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An Abundant Harvest: Interview with Norman Borlaug,
Recipient, Nobel Peace Prize, 1970

Common Ground
August 12,1997

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Producer: This is Common Ground. Forecasts for cereal crops around the world look good but the food situation is still precarious in many countries. One man who spent his lifetime trying to feed the world is Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug.

NORMAN BORLAUG, recipient, Nobel Peace Prize, 1970: If you talk about the total carrying capacity of the planet Earth, at the present time we have not reached it. But we have it poorly located. We've got too many people in some places where the carrying capacity has been surpassed. But not from the standpoint of global. But how you move those people from overtaxed or overpopulated to less populated, then you get into social-political problems.

DAVIDSON: A conversation with Norman Borlaug during this half-hour of Common Ground. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

Norman Borlaug is one of only three living American recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug is a scientist, an agronomist to be more specific. His work, breeding new varieties of plants, began just after World War II and contributed to what has come to be known as "The Green Revolution"-the leap in the production of basic cereal crops in countries like India and Pakistan, which averted a predicted mass starvation there during the 1960s. Even at the age of 83 Borlaug continues to work on increasing crop yields, particularly in Africa where most of the farm work is still done by hand with hoes and sickles. What really worries Borlaug right now, even if forecasts for good harvests this year are realized, is that the supply of cereal grains worldwide is below what the Food and Agriculture Organization considers the minimum necessary to safeguard world food security.

BORLAUG: These ups and down are an ongoing thing. Part of this is that the stockpiles build too high, the prices go down and many people cut way back on production. But if you get too low you can't predict weather, either droughts or floods or a combination. Or it could be insect and disease losses. So we're always dealing with these variables. I disagree quite heatedly sometimes with the economists who say "India's wasting a lot of capital resources by carrying this huge stock of grain. Better they had carried much more modest stocks of grain and invested that capital-part of-it in other things that would be generating income." But they still remember '65, '66, '67. We haven't had anything like that to keep us...

DAVIDSON: ...terrible famine years...

BORLAUG: ...aware of what it really means when you run out. And that makes a difference. How much does security of food mean? And in that case-now, they've got another problem-how to distribute that equitably. But that's because of poverty of so much of their population. Lack of employment or underemployment.

DAVIDSON: Those people can't purchase the food supplies.

BORLAUG: That's right. Except the minimum amounts to get by on. So that hasn't been solved. But under emergencies, at least, the government has within its power, if it wants to exert it, to distribute that; it's right there. It's not like it was in middle '60s when you didn't know if the ship was going to arrive in time. And even so, importing grain is one thing for the major cities on the coast; it's something else to distribute it out to the villages. Whereas going the other way, from the village into the towns, to the central market, those ox carts can come anytime of the day. But who's going to program, if you're unloading ships down at the port, when those trucks and when at the ends of where the roads are, when the bullock carts are going to move it to the village. It's much more difficult going back. All of these things complicate. Whereas their reserve-if they have, and they generally do have-these stocks in different parts of the country, they can manipulate these. They can handle it.

DAVIDSON: Dr. Borlaug, it must be very gratifying to you to go to India now and see those surplus stocks of grain.

BORLAUG: But I'd rather see it in the stomachs of some, stomachs that are still only partially filled because of poverty-lack of money to buy what they need. But you don't see mass starvation. Nevertheless, there are people that need more food.

DAVIDSON: Norman Borlaug was born on a farm in Cresco, Iowa. He was just a teen-ager when the Great Depression of the 1930s hit. It was that experience of seeing people go hungry in his own country, even in the agricultural breadbasket, that motivated him to work on food problems worldwide.

BORLAUG: And I saw chaos in this country. I saw all the rural banks go broke. There was no bank insurances. And many of the farmers, the good, big farmers, their way of savings at that time was in stock of that bank, that local bank. They had stock. But those stocks were written that they had a double indemnity clause. If the bank went broke you not only lost money you'd had in purchasing that stock, which was your savings, but you had to pay in again the same amount as the face value of that stock. And most of them had all of their monies tied up in the stock. Or in a deposit and stock. And when the bank went broke-okay, they're going to collect on that stock. So they'd foreclose on your land. And then you were left with just your personal property; the machinery and the cattle, or livestock. And then with the depressed prices, everything going from bad to worse. Sometimes many farmers, two years, three years later, they had sheriff's sales where they sold the livestock and the machinery at public auction. And it was so bad that, most people aren't aware of this, but in a few cases-only a few-once as I recall it was up near Spencer....


BORLAUG: At the auction neighbors came with pitchforks and shotguns and that property wasn't bought at its true value. That's how close we were to real trouble in this country. And then, in 1933, when I went to Minneapolis to register to go to the University, there was a couple of weeks before classes started. So I wandered, starting walking in downtown Minneapolis. First time in a big city. And here was all of these unemployed lying on the streets asking for a nickel to buy a cup of coffee and, what do you call them? White Castle hamburgers. They were about so big. I happened to wander down in North Minneapolis, down in the market section. Didn't even know where I was. Big mass of churning people. A strike. Milk and vegetable producers. I'm standing there like a country little boy in the big city and all at once there's a photographer climbed up to take a picture of this mass of churning people. And I'm standing there beside this car. And somebody grabbed him and took him and busted his camera and the first thing you know I was in the middle of terrible riot. And I saw all of these things and coming from the country where I'd never seen hunger. So because of all of these I had a very strong social concept of what it was like in other countries.

And after I finished my graduate school, which was only a few months before Pearl Harbor, I accepted a job with the DuPont Chemical Company, to work on agricultural chemicals. But before I ever really got started on agricultural chemicals Pearl Harbor came and so this laboratory was converted over to work for the armed forces. And then it's the first foreign technical assistance program in agriculture, to help a food deficit nation, was the Rockefeller Foundation-Mexican Government cooperative program. And I was offered this position when they started it. And I said, "No, I can't go because I was under War Manpower." And I stayed there, did all of the things that I was supposed to do. And when I was released from War Manpower on July 1st, I suppose '44, and so I accepted this job to go to Mexico to work on that first program. And in one way or another for these past 52 years I've been doing that. The first 17 years pretty much in Latin America. And then from '60 to, oh, '75, pretty much-or even '80-in South Asia. A bit in East Asia. And the last ten years, South Sahara.

DAVIDSON: When Norman Borlaug was born in 1914, world population was about 1.75 billion. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, 3.7 billion people lived on this planet. Today world population stands at nearly 6 billion and will continue to climb to over 8 billion in the next 30 years. Borlaug calls this the population monster. While his work has helped expand global food production faster than the population, he believes we will eventually reach the carrying capacity of the earth.

BORLAUG: Well, if you talk about the total carrying capacity of the planet Earth, at the present time we have not reached it. But we have it poorly located. We've got too many people in some places where the carrying capacity has been surpassed. But not from the standpoint of global. But how you move those people from overtaxed or overpopulated to less populated, then you get into social-political problems. But biologically speaking we haven't reached this. But that's no way to handle these problems. And there's a lot of technology that is still in the pipeline of the conventional type that is coming on stream. It's only been partially used, even in countries like, let's say Pakistan, or India for that matter.

Even in the two crops that have made the most progress in both of those countries, wheat and rice. The good farmers are approaching the potential capacity of those varieties, with good management. But for each good farmer there's five mediocres and there's probably five bad ones. And so how they, how you change those bad to mediocres and move those others up, part of that is economic. Part of that is skills also. Training. So it's complicated. But there's still a lot of potential. But I agree, most of the increase in food production for the next two or three decades, will have to come from increased yield on the land under cultivation and hopefully the land best suited for agriculture. So that you can leave the more fragile ecosystems. We need to recognize that already there are many people in some countries who have been pushed into these bad environments because, again, that population is over-concentrated in some countries, some parts of countries. And it's very difficult to generalize-dangerous to generalize. Because what fits one situation doesn't fit another. And therein lies the difficulty of trying to generalize. But there's still a lot of potential. No question, there comes a point where you'll get into the description of what you've said.

DAVIDSON: We'll pause here for a short break. You're listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. My guest today is Norman Borlaug, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Borlaug was chosen for his work in helping bring about dramatic increases in world food production by developing high-yielding varieties of wheat that adapted well to a wide range of growing conditions. Borlaug conducted his groundbreaking research at the International Maize and Wheat Center in Mexico City, where he has served as Director. He continues to divide his time today between the Center, teaching at Texas A & M, and as Senior Consultant to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's Global 2000 Project to increase cereal production in Africa. The Stanley Foundation, which sponsors Common Ground, is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this Common Ground program are available. And at the end of the broadcast I'll give you details on how to order.

Since 1984 Norman Borlaug has been working on the poorest continent in the world, Africa. A quarter of its people are underfed. Per capita food production is falling and the population in Africa doubles every 24 years, the Carter Center reports. Borlaug got involved when a Japanese philanthropist, Ryoichi Sasakawa, asked him to help address the underlying causes of the food crisis affecting some 20 countries in Africa at that time.

BORLAUG: Mr. Sasakawa called me when I was teaching one semester here in Texas A&M. And he didn't speak any English or Spanish and so I can't speak Japanese, but I knew his public relations man. And so he called me. He said, "Mr. Sasakawa wants you to know that he has given a large sum of money to the United Nations for emergency grain purchase for Ethiopia and for Sudan, because of the drought combined with the war. But he also wants to know why something isn't being done to change production like you, with moving the Mexican wheat program into India and Pakistan in the '60s, when everybody said you were crazy. And look what happened." I know what happened. He said, "Why isn't something like this going on in Africa south of the Sahara?" And I said, "I don't know anything about African agriculture south of the Sahara. I've never been there. I've been retired. I'm too old to start learning now." And I hung up the telephone. The next morning he called back and he said, "Mr. Sasakawa wants you to know that he's 15 years older than you are and we should have started yesterday, so let's start tomorrow." So in '85 we held a workshop in Geneva, Switzerland. Mr. Sasakawa, junior and senior, both came. And President Carter wanted to come and came and became very actively involved. We put him to chair one session and from then to now he's been very active. And at the end of these two days Mr. Sasakawa said, "We will run two programs for five years to see what you can do. If it goes reasonably well we'll consider expanding."

And we visited six countries and it was decided to start small programs. Not in research. We found that there was a lot of information on the experiment station in the university, including improved seed varieties that had been developed in part, sometimes by-in the case of corn-by young scientists from those countries, who had come to CYMYT, the International Center where I worked. Had gone back, had continued the work. But nothing going to farmers' fields, because there was poor communications between the research people and the extension people. The extension people are not degree holders. Mostly they're diploma and sometimes only certificate. And so no communication.

If there is no communication between the researchers and the extension persons, then how could the farmer, who is supposed to get the message from the extension? So, we decided to go into extension and try to upgrade them. Giving them practical training. And so we're upgrading. We trained extension people. We got them functional. We started putting out these one-acre plots comparing the traditional to what we think is the most practical economic package of practice: right variety; the cropland; right date of planting; the right kind of fertilizer restoration-these soils are all depleted of one or more nutrients: proper control of weeds; and as best you can, the conservation of moisture. And since then we're working at eight other countries.

DAVIDSON: Former President Carter helped gain the cooperation of the government of Ethiopia, where Borlaug has had the most success in Africa, by personally taking Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on a field trip.

BORLAUG: We've only been working there three years. And two years ago when we had quite a few hundred of these one-acre plots scattered all over on these different crops, President Carter happened to be visiting at that time. And he said, "I've got to get the Prime Minister to see these." And he went to the Prime Minister and he said, "Have you seen these?" And of course he hadn't. And he said, "Come, we're going tomorrow." And the Prime Minister went and saw all of this and Meles, the Prime Minister, looked at this and he said, "Is this for real?" And of course, Carter said, "Sure it's for real." And he grabbed the ball. This last year it wasn't a demonstration plot anymore; it was a production campaign. Already we've got corn piled everywhere. We've got to convert this now to animal feed because Ethiopia has the largest livestock population of any country south of the Sahara. Both cattle, especially sheep and goats. The way things are now, at the end of the long dry season the cattle are, all of them, just skin and bones because no forage. We can change that now.

DAVIDSON: Once Ethiopia is on the road to self-sufficiency Borlaug plans to lobby other African governments to change their agriculture policies.

BORLAUG: I'm very hopeful now there's going to be a major change in Ethiopia-could become self-sufficient in all basic grains in two years. If this happens in Ethiopia I'm going to chide Ghana. "Rawlings," I'm going to say, "Look, you were running first and then you relaxed. Aren't you ashamed? Look at what's happened. You're running in third place." Denin, the same way. They are ready. Tanzania can make a rapid change. With this change in policy. The one bottleneck they have is transport. But Tanzania, because of that railroad from Dar Es Salaam that goes to Zambia, that's functional but needs more capacity on that, more trains running on that. But Ethiopia is in bad shape on that because if we get this livestock thing I mentioned earlier going, how do we move those fattened sheep down to the, to the coast to be shipped across the Red Sea for cash to the oil-rich Arab countries?

DAVIDSON: There is opposition to Norman Borlaug's brand of high-yield agriculture. In the years since the Green Revolution critics have assailed it for its dependence on chemical fertilizers, both for environmental concerns and because some farmers are too poor to buy the inputs and are thus forced off the land. Borlaug bristles at the implication that his work has imperiled small, poor farmers.

BORLAUG: I've heard that song for 30 years,and I'm damned sick and tired of it. Let me say this: Don't talk to the biologists about these problems. That wheat plant, or that corn plant, or that rice plant, doesn't know whether it's growing on a 10-hectare plot, a one-hectare plot, or a 100-hectare field. It's going to respond the same way so long as it's treated in the same way on one-hectare, a 10-hectare or a 100. The distribution of those benefits has to be done by the political will and economic planners. And to mix those two together and blame the biologist and soil scientist is to accuse them of murder, when you better look in the mirror as to what's the cause of those things. This isn't to minimize the importance-it's true.

The same thing: you have to battle to make sure that as best you can, that the little farmer gets fertilizer and credit to work this out. See, you can't sit down in an office and plan these things. You've got to be out on the firing line. And nothing more disgusting than seeing people sitting 2,000 miles from the front philosophizing, making all sorts of theoretical decisions and accusations. It's not based on fact. Sure, there's some grains of truth in all of this. But let me point out that the inequities were there before there was agriculture. Who occupied the best grazing land for wildlife? The strongest tribes. And the weakest tribes were pushed into more marginal, arid lands. Where in the privileged areas they could kill one animal and feed the whole clan, and there were many clans of that tribe living in that privileged environment. What about the little guy? The ones living on the smaller animals? They had to work many more hours to kill a smaller animal. And sometimes they didn't get one. Those inequities were there. Don't blame science and technology for that.

DAVIDSON: In the end, according to Norman Borlaug, education will be the key to addressing the problems of the world.

BORLAUG: Some of the greatest satisfactions I've had is to see little boys-and girls too, for that matter-that have dropped out of school in the third grade. They've got bright, shiny eyes. You give them a job scaring the birds out of your plots. And together with your colleagues you say, "Let's put a little few pennies together and get that little person in school and get them back." And they go through primary school. And then get them into high school You may have to move them to another village because there's no school like that. And I've seen some of them become Ph.D.s; some of the best scientists. And Master Technicians. They're tremendous. There's lots of unpolished stones out there that never got a chance. And a little stimulation. You have to identify them. You can't do that all at the same, we don't have enough pennies to start them all up. But if that happens to some of these, other kids start saying, "Look what happened to that person." That's all part of the game. You've got to reach for the star. You'll never get the star, or never reach it, but if you stretch yourself enough, I always tell the students, you'll get some stardust on your hands. And if that happens you'll be surprised what happens in your ability to do something for yourself, your family, the community, the state, the nation, and the world.

DAVIDSON: Norman Borlaug has been my guest on Common Ground. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased crop yields in the hungriest parts of the world. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

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