Thursday, April 6, 2017

Musings: Borlaug's Food for Thought

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......


Anonymous said...

How noble of Borlaug to take on the "white man's burden" in helping all those continents of color with their inferior traditional ag practices.

Joan Conrow said...

Oh, yes, it would have been so much better for him to just let people starve.

This is yet more BS from the anti-GMO crowd that believes "traditional ag" can feed the world. Meanwhile, it hypocritically engages in neocolonialism by dictating to "continents of color" what sort of ag they should practice, instead of letting farmers make their own choice.

Such utter elitism!

Anonymous said...

Both the green revolution and the anti-GMO movement are ethnic European movements purporting to save the (colored) world from starvation. That makes them both utterly elitist.

Joan Conrow said...

The "colored" world chose to adopt the green revolution, just as it's chosen to adopt cell phones and other technology. It wasn't foisted on it. What's more, it actually worked. There's no "purporting" about it.

Anonymous said...

While the green revolution was trumpeting its altruism, it quietly ushered in one of the largest transfers of land ownership, from local farmers to First World agribusiness corporations. They came to do good, and they did very, very well.

Same with cell phones and other technology.

Joan Conrow said...

Sorry to intrude into your conspiracy-driven world view, but there are still millions of small-holder farmers in these nations, and many of them are asking for help in the form of better seeds, water wells, irrigation and other technology.

Anonymous said...

Whether conspiracy or not, large tracts of land in these nations were transferred into the hands of First World agribusiness corporations, through the green revolution.

Anonymous said...

let them do their seed testing in those nations then

Anonymous said...

It's never that simple.

Anonymous said...

stop blocking them then

Unknown said...

96% of ag land is privately owned or in family farming corporations for tax purposes according to USDA AG Statistics (available online). Same holds true for many other nations. Except Russia, who is home to mega billionaire farmers who farm 10's of thousands of acres. They also banned GMOs and are trying (unsuccessfully) transition to organic farming. (several small stake holder farmers in Africa raise organic and non-organic crops too.) There are also many mega farmers in brazil mixed with modest sized operations. As for large tracks of land being transferred to major agribusiness corporations, that's flat out BS. Don't believe me, I'll arrange farm tours to prove the fact... Actually, flat maps are available online now. So, do the research yourself.

Anonymous said...

Do you think DuPont/Monsanto etc are really all about ending world hunger, or are they maybe into having those poor starving people spending their last money on their food?

My point is not to poo poo the idea that GMO creates more food and that theoretically, more people can eat - that is true. However it seems a bit disingenuous not to acknowledge that these companies exist for one reason only - and that is to profit - so selling GMO food to poor nations is a commercial decision - not a humanitarian one, at least as I can tell.

Joan Conrow said...

@3 pm -- As I noted in the first paragraph "GMO crops aren't just Monsanto and Roundup." In several Africa-oriented GM crops under development, Monsanto and others have released patents, allowing public sector interests to develop the seeds and local farmers' cooperatives to manage them.

Yes, selling food (organic or GMO) to poor (and wealthy) nations typically is a commercial decision, not a humanitarian one. Just as the organic industry's attempt to derail GM in developing nations is a commercial one. But that doesn't mean humanitarian GM crops aren't also in the works, and that some of the same companies (GMO and organic) are involved in both humanitarian and commercial ventures.

Anonymous said...

To commenter at 3:00 PM:

Of course publicly traded companies are in business to make a profit. Even the organic ones. That doesn't mean they can't do good.

Anonymous said...

I pick up the skinniest woofers around Kilauea town all the time. One guy told me he works 6 hours a day but gets no money and looked like he had not eaten in a few weeks. It sounds like we just need some more of these skinny farm workers and we can feed the world.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for honoring Norman Borlaug in your post. He was an extraordinary man and scientist. His varieties of wheat and methods of plant breeding were revolutionary and continue to impact agriculture and humanity to this day. Like any person making big change he was criticized and many did not support him. Despite this he was dedicated, passionate, persistent and endured much to make his vision into a reality that saved lives, millions of lives.

It is sad that folks commenting here are so quick to call him out and turn his legacy into a negative tied to their beliefs and opinions.
Instead of blaming Norman Borluag, Agribusiness Corporations and everyone else for everything bad it is time to do something about it. Think of a solution, use Norman Borlaug as an example, and make it happen. He fed millions of people, certainly these folks commenting could feed the Island of Kauai. That's peanuts compared to what Norman Borluag was able to do.

To get inspired I would encourage everyone to read this book about Norman Borlaug's life. "Our Daily Bread, The Essential Norman Borlaug" by Noel Vietmeyer. Norman Borlaug is a great example that we can all learn from and a wonderful role model for our kids. He was a true visionary and we need more people like him.