Recognizing a Giant of Our Time: A Tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug
By Thomas R. DeGregori*
The greatest good is often that which is unnoticed and often unknown. Not least among our blessings is that which does not happen and is therefore invisible to us. The benefits of modern science and technology permeate every aspect of our lives but remain largely unnoticed but the occasional problems of modern life get widely trumpeted and offered as the norm rather than the exception. Various groups have an interest in keeping us informed about what allegedly harms us while remaining silent about what kee day out. Counting our blessings is too often saved for special occasions and taken for granted the rest of the time.
We cannot repeat too often the litany of how much longer we live than just a century ago, how many fewer of our children die in infancy or early childhood and how much healthier and taller we are. Just as our benefits are often invisible so too often are our benefactors.
To the extent that my experience is typical, and I am confident that it is, the vast majority of young people in college are unaware of the diseases that have never afflicted them and the death or lifelong debility that others before them suffered and felt lucky to survive and endure. At best, smallpox is something of which they are vaguely aware. By some estimates, prior to William Jenner's use of the cowpox vaccine to immunize against smallpox, one in every ten human beings that lived were infected by it
In the first eight decades in the century in which my students were born, the death toll from smallpox averaged more than 35 million a decade totaling over 280 million or more than died in all the horrendous wars of the 20th century. Given the rapid decline in smallpox deaths during the eleven year eradication campaign, it is likely that lives saved from death from smallpox now exceeds 100 million and still counting. A far greater number survived but the quality of their life was greatly diminished by the inflicted upon their eyesight or internal organs. Except for two who died in a laboratory accident, no one has died from smallpox or even contacted it in over 2 1/2 decades thanks to the eradication campaign that was led by Dr. D.A. Henderson, a member of ACSH's Board of Scientific Advisors. Henderson is now the leading expert on bioterrorism in the United States.
Not least and possibly greatest among the 20th century's unsung and largely unknown benefactors is Dr. Norman Borlaug whose 90th birthday we celebrate on Thursday, March 25th. Dr. Borlaug, a Nobel laureate and member of ACSH's Board of Directors was along with D.A. Henderson honored at the ACSH's 25th anniversary banquet last December.
Sixty years ago, Borlaug went to Mexico to begin his life work which continues undiminished to the present. His task was nothing less than to create the seeds of plenty, the seeds that would feed a growing post-war population and reduce the strife and disruption, disease and death that famine has too often brought to humankind. These were the seeds of the higher yielding varieties (HYVs) of wheat that initiated what was later called the Green Revolution and which, along with the HYVs of rice became known a were.
The story of his breeding exploits such as using the dwarfing gene of a variety of wheat known as Norin 10 and his many field trials have been told before including by Borlaug and are worth repeating many times but not here as I prefer to focus on the outcome. Not only was Borlaug charged to come up with higher yielding varieties but they also had to be disease resistant since a larger crop would be of little value if it was lost to disease. This Borlaug accomplished and it is a lesser known part of his ac
Out of Borlaug's work in Mexico came the first of the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs), Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT or International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center). Borlaug's achievement in increasing wheat yields inspired the founding of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos in the Philippines in 1960 and led later to a series of other research institutes that are today organized together as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and Future Harvest. In the 1940s and 50s, the prevailing wisdom was that research was not necessary; all the poor countries needed was a transfer of developed country agricultural technologies to solve their food problem. Borlaug knew better and history has proved him right.
In wining the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Borlaug in his modesty, viewed it as a collective honor for all those who worked to bring on the Green Revolution. To whatever extent it has been a collective endeavor, it was Borlaug who launched it and who has sustained it through the decades. And so it was to him that the Nobel Prize was awarded and was so richly deserved. No recipient has been more worthy.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the bad news bandits were in full throat predicting uncontrolled population growth and famine of massive, unprecedented and unimaginable proportions. Borlaug continued the work that proved the doomsday prophets wrong though some are still around and hard at work moving on to higher untruths generating more erroneous projections, claiming a higher moral virtue for doing so and doing nothing to help feed the poor.
One can date the beginning of the Green Revolution to the 1940s. For simplicity we will use 1960 as a benchmark date. From 1960 to 2000, world population doubled from 3 billion to over 6 billion people while food supply increased 2.7 times leading to a roughly 35% increase in per capita food supply. Once again the number of favorable indicators of positive change are far too many to even begin to enumerate except to indicate that without a revolution in food production, the other factors promoting positive immunization, antibiotics etc - simply would not have been able to confer significant benefit. As the adage states it - when one is adequately fed, one has many problems; when one does not have enough food, there is only one problem.
At the core of the Green Revolution was a grain revolution with Borlaug's wheat providing roughly 23% of the world's calories. The increase in grain production required only a 4% increase in land under grain cultivation while overall, there was only a 7% increase in land under cultivation from 1.4 to 1.5 billion hectares. At 1960 yields, to achieve the grain increase alone, would have required another 800 million hectares which would have left us essentially without the rainforests and other lands set asid other fauna and flora biodiversity. This assumes that these lands would produce the same yields as the cultivated lands which is highly unlikely. One can easily imagine a growing population desperately seeking to feed itself destroying the habitat that we so cherish today.
Having been privileged to have been able to go to Africa and then to Asia and the Caribbean beginning in the early days of the Green Revolution, the statistics on the Green Revolution are much more than numbers to me. Each trip to Asia, no matter how closely spaced, manifested visible improvements in nutrition among the least privileged. In countries of Southeast and East Asia, where once starving children filled the streets, I saw adequately nourished children. I saw families walking together and could id group of children by the school colors that they wore. It was fun to be there at times when younger children were regularly taller than their older siblings indicating a dramatic improvement in both maternal and child nutrition a decade or more before. As is well known among nutritionists, increasing average height from generation to generation is one of the best indicators of improved nutrition and health. It doesn't take too many trips to Asia to notice the increasing average height of the be massively documented.
Anyone who has been to Vietnam or China in the last two decades could have observed changes (and still can) changes similar to those of earlier decades elsewhere in Asia. Going into the fields and working with and talking to farmers consistently brought the same stories of increased yields and fewer crop failures and a commitment to the Green Revolution technologies which many misguided activists are trying to save them from. In a word, Dr. Borlaug's work has had very deep personal meaning for me which is In whatever we do, those of us who aspire to be development economists can only work with the tools given us by the scientists and technologists and no one has provided more tools to do good than Norman Borlaug.
Contrary to popular mythology, the poor have benefited disproportionately from Borlaug's agricultural revolution. A moment's thought and the barest knowledge of economics would explain why. Thanks to the Green Revolution, the real price of food is half or less than it was in 1960 which means those who spend the highest portion of their income on food - the urban and non-farm rural poor - garner the most benefit from it. This is apart from the very reasonable counter-factual proposition of what would have happened to the price of food had we had population growth and no increases in yield. The poor would have likely starved. The children and possibly even the grandchildren of the subsistence farmer of 1960 who produced little if any surplus, now have more to eat (or can survive on a smaller plot of land) making the increase in yields almost entirely a net gain. Now they possibly have a little to sell and can work a day or do in the village to earn money for school fees and a few extras which were previously least beneficiaries as their increase in yields were partially offset by the lower price for their product.
Unfortunately, we still live in a world in which no good deed goes unpunished. The greater the goodness of the deed, the greater the magnitude of misinformation about it has to be. So let it be in a perverse way, kind of a tribute to Dr. Borlaug that so much misinformation has been rendered about the Green Revolution. The falsehoods about the Green Revolution have become so deeply entrenched in academic life, that many are unable to accept the factual refutation no matter how carefully it is presented. The perverse irony if not immorality of the critics is that most of them have never done anything to help feed those in need yet they feel free to criticize those like Norman Borlaug that have. This dichotomy continues in the debate over agricultural biotechnology as those who oppose it are not only making it difficult for poor farmers to use a technology that would improve the condition of their lives and that of their families but they consume resources that could better be used for improving food productio efforts and money to defending against spurious charges rather than advancing knowledge.
Elsewhere I have written widely, extensively documented and refuted each of these falsehoods. Since I have a posted piece on the subject, I will simply list the positives of the Green Revolution. Those who have not heard the falsehoods, should be able to figure them out since each of the following is a statement of fact refuting them (for details and documentation, see Green Myth vs. the Green Revolution).
It is hard to imagine a revolution the scale of the Green Revolution with its political, economic, social, ecological, scientific and technological dimensions, that doesn't have some adverse consequences. It is a true testament to Dr. Borlaug that every major criticism of it can be massively refuted. He initiated the Green Revolution with what we now consider to be "conventional" breeding techniques but were cutting edge at the time. He has continued to move with each new scientific understanding and is now a strong supporter of biotechnology. And he is still traveling the globe helping those in most need to grow their food requirements.
One has the sneaking suspicion that when we humans return to the Moon or go onto Mars, Dr. Borlaug will be on board so that he can get food production up and running. In any case, I will be keeping this tribute current so as to be able to use it again for his 100th birthday. Instead of considering him one of the greatest human beings of the 20th century, maybe we ought to think in terms of one of the greatest of all time. Who else has fed more people and sought less credit for it?
HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY, DR. NORMAN BORLAUG!
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D.
*Professor of Economics, University of Houston, member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health and author of Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment (Cato Institute) and Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Blackwell Professional).