was the forebear of the Green Revolution that swept South Asia a decade later.
It's startling to consider that 30-plus years ago many prominent thinkers recommended abandoning famine-threatened India and Pakistan as hopeless causes. They advocated a "lifeboat" theory of survival, a sort of global triage whereby desperate basket cases would be allowed to perish so that precious resources could be funneled to those nations deemed salvageable.
Others believed more food would fuel escalating population growth and wreak greater damage on the environment. "Human population growth had become a cancer on the earth," says Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, where Borlaug serves as chairman emeritus. "We had removed the famine constraint. At that time we didn't know that affluence, particularly urban affluence, was going to lower birthrates the way it has."
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
But activists have lodged vociferous opposition to the commercialization of these crops. Their demands range from moratoriums to outright bans on the technology. Food First's Mittal calls biotech crops "weapons." The Sierra Club's Carmen classifies them as poisons. Mae-Wan Ho, geneticist and biophysicist at the Open University near London, says they're "worse than nuclear weapons or radioactive wastes."
Americans and much of the world have been consuming genetically modified (GM) crops since their introduction in 1995. Globally, farmers have devoted more than 109 million acres to biotech crops. More than 70 percent of processed foods in the United States contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.
But critics say these crops pose unacceptable risks to the environment and human health, including threats to biodiversity in agricultural areas, the potential for uncontrollable "super weeds" and the risk of toxins and allergens in the food supply. Precious few studies have lent credence to these claims, and the ones that have are inconclusive. In addition, no reported cases from health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked so much as a headache or a rash to genetically modified foods.
On the other hand, several studies have concluded that biotech foods are safe, most notably a massive survey released last year by the European Union, a continent generally hostile to GM foods. This 15-year, $64 million survey encompassing 81 separate research projects not only concluded that biotech crops posed no new risks to human health and the environment, but the more precise technology and intensified regulatory scrutiny incumbent in them "probably make them safer than conventional plant breeding."
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and scientific panels appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy have all concluded that current biotech crops are safe.
"We need this. This serves a useful purpose," Borlaug says, rapping the table with a pen. "What's happened more and more, from my point of view, for the last seven or eight years since all of this biotechnology has been coming on, is that the gene for common sense and judgment has been eroded all to hell and it doesn't function anymore." Borlaug believes opposition to biotechnology stems more from fervent anti-corporate ideology than concern for human health or the environment.
Just as they did earlier with agrochemical farming controversies, Borlaug's critics have brought the biotech issue to sub-Saharan Africa to complicate his work. In Africa, Borlaug is working with former president and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter through the Sasakawa Africa Association to spread modern agricultural technologies among small farmers in a region where yields are among the lowest in the world.
Last September, starving people in Zambia looted storage sheds filled with thousands of tons of U.S. corn donated to help alleviate southern Africa's worst food crisis in a decade. Some 14 million people in six countries are threatened with starvation, 2.3 million in Zambia alone. But Zambia's people won't be receiving the food aid. On October 29, after concerted lobbying by biotech opponents, the Zambian government rejected the food aid and padlocked it in warehouses when it was discovered the shipment had been blended with genetically modified corn.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa reportedly referred to the food as poison, and the United Nations reports that many people have been reduced to eating leaves. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Zambians who believed GM corn makes people sterile and even causes AIDS. "Please give us the food," pleaded an elderly man in a Los Angeles Times report. "We don't care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway."
GM opponents in the United States support the decision of the Zambian government, alleging the United States is at fault in the crisis for "dumping" the GM blended corn, using it as an economic cudgel. "Some speculate that maybe they sent it over there in order to contaminate their food supply," says Neil Carmen of the Sierra Club. Anuradha Mittal of Food First says the U.S. move was nothing more than an attempt to find new markets for American agribusiness, though she doesn't say exactly how food aid would accomplish this.
"I absolutely agree and support their decision 100 percent," says Candace Boheme of Austin-based Say No to GMOs regarding the Zambian government's rejection. When asked if she would maintain her support in the face of thousands of deaths from starvation, Boheme replies, "Absolutely. I would like to see people get healthy food. There is uncontaminated corn available, and it's not being offered...It's morally reprehensible that they are not being offered an alternative...It's like giving a starving Jew some pork. There's absolutely no sensitivity in that."
For all the impact that Norman Borlaug has had around the globe, it's perhaps most troubling to the people of Iowa that this farm boy from Cresco isn't a household name, but they're working to change that. Iowa Public Television recently produced a half-hour documentary titled Out of Iowa: Borlaug and the Green Revolution . It aired October 16, a day designated as the first Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Day. Utilizing a $5 million private donation, the city of Des Moines will restore the Des Moines Public Library as a "World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in honor of Dr. Norman E. Borlaug."
In Cresco, Ted Behrens, Borlaug's nephew and founder of the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, recently acquired his uncle's 106-acre farm along with the one-room schoolhouse Borlaug attended as a child. He is raising money to restore the farm. "It is a remarkable success story of a group of local people determined to preserve this modest 106-acre farm of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate--land considered hallowed ground by millions of less fortunate people in Third World countries," Behrens says. "Not only did he help save a billion people from starvation, but he also helped save 12 million miles of wildlife from being plowed down for low-yield crops," says the Hudson Institute's Dennis Avery. "That makes him not only the greatest humanitarian in the history of our time, and maybe all time, but also the greatest conservationist."
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