14 September 2009 by Debora MacKenzie
They don’t make ‘em like Norm Borlaug anymore. The father of the green revolution finally lost his long battle with cancer over the weekend at the age of 95. I wasn’t surprised: he was looking frail when I saw him last year in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, where he had launched the revolution.
That afternoon he managed a spirited speech, in fluent Mexican Spanish, to local farmers.
But later, when I was allowed to ask him questions, he was flagging. He complained that using crops for biofuel was pushing up world food prices and hurting the poor. “We had other kinds of alternative energy but we stopped developing it,” he fumed. “But now I don’t have enough energy to keep talking.”
He was a giant of the scientific and technological revolution of the 20th century. He probably saved more lives than the more famous names behind polio vaccines or DNA: Norm Borlaug ended famine in much of the world.
What an epitaph. “I personally cannot live comfortably in the midst of abject hunger and poverty and human misery,” Borlaug famously said. Some people go into science thinking they might help save the world. Norm’s your proof that it’s possible.
Of course, there was more scope in his day. In the 1930s, people starved in the US. In the mid-20th century the world’s human population soared, and there were widespread food shortages.
The answer was to apply science to increase crop yields. Many people helped do that, but Borlaug was unique. In 1944 the US government sent him to Mexico to fight the age-old enemy of wheat, stem rust fungus, after Mexican outbreaks had rampaged into the US breadbasket.
Borlaug devised an ingenious system to accelerate the breeding of disease-resistant wheat and beat stem rust – but he didn’t stop in Mexico. His plants went on to vastly boost food production elsewhere, notably India and its neighbours, as famine-wracked then as Africa is now. Hard to imagine? That’s why.
Then Borlaug helped convince the big donors of his day that if one scientific advance in crop science could make that much difference, surely we needed more. The donors listened, and the defeat of wheat rust was followed by the green revolution – similar leaps in rice and other crops, with a systematic introduction of irrigation, fertiliser and high-yielding varieties to farms worldwide. Borlaug’s lab in Mexico is now CIMMYT, the world centre for wheat and maize research, and part of a worldwide network of labs that continue the revolution.
Price of Revolution
That’s why some think ill of Borlaug. The green revolution was social as well as technological, as changing farming technology meant changing land ownership and social relationships, and inevitably winners and losers. A faction of economists has long charged that the green revolution was wrong because of these ills.
The ills surely need sorting, especially the fact that modern crops’ thirst for water and land is not infinitely sustainable. But I have no patience for arguments that the green revolution was a selfish capitalist plot. Famine used to stalk the Indian subcontinent regularly: in 1943 two and a half million people starved to death in Bengal. The green revolution stopped that.
Would continuing starvation have been better? The green revolution wasn’t the final answer to our problems, but it was the start of the answer. All solutions engender more problems, but it’s scary to imagine what our world would have been without what Borlaug’s science started. When he got his Nobel in 1970 – he was out in the field when he got a frantic message from his wife, which he thought was a joke – it was the peace prize.
But the revolution isn’t over. In 2007, Borlaug was battling cancer, but not yet frail – and he was angry. A stem rust called Ug99 had evolved to evade the rust resistance he discovered, but in the intervening years of plenty, the system for applying science to food production had become underfunded and atrophied, and was slow to respond.
“We have been too complacent,” he thundered over the phone. “We don’t train people to keep monitoring and improving the crop anymore, and the system broke down.” In 2002 when Ug99 hit Kenya, Borlaug started to agitate. “People were paying no attention, and I got nervous. Even though I was retired I couldn’t hold my tongue.”
The agitation helped launch work on the problem, and now progress is being made – but Ug99 is already in Iran and poised to strike beleaguered Afghanistan and, worse, the breadbaskets of India.
“We started three years too late,” said Borlaug. “We’ll need some luck as well. This thing could cause major human and social destruction.”
Norm Borlaug never stopped fighting that spectre. “We can do another green revolution, by doing what we did before, with common sense,” he said the last time we spoke. He lamented the replacement of much field research by lab science, but still hoped genetic engineering will provide new disease resistance to rescue wheat and other staples.
Borlaug had harangued me before about the need for science journalists, “because most scientists are miserable communicators”, so just before I left him to his carers in Ciudad Obregón, I said, “We’ll keep telling the story.” He looked me in the eye and replied, “Thank you.”
So we will.
Norman Borlaug (R.I.P.)