In September, Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, the movement that created bumper agricultural crops in the poorest countries, died. His obituaries glowed with praise for his work and credited him with saving more lives than anyone in human history, thanks to his breakthroughs that helped feed the world.
Iowa-born Borlaug started his career by developing a disease-resistant variety of wheat to help Mexican farmers who were losing their crops to wheat rust. Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, developing wheat varieties that produced four times more grain than traditional wheat plants and continued to apply his methods to rice and corn in other countries.
Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and the Congressional Gold Medal the same year. But he said at the time that the “battle to ensure food security for hundreds of millions of miserably poor people is far from won.”
He was right, of course. Even though his improved yields led to surpluses and low prices, and a sense that the problem was solved — for a time, from 1970 to 1990, the food supply grew faster than the world population — that situation is now reversed, and today there are more hungry people in the world than ever.
That’s why, throughout his long career, Borlaug continued to support advances in agricultural biotechnology — the only way agriculture would have any hope of keeping up with feeding the world. He pointed out to Reason magazine in a 2000 interview that the volume of the 17 most important U.S. crops had more than doubled between 1970 and 1990. That greater amount of food was grown on 25 million fewer acres; high-yield agriculture, he argued, allowed us to save millions of acres of forest.
Compared to today’s techniques, Borlaug’s method was a somewhat blunt instrument: Called mutation breeding, it relied on radiation or mutagenic chemicals to increase the number of gene mutations in seeds, then identifying the instances in which the mutation was advantageous. Modern biotechnology, including GMOs, is of course more precise.
Borlaug was an unwavering believer in the ability of science to improve our lives — if we let it. In July of this year, he wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal called “Farmers Can Feed the World.” Borlaug wrote, “Governments must make their decisions about access to new technologies, such as the development of genetically modified organisms, on the basis of science, and not to further political agendas.”
Today, political agendas can interfere with what Borlaug saw as progress. Some environmentalists frown on the presence of technology in farming, a feeling that drives much of the consumer interest in organic foods. Still, an International Food Information Council report from 2008 showed that 84 percent of Americans have favorable or neutral impressions of agricultural plant technology. Seventy-eight percent reported they would be more likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology that required fewer pesticides.
Many consumers in this country have the luxury of choosing organic food if they wish, but with a billion hungry people worldwide today and global food demand expected to double by 2050, the job of producing more food to feed the world without destroying the environment is literally life and death, still. Borlaug would say the Green Revolution must continue.