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July 22, 2000


Borlaug: A Hero for Our Time


A Hero for Our Time

Pence and Joyce Hsu

Birmingham News

Sunday, July 23 2000

C1 and C4

GenevaNorman Borlaug does not look
like a hero, as least, not the way Hollywood movies portray one. A
typical, elderly, white male with rounded face, glasses, and thinning
hair, he looks like some guy who could be walking around a retirement
community. And yet, in a world that some say lacks real moral heroes,
Norman Borlaug has led a life that puts him up there with Albert
Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.

So what has he done to merit such praise? Led a military raid on
Entebbe? Discovered a new kind of drug for arthritis? Adopted a dozen
disabled children? The answer: as a result of his life's work, a
billion people now exist who otherwise
would have starved to death, died of starvation-related diseases, or
never have been born.

Thirty years ago, as a young college graduate, Borlaug first directed
the Rockefeller Foundation's Mexican wheat program, formed initially to
teach Mexican farmers new agricultural ideas. In the small beginnings
of the Green Revolution, Borlaug developed dwarf wheat and techniques
of so-called shuttle breeding. Serendipitously, an area a few hundred
miles north in the Sonora region promised more than his first location
for feeding a whole country, so he expanded his program to Sonora,
shuttling seedlings twice a year between the two regions. This
shuttling enabled Borlaug to develop a variety of wheat that grew well
in a range of climates, altitudes, and seasons.

Selectively breeding the dwarf wheat (already naturally resistant to a
variety of plant pests and diseases) for semi-dwarfness forced higher
yields. With the plant devoting less energy to growing a tall stalk,
more energy went into growing edible grain, doubling and tripling
traditional yields.

Borlaug's agricultural approaches benefit people in many ways. His work
has fed billions of people in developing nations, created jobs,
preserved the environment, and indirectly improved many lives. How has
he done this? Well, his approaches to agriculture, which use relatively
small plots intensively farmed with chemical fertilizers, do have side
effects. Because these crops depend greatly on humans, their highest
yields require planning and constant care. Demand for machines that sow
and harvest such crops spurs regional industries that make machines.
New factories in turn create more jobs. With modern technology helping
out, birth rates decrease because farmers need fewer children in the
fields. Managing a larger, more productive farm requires knowledge,
encouraging parents to have fewer children and to educate existing
children. A stabilized population results.

As for the environment, traditional agricultural practices in many
developing countries employ slash-and burn techniques. Such practices
destroy more pristine land than Borlaug's high-yield practices, which
replenish fields with fertilizers and make the same area produce
several times more food. In the past, soils would be depleted after a
few seasons and farmers would then cut down more forest for farmland
with no increase in production. Paradoxically, Borlaug's high-yield
methods actually preserve grasslands, wildlife areas, and rainforests.

With Mexico successfully producing dwarf wheat, it made sense to
Borlaug that other countries such as India could improve production by
using his techniques to grow new varieties of cereal. Environmentalists
protested that developing countries should grow their own, indigenous
crops and grow them using organic methods. Borlaug responded simply:
starving people needed food now and indigenous crops did not yet
produce high yields by organic methods.

From Mexico, Borlaug moved on to Pakistan and India. Malthusian
pessimists such as biologist Paul Erlich, population ecologist Garrett
Hardin, and Lester Brown, head of the World Watch Institute, claimed
that facts contradicted Borlaug's goals. They claimed that the
population explosion would always surpass food production and that the
Indian subcontinent would always suffer disastrous famines. These three
phrophets of doom won the war for influence on the public, which
subsequently became fatalistic about famine.

Although constantly criticized by these doomsayers, Borlaug wasted no
time bringing a starving Pakistan to self-sufficiency, closely followed
just a few years later by India. In the last thirty years, India's
population doubled, her crop production tripled, and her economy grew
nine times. At one point, despite war and unrest, India even exported
cereal grains.

Soon after these successes, Borlaug and his colleagues introduced a
high-yield variety of rice throughout most of Asia. But then the
doomsayers won. Foundations such as Rockefeller -- which had supported
Borlaug's work for years -- yielded to protests of environmentalists
(especially Greenpeace of Europe) and ceased funding him. Years later,
backed by ex-President Jimmy Carter and funded solely by Japanese
multi-millionaire Ryoichi Sasakawa, an 84-year-old Borlaug sought to
bring his agricultural revolution to Africa. Problems with civil unrest
and a lack of infrastructure made success difficult there, but test
plots still grew as he predicted.

Contrary to popular belief (and partly as a result of Borlaug's work),
the amount of food per capita in the world has actually increased over
the last decades. Indeed, most sides of debates about ending famine
agree that the world now produces enough food for everybody. Some then
argue that the problem is one of distribution: for example, getting
food from North America to Africa.

Borlaug disagrees. He thinks famine will only be stopped when poor
countries develop their own high-yield crops, use chemical fertilizers
and genetically enhanced crops, and nurture regional food economies.
The best target for charity is not buying food from rich countries and
sending it to poor countries but making poor countries self-sufficient
by helping them use high-tech agricultural science.

Amazingly, a large coalition of European and American organizations
actively oppose Borlaug's ideas for poor countries with starving
peoples. Organizations such as Jeremy Rifkin's "Pure Food Campaign" see
the scientific techniques of modern agriculture as the evil knowledge
of international agribusiness. Such organizations want instantaneous,
egalitarian land reform combined with organic farming to create
self-sufficient, eco-tourist-friendly countries. Even though
genetically enhanced golden rice (rice containing a bit of carrot)
could get vitamin A to African kids and hence prevent thousands from
going blind, Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation oppose planting
such rice.

Last week, seven academies of science urged use of high-yielding
techniques --including genetically enhanced beans, wheat, and rice --
to alleviate world hunger. These academies urged us not to focus on the
process of adding a desirable trait to an old crop, but on the actual
affects of the new crop to people and environments. If we follow their
recommendation, we will follow Norman Borlaug's wonderful legacy.


GenevaGregory Pence teaches
philosophy and bioethics at UAB, where Joyce Hsu is his summer
research assistant and an undergraduate preadmitted to UAB Medical


Gregory Pence

Professor, School of medicine & philosophy department

University of Alabama at Birmingham

Birmingham, AL 35294

voice mail 205 934-8922 fax 205 975-6639