It’s a pretty amazing thing to speak to the man who saved the world. Even more amazing is the fact that most people have never heard of him. Yet for all that, a compelling case can be made that Norman Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone in history. Borlaug was the agronomist and plant researcher behind the Green Revolution, the effort—funded by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations—that dev-eloped disease-resistant strains of wheat and rice and increased agriculture yield in Southeast Asia. This revolution is credited with saving millions from starvation in India and Pakistan in the mid-1960s, and transforming India into one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat.
The Green Revolution came after nearly 20 years of work in the field of crop biology. In 1942, Borlaug directed pesticide research for E I DuPont Nemours and Company. In 1944 he developed a disease-free strain of wheat for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Agricultural Ministry to remedy severe Mexican wheat crop failures. In 1954 he crossed a Japanese dwarf wheat strain with the new Mexican strain to create a high-yield, short-stemmed wheat. Those seeds were distributed to Mexican farmers in 1961. He also headed the International Wheat Research and Production Programme at the Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (CIMMYT) in Mexico from 1964-1979. Finally, he is a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, where the building that houses the college of agriculture and life sciences is named for him.
In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping “provide bread for a hungry world.” He has been honored by the governments of Canada, India, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, and the United States, among others, and has been recognized by numerous universities and scientific institutions worldwide.
Today, at 86 years of age, Borlaug continues his efforts to feed a hungry world as president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, which works to bring the benefits of the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa. So far, the early indications are promising: Ethiopia re-corded the greatest harvest of major crops in its history during the 1995-96 season, with a 32 percent increase in production and a 15 percent increase in average yield over the previous season.
Borlaug spoke to Philanthropy during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., answering questions about the legacy—and contemporary criticism of—the Green Revolution, biotechnology, world population, and the pernicious influence of “neo-environmentalists.”
PHILANTHROPY: What takes up your time these days?
MR. BORLAUG: Since 1984, I’ve been working in Africa with the Sasakawa Africa Association. We’re trying to replicate some of the accomplishments of the Green Revolution in the sub-Saharan region, using the best agronomic practices, the best planting techniques, teaching people how to use fertilizers and improved seeds to best advantage. We’re trying to teach them ways to increase yield without significantly increasing costs compared to traditional methods. In most places, the results are spectacular—two and three times normal yields.
PHILANTHROPY: Tell us the major achievements of the Green Revolution.
MR. BORLAUG: We stayed ahead of food needs not by cultivating more area but by increasing yield per hectare. India is a good example. In India, in 1963 the average production of wheat was about 12 million tons. Last year it was 75 million, but the total amount of area cultivated has increased very little over 40 years. If you tried to get the yields of 2000 with the technology of 1960, you would have to cultivate more productive land than actually exists in India. Where would they be? Eating each other? In China the cultivated area has actually declined. That pattern holds across the world. Worldwide, we’ve saved more than a billion hectares of land from being brought into production. That’s land for wildlife habitat, for erosion control, for grazing and forestry. Because of that high-yield technology, President Clinton was able to close roads and stop logging on 60 million acres of national forest. If we hadn’t had that technology, most of that timber would have been cut down. Can you imagine what the situation would have been had we not increased production of all of these food crops over the past four decades? Incidentally, this was a joint effort across all of the scientific disciplines—including developing disease resistance, correcting soil infertility, developing better cultural practices, conserving moisture, irrigating crops—and then moving those practices from government testing stations into the field.
PHILANTHROPY: In your work during the 1960s, was there ever a “eureka moment,” where you thought, “This is it”?
MR. BORLAUG: I guess the period of 1967 to 1968 in Pakistan and India, when starvation was raging in both of those countries. It was probably worse at that time in China, though the Western world couldn’t see through the bamboo curtain. But judging from what I saw and heard during my first visit to China in 1974, I think it was even worse there.
In 1967 I could see the turning point coming, especially with wheat production. I was hesitant to say it out loud because of all the interacting variables, and especially because of the doom and gloom choir in academia, mostly in Western Europe and the U.S.—Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, all those people. They said again and again that there was no solution to the food problem—even temporarily—and that there was going to have to be a complete collapse and massive death from famine to reduce the population to a reasonable carrying capacity. This had been going on for decades and it was gloomy, gloomy, gloomy, especially when you were out there living with that misery and trying to do something. When I came into the city, I’d pick up the International Herald-Tribune or some other English newspaper, and you’d keep getting your head bashed in with all of this. It was pretty sad.
Then all at once things started to change in Pakistan. The groundwork had been laid in 1965 and 1966, and then in 1967-68 you could see it all beginning to unfold. It bloomed into self-sufficiency in wheat and then a short time later in rice in 1968. So after the harvest started I wrote a report in mid-March of 1968 saying that Pakistan had either reached or would reach self-sufficiency in wheat production, and I went back to Mexico feeling very good.
Everything went fine until the middle of August, when I got a telegram from the then-acting president of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, who said, “Get the hell over here and unscramble this mess you left for me,” or words to that effect. So I went back to Pakistan and met with him, and I got chewed out like I’ve never been chewed out in my life for writing this disastrous report. Khan said, the truth is I’m going to have to import two million tons of wheat, and prices are sky high, and this is going to be a disaster for Pakistan and for me.
Well, I couldn’t believe I had overestimated production by two million tons. So I asked for a week to find out what was wrong. I got a car and driver from the Ford Foundation offices and for the next day and a half I visited some of the large wheat growers. I asked them what their yields were—it must have been a disaster, I said. They all said, on the contrary, it’s the best we’ve ever had. The wheat was sitting in the silos, stacked up and unweighed. All the big growers were keeping the wheat in storage. Then I went to the government warehouses that distribute the grain to the different urban areas, and the withdrawal rates were nearly twice the consumption rate. So obviously there was speculation going on.
The next day we held a war session and I told everyone we had to spread out and get all the data we could over the next three days. All the growers said the same thing—“The government cut the price so we didn’t sell our wheat.” We then wrote a report and took it in to Khan and said, look, the wheat is there, but when you cut the price, those who had it wouldn’t sell. If you want the wheat out, you’d better pay the right price. Khan threw the report on the table and said the country didn’t have the money to pay. I told him, OK, that’s your problem, not ours. The wheat is there. He was very unhappy!
PHILANTHROPY: Right now, what is the greatest area of need in terms of food?
MR. BORLAUG: Sub-Saharan Africa is now in as bad or worse shape as the Asian nations were in the 1960s. Of course, whenever we talk about food shortages, there are two different issues—one is producing enough food of the different kinds that are required by different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups, and the second is to distribute it equitably. Two good examples are China and India and what has happened in those nations over the last three and a half decades. Both have made spectacular improvements in production, but there’s a big difference in the equity of distribution. If you travel in China in the rural areas, everyone you see looks well-fed—you might see a derelict or drug addict or a physically or mentally incapacitated person who is chronically undernourished, but it’s a rare sight. What problems there are with food distribution are physical infrastructure problems in the extreme northwest of the country and the southern mountainous regions. But elsewhere there is widespread distribution.
Now if we take a look at India, that population has been growing even faster than China’s. The country has made fantastic improvements in their food production since the mid-1960s. At the present time they have about 45 million tons of grain in storage. But when you travel around India you see a lot of people who obviously need more food. There’s no mass starvation like in the mid-1960s, but obviously a lot of people aren’t getting the kinds and amounts of food they should. It’s quite a contrast to the U.S., where it’s the opposite—too many getting too much food for their own good [laughs].
PHILANTHROPY: What’s the most encouraging development you see in terms of increasing yield?
MR. BORLAUG: As far as I’m concerned, we need the new biotechnology, the genetic engineering. This way, we can reach beyond the biological species that we were able to bridge in the past. It used to be very difficult with conventional breeding mechanisms to cross two closely related species, even more rare a genus, but now you can go into families, orders, kingdoms, even. You can take a gene from another plant that helps it resist insects and put it into corn or cotton to control insect devastation—that’s an indication of some of the value of this technology. And with that technique you can use less insecticide, less herbicide. But the world thinks this must be the work of the devil, or people playing God. Well, this has been going on with conventional plant breeding since the time of Mendel, and Mother Nature has been doing it long before there was a science to it. She crossed three wild grasses that still exist in the foothills in southern Turkey, and that’s how we got modern bread wheat. Now we can do the same thing much more deftly through genetic engineering. To me, it opens up great possibilities for the future, and I am sorry to see all the confusion, since the world needs us to develop this technology and use it properly. To me, there’s a political element that mixed into it—the fear of monopolies by certain companies. I don’t like that myself, but the best way to prevent that in a democratic society is to have good strong programs in the governmental sector and the universities and USDA which will compete with the private sector to prevent monopoly.
PHILANTHROPY: What about your critics who claim that your emphasis on using chemical pesticides and herbicides has destroyed the environment in Third World nations?
MR. BORLAUG: There’s this never-ending debate about organic vs. chemical fertilizers and pesticides. There shouldn’t be a debate at all—I’ve said from the beginning of time, use all the organic fertilizer you want and God bless you, but don’t mislead the world into thinking that you can feed six billion people without using chemical nitrogen fertilizer. For those who want to use organic fertilizer exclusively, fine, but we just can’t produce the food that’s needed to feed everyone. There’s a sort of hysteria against anything that uses the word “chemical.” But those same extremists, the first time they get a pain in the belly, they run down to the store and what do they get to treat it? Chemicals! [laughs]
PHILANTHROPY: Let me read to you from a commentary by foundation critic Mark Dowie: “The problem with 20th century philanthropy has been that many of those empowered to make grants believe that they are qualified to solve serious crises. They discover eventually, however, that assuming the power to use money to lead the way into massive systemic reforms can be treacherous. The unanticipated social disruptions and ecological perturbations caused by the Green Revolution, the Ford and Rockefeller foundations’ massive effort to develop wheat- and rice-growing techniques that would reduce hunger in developing countries, is a significant example.” How would you respond?
MR. BORLAUG: I don’t think he’s ever been around hungry people, nor has he ever been hungry himself. This is an elitist point of view that’s very powerful now, because those who hold it are very well financed and know how to handle television. It’s a small number of people who have disproportionate influence in this time of rapid communication. This is not new—I’ve been dealing with this kind of nonsense all my life. Listen, forest ecology was my first profession. In the 1930s, I lived in the backwoods in the U.S. I was reputed to be the most isolated member of the Forest Service, back in the middle fork of the Salmon River, the largest primitive area in the lower 48 states. I like the back country and living close to the land, but it’s wrong to force poor people to live that way. To this day, one of my great treasures is to tramp the back country to see wildlife and trees, plants, animals, birds. So I’m not anti-environmental. But you would think I personally had destroyed the environment through the use of high-yield technology, the way these people talk. This shows great ignorance on the part of some of these “neo-environmentalists,” as I call them.
PHILANTHROPY: The Ford and Rockefeller foundations were essential to your work in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, but there’s not a lot of interest among major donors today in funding the kind of research into high-yield technologies that they funded then. Do you think they have become hesitant to fund agricultural research in recent years because of the influence of these neo-environmentalists?
MR. BORLAUG: I’m sure they’ve had some influence, but I think affluence back home is the main reason. Most Americans haven’t lived around hunger and starvation. If somebody does a good job of telling them, “Look, we’re destroying the environment with all these chemicals,” then everybody gets to think they’re saving the world by buying organic foods. So many people focus on just one or two things and don’t take into account the complexities of all these issues. As for the foundations, well, they are also creatures of public relations and public opinion, and they respond to public outcries and become cautious. So we just have to work harder to convince them of the importance of what we’re trying to do. I should add, though, that the Rockefeller Foundation has made significant investments in public sector biotechnology research aimed at food problems in the developing countries and has also supported a large agricultural program in eastern and southern Africa, especially in soil fertility research.
PHILANTHROPY: I want to talk about The Limits to Growth [a 1972 book in which experts at MIT claimed that five basic factors determine, and therefore ultimately limit, growth on this planet: population, agricultural production, consumption of natural resources, industrial production, and pollution]. You endorsed the book, and claimed in your Nobel speech that “the frightening power of human reproduction must be curbed.” Has anything happened since 1972 to change your mind?
MR. BORLAUG: For most of my career, even though I’ve been working on food production, I have recognized and been talking about the population monster—I originally called it the population octopus, but it has more than eight appendages pulling on us now, so it became the monster. I say that the only solution to this monster is education—that the world has to come to realize that there are limitations on the standard of living for x number of people on the planet Earth. Before long we will have to destroy many of the animal and plant habitats in the world—the forested areas, for example—to grow the food we need. We’re already beginning to produce food in areas that might be suitable in the short term, but because of lack of depth or quality in the soil, erosion problems, or lack of moisture, are unsuitable in the long term, at least on a sustainable basis.
PHILANTHROPY: The book predicted 8 billion people in the year 2000, which didn’t happen, and most serious demo-graphers, including those at the UN Population Fund, admit that we are going to see a “population crunch” some time in the next century—that population will enter a long, slow decline and median ages worldwide will rise as people live longer and have fewer children. How can population growth remain such a serious crisis if those facts are true?
MR. BORLAUG: There’s one factor that we don’t know how to extrapolate in understanding the growth of human population over the next couple of decades, and that’s the effect of HIV/AIDS. We just don’t know; there’s no control to judge the rapidity of spread and the increased death at an early age that’s taking place in many of these African and Asian countries. But when I was born in 1914, world population was approximately 1.6 billion people. Now it’s 6.1 billion people and we’re adding somewhere around 85 million more people per year. So what was good enough last year in food production and distribution isn’t good enough for this year.
PHILANTHROPY: What kind of education are you talking about, in practical terms?
MR. BORLAUG: We can’t make education happen just through fancy communication gadgets. We have to have interpersonal contact between teachers and students in these countries. I’m talking about primary and secondary levels, from the second and third grade, all the way through college. To permit them to look at the future for their families and what the possibilities are. And hopefully more of these funds and monies that go into armaments to protect our privileged position will be put into education. You can’t have a whole festering continent like sub-Saharan Africa and maintain world political stability. When you start too late on this educational process it’s very hard to cut growth back to reasonable levels. We’ve seen the Western European countries and their efforts, especially in the Scandinavian countries, but also others, so it’s not necessarily ridiculous. I mentioned earlier about the problems of sub-Saharan Africa. Again, it goes back to education, lack of roads, lack of infrastructure. Roads can cross tribal borders in these African countries, break down differences, defuse the fear between tribes. But the road can also bring food, education, teachers, health care, on an ongoing basis. And as these things happen, population growth rates drop.
PHILANTHROPY: Some people would say there’s a conflict between a career spent increasing the availability of food worldwide and therefore sustaining a larger population, and one spent encouraging lower population growth.
MR. BORLAUG: I like that question and I’ll answer the same way as Professor [Vaclav] Smil, a colleague of mine who is an outstanding authority on plant growth and fertilizer and a distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba. About a year and a half ago at a memorial lecture at the International Fertilizer Development Center at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he said something like this: “Without the invention of ammonia process by Fritz Haber [the process of synthesizing ammonia by combining nitrogen and hydrogen, later adapted by Karl Bosch for use in creating synthetic fertilizers] back in 1912-14, it would be impossible for the world to sustain more than 4 billion people without destroying all our forests and many marginal lands. Well, we’re now at 6 billion, but despite all the beautiful talk by the extremists, I don’t see 2 billion people volunteering to disappear.” We need to reduce population growth, but it is inhumane to let people starve. We had to feed them somehow.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you place an upper limit for a “sustainable” world population?
MR. BORLAUG: No, I wouldn’t do that. I said in 1970 at the Nobel Prize ceremony that with the technology that we had then—and with proper support and distribution—we could produce the food to feed us through the year 2000. Things went better than I expected, and I say now that by the year 2025 world population will probably be 7.3 to 7.5 billion. We have now or have in the pipeline the technology—including the new biotechnology—to produce the food that will be needed for that 7.5 billion if we make it a priority. And we can do it all without destroying the environment.
PHILANTHROPY: What if it’s 2050 and there are 8.5 billion people in the world—would you be willing to be coercive? Should governments coerce reductions in population growth, as China does?
MR. BORLAUG: I would answer that by saying, why don’t we convince the political leaders of the world to spend their money on infrastructure—roads, railroads, schools—rather than arms? The most difficult people to educate may be the political leaders who are protecting their status quo. But they will never have the political power they crave as long as we ignore these festering sores that are all over the Earth. It’s easy to turn our face away from them. But they are there and unless we plan to leave our grandchildren a less abundant, less stable planet, we must do something about them.