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Norman Borlaug: 1914-2009
I was one of the “green revolutionaries” in the late 60’s and early 70’s, a Peace Corps agricultural extension worker in Nepal promoting the new varieties of wheat and rice that stemmed from Dr. Borlaug’s pioneering work. Although my feeble efforts had a less than transforming effect in the remote community where I lived and worked, you could begin to get a sense that something significant was taking place. Nepali agricultural researchers in particular were excited about the possibilities for the new technologies to lay to rest, once and for all, the threat of famine, and to enable peasant farmers to improve their situations. Suddenly, a major social and economic transformation was conceivable.
One of the positive attributes of the new varieties not often noted was that, in addition to being higher-yielding, they were also faster maturing, making it possible for farmers to get an extra crop from their limited acreage. In traveling across Northern India in those years you could see fields that had previously lain fallow during the winter now planted to wheat – the short, thick-stemmed, heavy headed varieties that made it possible for India to graduate from the ranks of the food aid-dependent.
It was only later that I became aware of who Norman Borlaug was, and his role in this larger triumph. I only knew that a fresh breeze of hope of agricultural plenty was blowing across the Indian sub-continent that had such a history of famine and deprivation.
Dr. Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel acceptance lecture is worth reading in its entirety, as a reminder of what the Green Revolution was (and wasn’t), of what the world was like at that time, of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. In that speech he said the following:
The destiny of world civilization depends upon providing a decent standard of living for all mankind. The guiding principles of the recipient of the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize, the International Labor Organization, are expressed in its charter words, "Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice. If you desire peace, cultivate justice." This is magnificent; no one can disagree with this lofty principle.
Almost certainly, however, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. (my emphasis) Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today fifty percent of the world's population goes hungry. Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore I feel that the aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.
Dr. Borlaug may have overstated his case somewhat when he claimed that fifty percent of the world’s population at that time was going hungry. But he wasn’t that far off. Today that is down to between sixteen and twenty percent – still far too many, but an indicator of great progress. Much of that progress is attributable to Dr. Borlaug and those he inspired.
Unfortunately we did grow complacent, and are now reaping the results (pun intended) of decades of neglect of agriculture in the developing world: after a long period of decline, food prices are on the increase, and the number of hungry people in the world has surged. There are those who argue that the issue is not productivity: the world currently produces enough to ensure every resident of the planet an adequate diet. This is true, on an abstract level. But what exponents of this point of view neglect is that poor people need incomes to buy the food, and that income is only going to come about through increased productivity in agriculture and the rural economy, where most of the world’s poor are found.
The current administration’s global food security initiative is a long-overdue step toward redressing this mistake and constitutes the kind of program that that Norman Borlaug would appreciate and approve of. His best memorial will be to continue his work and finally achieve the end he so fervently sought and did so much to bring about – the end of hunger.
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