RIP, Norman Borlaug

Plant scientist and Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug, died last Saturday at the ripe old age of 95. Borlaug, in contrast to many other self-described do-gooders on this planet, actually could take credit for saving millions of people in the Third World from starving to death by developing high-yield, disease resistant crops of grain.

Borlaug had little patience for these types:

Eventually, however, a backlash developed. In the 1980s, environmental groups began pressuring foundations and the World Bank to stop funding shipments of fertilizer to developing countries, particularly in Africa. Critics contended that the inorganic fertilizers used caused massive pollution; they argued in favor of “sustainable” agriculture using “natural” fertilizers like cow manure.

Borlaug was indignant. Using manure would require a massive expansion of the lands required for grazing the cattle and consume much of the extra grain that would be produced. At best, he said, such efforts could support no more than 4 billion people worldwide, well under the nearly 7 billion now inhabiting the planet.

“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the Earth, but many of them are elitists,” he told the Atlantic Monthly magazine. “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

A truly great man has left us, but his cause can still be supported at Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. I’m continually frustrated by people like Michael Pollan who are completely out of touch with the reality of what it’s like for poor people to feed themselves.

  2. I’ve seen the crops. 😦 Certainly, there is a temporary improvement in living standards, but excessive salinization is killing people in the first and third worlds. I appreciate the need for food NOW, but to celebrate his achievements without any reflection on their unintended consequences is irresponsible. I do not support subsistence agriculture- I support sustainable agriculture, which does not require ever-increasing fertilizer, environmental degradation (and thus, the land supporting fewer and fewer people), and huge debt.

    • There doesn’t have to be a contradiction between using GM/conventional crops and sustainable agriculture techniques (e.g. crop rotation and no-till). If you are for sustainable agriculture that can actually feed the world’s population, however, you should avoid ‘organic’ crops.

  3. Good post Esther. I can certainly see the frustration this man would feel.

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