Father Earth Is Dead

DESCRIPTIONOscar Hidalgo/The New York Times Norman Borlaug

If you had to point to one person who helped the global population surge over the past several decades to nearly 7 billion rather than succumbing to mass famine, as was widely predicted (and, indeed, has been predicted throughout history), a person who well understood the paradox that population growth was both the reward of his life’s work as well as the problem that necessitated it, that person would likely be Norman Borlaug, the most important plant scientist behind the Green Revolution, who has died at the age of 95.

Read this extremely well-done obituary, by Justin Gillis. A few of many, many highlights:

  • “Urgent queries began to pour in from other poor countries, for they were caught in a bind. After World War II, the introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge, but birth rates were slow to follow. As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.”
  • “In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat. … On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population. … This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.”
  • “By Mr. Toenniessen‘s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.”

We have a few things to say in SuperFreakonomics about this sort of triumph, in which a seemingly unyielding problem is addressed, almost simply in retrospect, to great worldwide benefit. That doesn’t mean there won’t be complaints, of course, about unintended consequences and the plight of the minority whose boats didn’t rise with the tide. To his credit, Gillis gives those folks a voice in the obituary as well.


L F File

Unfortunately the hand-wringing environmentalists got/get all the headlines while he rather quietly solved the problem. Good to see him getting some credit.

ej

How will his work stand up in the light of peak oil/soil/water?

I may be considered a "hand-wringing environmentalist" but unless you consider the long term sustainability of current water use, soil depletion, fossil fuel dependency of "modern" farming you are only pushing the problem (and any possible solution) ahead of you.

Those you who aren't hand-wringing environmentalists - what are your thoughts on the future of fossil fuel dependent arming?

Lee

Dr. Norman Borlaug ranks up there with Jonas Salk on my list of people who made a big difference for humanity. In sharp contrast to the current wave of grabbing patents on genetic materials, medicine, etc. to benefit only the few and let the rest of humanity suffer, he worked on alleviating the problem of famine threatening millions. No politician or business leader can match the impact of his contribution. We still face problems on diseases, economic imbalances and environmental issues but very few people see the daunting tasks on a global and long-term perspective. Fortunately, there are still dedicated people pursuing solutions without fame, honor or profit as their primary goal.

Scott Supak

More "hand-wringing" from someone who just read the Toxic Waters piece from the NY Times... The legacy of petro-chemical farming, created from the stockpiles of chemical weapons at first, will live with us much longer than Dr. Bourlag did.

As for "not succumbing to mass famine"? Well, this is from Wikipedia:

"According to the World Health Organization, hunger is the gravest single threat to the world's public health.[1] The WHO also states that malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality, present in half of all cases.[1] According to the FAO, starvation currently affects more than one billion people or 1 of 6 people. [2]"

And there's this:

Hunger mortality statistics

* On the average, 1 person dies every second as a result of hunger - 4000 every hour - 100 000 each day - 36 million each year - 58 % of all deaths (2001-2004 estimates).[12][13][14]
* On the average, 1 child dies every 5 seconds as a result of hunger - 700 every hour - 16 000 each day - 6 million each year - 60% of all child deaths (2002-2008 estimates).[15][16][17][18][19]

So, yeah, as the numbers get worse, we're seeing that we would have been better off developing sustainable systems of local, resilient communities to provide food for the world, instead of industrialized, petro-chemical dependency that has ruined soil tilth and centralized food production into industrial nations with shameful farming policies that exacerbate the problems.

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John

@ej

It took me a moment to figure out that your f in farming (sounds funny if you say it out loud) was dropped.

I am firm believer in markets, and if fossil fuels ever go away, they will be replaced with some other technology. I would expect this to happen gradually as fossil fuel prices rise to the point where the alternatives become cost practical. Once these fossil fuel replacements become widespread, competition and technical advances will lower prices to acceptable levels.

Or the poor will starve until the population matches the food supply. I like my first scenario better.

Brian Gongol

EJ: Borlaug solved the imminent problem of famine with the tools he had at hand. As Borlaug himself said, nobody volunteers to leave the planet to take the pressure off. Fossil fuels won't suddenly disappear; their prices will rise as supply diminishes, and that pricing signal will encourage the development of alternatives.

Johnny E

He as much admitted that he was just staving off disaster until we got control of the Population Bomb. We didn't, so now we have massive parts of the oceans becoming deadzones because of fertilizer and pesticide runoff. And we have a food supply susceptible to massive failure because of loss of biodiversity. And Malthusian dynamics are still in play with all the other resources other than green revolution crops. He might have actually speeded it up.

Tucker

The hunger problem today is both greatly alleviated and heightened due to the work or Borlaug and his students. First most hunger today is on or around marginal agricultural land without adequate infrastructure. However it also shifted the risk into the probability tail, so now we are more likely to have a disease, pest or weather driven famine affect a larger area and population as there are fewer crops with more stringent requirements for water and temperature.

The failures however are almost entirely on the policy side for encouraging unsustainable production with an overuse of inputs in some areas while the distant hungry see little benefit from the reduced prices and famine prevention is left to charitable organizations rather than governments with the capacity.

rick

This is an example of a system being limited by its most constrained resource. Disease was constraining population and modern medicine eased it. Then food was constrained and the green revolution raised the bar. We'll soon reach a new point where population is again constrained but now lots more people will die.

Matt

Some of the comments in this entry and other articles/blogs remind me of the following quote:

"No man is a hero in his own country."
- John Monash

But to people in other parts of the world, he is not only a hero but a savior.

Christopher Strom

I'm hardly a "hand-wringing environmentalist", but neither am I a member of the "don't worry, someone else will solve all our problems in the future as prices rise" club.

@ John and Brian (#5 & #6)
There is no guarantee as to when, or to what extent, such alternatives will be successfully developed. Competition will certainly lower prices, but prices will not necessarily fall to any level we find "acceptable". Our investment in technologies is driven by our desires, but physics is indifferent. Both set limits on what is possible.

@Tucker (#8)
Excellent insight and explanation. Prior to Borlaug's work, famine had its roots in unpredictable food shortages as often as it did in regional politics and poor policy decisions.

Javier

Well, like a religious fanatic I must confess I believe in science and engineering to provide the means to sustain an even larger population. With the (relatively) environmentaly safe fusion/solar/biomass/geothermal/eolic plants coming in the future to provide low cost (hopefully) energy to water desalinisation, transgenic seeds to multiply 2x or 3x crop turnover in Africa... I see the world (as always) is going to be a better place to live for as many humans as neccesary.

We are smart. We can balance the system in the long term as we are already. Reproduction is in our human nature, we should learn to live with it.

Brad Hicks

The Green Revolution solved the hunger problem, or mostly solved it. We are now at the point where we produce enough calories to feed every one on earth; all remaining starvation on earth is the result of politics or war.

But the Green Revolution did this in the worst imaginable way, by all but mandating chemically-sustained monocropping, which completely and utterly destroys the soil, anywhere it's used, within three years; soil that once was rich and fertile is now little better than sand, a world of open-air hydroponics that was only sustainable as long as oil was basically free, a world where the dessicated sand that's all that's left of our farmland can't even hold the fertilizers that we spray onto it, so they end up in the Gulf of Mexico creating algae blooms that are killing every other living thing in the Gulf.

The alternative solution, crop rotation, is a hundred years older than the Green Revolution. It's thousands of years older than the Green Revolution, if you count the admonitions in our oldest religions, including Christianity, not to keep any given field in production for longer than 6 years in a row, to let nitrogen-fixing weeds grow on it the 7th.

By substituting crop rotation for chemical fertilizer, we could have grown the same calories per acre with a diet 3 times as varied, solving not just the hunger problem but also the malnutrition problem. Can it have escaped your attention that three of the great successes of the Green Revolution, corn and wheat and rice, are basically empty calories? Congratulations, we've made raw starches and sugars nearly free. Now how about some actual food in our food?

I'd like a lot less Normal Borlaug in my future, and a lot more George Washington Carver, please.

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Deane

Glad to see how many people question the value of what this guy did... India is currently going thru mass crop failures and an unprecedented suicide rates because of depleted aquifers and lost top soil... Thanks alot Norm!!! I'm sure you meant well but your neo-colonial endeavors of getting much, much more now means getting much, much less later!

DMS

I'm ashamed that I share the same blog reading list as some of the commenters here.

Norman Borlaug saved the lives of more people than any other individual in history. His approaches are, in main, intrinsically preferable over whatever local/ organic/ trend-of-the-week underinformed preference you may hold. Organic farming which cannot and will never feed the entire world population (unless there is a devastating depopulation - or is that your preference?). Dwarf wheat alone increased the productivity of developing world farms at least ten-fold with the same amount of inputs (how? Spends the resources/sugars making grain instead of stalk & leaves.)

I think the millions of Indians and Pakistanis who would absolutely have died or eked desperate lives out of underperforming and marginal soil may disagree. (Or again, is that your preference?). That both standard of living and food self sufficiency in India have risen in the time since Borlaug's advances is no coincidence.

In fact the only shame here is that disingenuous faux environmental lobbying in the '70s and early '80s prevented similar advances being promulgated in Africa. As a consequence the average African farmer is now incredibly more impoverished than the average Asian / Indian-subcontinent farmer. (Or once again, is that your preference?)

Very easy for us here in wealthy liberal democracies to poo-poo the efforts of people to limit starvation (especially when spectacularly successful) and be smugly pleased when the tools are available but politics cripple their application (like in Africa), and so then also cripple the people who may benefit from them. Nice.

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Scott Supak

@DMS

You don't know what you're talking about. Sustainable agriculture is the only hope. The chemical/industrial way has led to soil depletion, water contamination, resistant pests and diseases that have evolved to become super bugs, and a whole host of other problems. The early spike in yields has not been maintained, and the problems will only get worse. Furthermore, industrial agriculture products are less nutritious, and use far more calories than they produce, making them suicide for us to continue down that path.

Read some Michael Pollan before you start claiming that we're poo-pooing efforts to limit starvation. Judging by the statistics I posted (above, #4), I'd say they've been less than "spectacularly successful." We honestly believe that sustainable agriculture is the answer, and we have plenty of evidence to back it up. Where's your evidence to the contrary?

DMS

@Scott Supak,

Do you have a conflict of interest to declare in this discussion?

I note that you don't refute any of the points I made in comment #15 but just bluster. Your material about starvation in #4 is irrelevant to the legacy of a man who saved lives. All your data point to.. is that the job isn't finished.

Let me have a go at your assertions though

1 - You say yields have not increased since an early spike, but that's clearly untrue. FAO data indicate that the yield of wheat in Pakistan and India ranged around 500-800kg/Ha in the '50s and '60s. By the end of the '70s it was 1500 kg/ha and is now about 2500 kg/Ha. That plateau would be pretty hard to cross - looks more like a steep climb (easiest to find data outside of academic journal registration is using Wikipedia, as you did, but many similar others bound). How about this quote "in 1875 ~50% of the labor in the US was devoted to farming. Today, less than 2% of labor is devoted to farming. Yet we produce 300% more crops on less land." (Bob Goldberg, Dept Biology UCLA, 2005). You lose.

2 - Organic agriculture cannot feed the world at current population levels. The danish Bichel committee concluded when speaking of organic agriculture that the "total average production losses for different crops varies between 3% and 50%. Average grain yields would be cut by 23%." "A total abolition of pesticide (cause yield loss of) between 10% and 25%" and that specialty crops, such as potatoes, sugar beet and seed grass would be closer to 50%. Nup, you lose.

However I note that you don't address my comments that Norman Borlaug saved millions of lives (because it is demonstrably true) and that denying Africa the benefits that Asia enjoyed has killed millions (because it is also demonstrably true).

I declare a conflict of interest - I am a PhD-level scientist with an interest in agriculture (but not an ag scientist or biochemst etc) and a keen knowledge and understanding of the issues. Can I suggest that your undisclosed conflict is that of a purveyor of luxury, tasty commodities to westerners that can afford them, with little understanding of how the wide application of this luxury would effect the life (and death) of millions in the developing world.

Like I said last time; "Nice".

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Tyler

@DMS and Scott Suspak

Thank you to DSM for your information. I was worried that I was the only sane person to read this blog, and therefore, fearful that I would have to part ways with moonbats such as Scott. To denigrate a man that did what Borlaug did is in poor taste, no matter what your beliefs are.

To you "hand wringing environmentalist" I ask only this - what have you done to help improve the situation?

If you are wondering what I have done - I educate future farmers and ranchers on economics and finance which enable them to survive, stay in business and produce food products that go into the food chain. While you may not enjoy the methods used, at least we are doing something outside of bickering.

Tyler