Monday, August 24, 2009

Norman Borlaug, I Presume?

I ghosted the editorial below for the President of the National Audubon Society just before I gave a short talk before a breakfast crowd of about 300 at World Food Day in Des Moines, Iowa some years back.

As I crossed the hotel lobby, I spied an older gentleman also in the lobby. As it was just the two of us, I gave him the once-over.

"Norman Borlaug, I presume," I said as I streched out my hand. He was genuinely suprised that I knew who he was, and we prattled on a bit about forest and agriculture and population before I had to run and he did too.

As I finished up my little speech about 45 minutes later, I turned around on the podium, and who was there but Dr. Borlaug! It seemed he was a bit intrigued by the topic of my talk, and had come in to see it for himself. Of course he had been spotted and rodeo'd into saying a few words himself! The man has forgotten more on the topic than most anyone else on the planet knows.

So much for that story! This was the one and only time I have shared a stage with a Nobel Laureate.


The Key to A Sustainable World

This month in Des Moines, Norman Borlaug is scheduled to bestow the 'World Food Prize' on a fellow agronomist.

If you're like most Americans, you've probably never heard of Norman Borlaug despite the fact that he is one of only three living Americans to have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Borlaug is widely credited for being the father of the Green Revolution, which jumpstarted agriculture in the developing world. Thanks to Borlaug and his sponsors at the Rockefeller Foundation, India and Pakistan doubled and then tripled grain production in the late '60s and '70s. As a result, massive famines were averted in much of the developing world.

Because of his agricultural innovations, Borlaug has probably saved more human lives than anyone who has ever lived.

But Borlaug can claim credit for more than saving human life: He has saved a lot of the natural world as well. Because of dramatic boosts in agricultural output made possible by the Green Revolution, a lot less land has fallen under the plow. Borlaug himself calculates that if 1961 agricultural yields still prevailed today, three times more land in China and the United States, and two times more land in India, would be needed to equal current cereal production.

The collision between agriculture and the environment is hardly over, however. Borlaug calculates that food production will have to increase 57 percent between 1990 and 2025 just to maintain current per capita levels of food consumption. For diets to actually improve among the hungry and destitute in the world, global food production may have to increase by 100 percent.

Can this be done? Probably - but not without a price.

Borlaug himself notes that in Asia, where half of the world's population lives, "there is very little uncultivated land left to bring under the plow." In fact, Borlaug notes that in West Asia there may already be 52 million acres that should be taken out of cultivation to prevent further soil erosion.

The United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization calculates that food production can stay just ahead of population growth if 80 percent of future gains come from more intensive agricultural practices and 20 percent from arable land expansion (turning forests and savannah into farms).

Intensive agriculture and land expansion have environmental consequences, of course. The U.N. Environmental Program says intensification will lead to the use of more pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

For example, U.N. officials note that during the '80s, while Central America's agricultural production grew 32 percent, pesticide use doubled. During this same period, Guatemala's dense forest cover declined from 42 percent of the nation to 29 percent.

Is there a way out? Can we take care of human needs and protect the environment?

Borlaug says the answer is family planning.

"There can be no lasting solution to the world food problem until a more reasonable balance is struck between food production and human population growth," Borlaug says. "The efforts of those on the food-production front are, at best, a holding operation which can permit others on the educational, medical, family planning and political fronts to launch an effective, sustainable and humane attack to tame the population monster."

Borlaug is right. The problem is that Congress is not listening.

Since 1995 Congress has cut support for international family planning by one third even as world population continues to grow by more than 76 million people a year. Among the 20 leading industrialized countries in the world, the United States is last when international family planning donations are counted as a percent of the gross national product.

Meanwhile, across the globe, more than a billion teenagers are entering their reproductive years - the largest cluster of teens in world history.

The choices these young people make in the next decade will determine the fate of our natural world for generations to come. The good news is that most of these young people want to determine their future family size. The bad news is that America is doing very little to help.

In his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Borlaug called on the world to "bring into balance population growth and the carrying capacity of the environment on a worldwide scale." If the world could do this one thing, Borlaug said, "Mankind itself would qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize."

Thirty years later Congress still has the opportunity to help humanity win that prize. Without a doubt, it remains the most important prize not yet won.

Norman Borlaug in Africa.


Anonymous said...

I found that really interesting. He seems like a person who did good things even though the results were not perfect.

I'm beginning to wonder what good our species actually does for the planet. Do we have some ecological niche that is worthwhile?

Maybe as hunter-gatherers, we once did. But as spoiled rotten apes with nuclear weapons, I just hope that we don't destroy the whole thing.

jeffrey thurston said...

My Dad H. David Thurston) was an associate of Borlaug's- we lived in Colombia during the 50s and 60s as my Dad worked for the Rockefeller Foundation taking the "Green Revolution" to those benighted Colombian peasants. Ironically for my Dad this work down there led him to question the whole idea of exporting American farming methods (monoculture, pesticides etc.) and he became more of an advocate for helping the small farmer and incorporating traditional sustainable agricultural methods along with new technology. He died in September but his Cornell website lives on: