In writing an Alliance for Science blog post on some really cool public sector biotech research that could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers — see, GMO crops aren't just Monsanto and Roundup! — I had occasion to read Norman Borlaug's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
For those who aren't familiar with Borlaug, he developed:
[N]ew wheat varieties and improved crop management practices [that] transformed agricultural production in Mexico during the 1940s and 1950s and later in Asia and Latin America, sparking what today is known as the "Green Revolution." Because of his achievements to prevent hunger, famine and misery around the world, it is said that Dr. Borlaug has "saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived."
Though it's been 47 years since Borlaug delivered his acceptance speech, I was struck that so many of the dynamics he referenced remain much the same today.
We've still got a huge gap between what Borlaug characterized as "the privileged world" and "the forgotten world":
The privileged world consists of the affluent, developed nations, comprising twenty-five to thirty percent of the world population, in which most of the people live in a luxury never before experienced by man outside the Garden of Eden. The forgotten world is made up primarily of the developing nations, where most of the people, comprising more than fifty percent of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion and fear of famine a continual menace.
We've still got the link between war and famine, and so-called “progressive” movements in the privileged world that are actively opposing technological advances — GMOs — that could help address a core social justice issue:
Almost certainly, however, the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today fifty percent of the world's population goes hungry. Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore I feel that the aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.
We've still got this massive disregard in the wealthy, urbanized west, where food is taken for granted, for the food insecurity experienced by so many developing nations:
The green revolution has an entirely different meaning to most people in the affluent nations of the privileged world than to those in the developing nations of the forgotten world. In the affluent, industrialized nations giant surpluses of wheat, maize, and sorghum are commonplace; cattle, swine, and poultry are fed and fattened on cereal grains; meat, milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables are within the economic reach of most of the population; well-balanced diets are more or less automatically achieved, and cereal products constitute only a modest portion of the "daily bread". Consequently, most of the people in such societies have difficulty in comprehending and appreciating the vital significance of providing high-yielding strains of wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, and millet for the people of the developing nations. Understandably then, the majority of the urbanites in the industrialized nations have forgotten the significance of the words they learned as youngsters, "Give us this day our daily bread".
And as we've seen in Hawaii and elsewhere, there's still a serious disconnect between those who actually raise food, and those who merely consume it, but increasingly want to tell others how to produce it:
They [Western consumers] know that food comes from the supermarket, but only a few see beyond to the necessary investments, the toil, struggle, and frustrations on the farms and ranches that provide their daily bread. Since the urbanites have lost their contact with the soil, they take food for granted and fail to appreciate the tremendous efficiency of their farmers and ranchers, who, although constituting only five percent of the labor force in a country such as the United States, produce more than enough food for their nation.
Now, however, farming and ranching families comprise just 2 percent of America's population. And though they're still producing more than enough food for our nation, while also exporting large quantities to nations in need, they're too often reviled and dissed by purists and faddists who express disdain for the fruits of their labors.
And though these same purists and faddists demand a global conversion to less productive “organic” and “agroecology” farming methods, we see their ongoing failure to address the poverty that prevents so many from purchasing even the basics, much less high-priced organics:
Even if present production could be expanded rapidly by thirty percent in the developing countries — which I believe is possible based on recent progress of the green revolution — so as theoretically to eliminate hunger, the hunger problem as it now exists still would not be solved. There remains the unsolved social-economic problem of finding effective ways to distribute the needed additional food to the vast underprivileged masses who have little or no purchasing power. This is still the great unsolved problem with which the economists, sociologists, and political leaders must now come to grips.
We still see the same lack of commitment to funding science education and public sector research, even as the world's nations blow the budget on weapons of war:
If we are to capitalize fully on the past biological accomplishments and realize the prospective accomplishments, as exemplified in my dream, there must be far greater investments in research and education in the future than in the past.
Nevertheless, vast sums are now being spent in all countries, developed and developing, on armaments and new nuclear and other lethal weapons, while pitifully small sums are being spent on agricultural research and education designed to sustain and humanize life rather than to degrade and destroy it.
And his chilling insights still hit hauntingly close to home:
Malthus signaled the danger a century and a half ago. But he emphasized principally the danger that population would increase faster than food supplies. In his time he could not foresee the tremendous increase in man's food production potential. Nor could he have foreseen the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and clangorous environment of pathologically hypertrophied megalopoles. Can human beings endure the strain? Abnormal stresses and strains tend to accentuate man's animal instincts and provoke irrational and socially disruptive behavior among the less stable individuals in the maddening crowd.
We must recognize the fact that adequate food is only the first requisite for life. For a decent and humane life we must also provide an opportunity for good education, remunerative employment, comfortable housing, good clothing, and effective and compassionate medical care. Unless we can do this, man may degenerate sooner from environmental diseases than from hunger.
Just a little food for thought, nearly half a century down the road......