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When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

The death of Norman Borlaug brings out mixed feelings, not about the man, but about his work.  The Nobel Peace Prize-winning agronomist is associated with the Green Revolution, which spread industrial agriculture practices around the globe. He is credited with saving as many as a billion people from starvation by developing and introducing hybrid seeds, leading to a huge increase in the production of high-yielding variations of wheat, rice and other crops.

The new high yield seeds required much more water, along with copious amounts of chemical fertilizer, derived from (and transported by) petroleum.  The industrial techniques resulted in environmental degradation, particularly soil erosion, and an unsustainable reliance on grain for feeding livestock.

Global food production is a complex system, and changes in what is produced and how it is distributed lead to many unintended consequences.  Renowned environmental leader Vandana Shiva debunks the myth of progress:  “Industrial agriculture has not produced more food. It has destroyed diverse sources of food, and it has stolen from other species to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.” (Stolen Harvest:, 2000, p.12)

The issue of hunger is further complicated by political issues, corruption, the international financial meltdown, distribution challenges, population growth, and climate change, among other factors. 

It is not helpful to demonize Norman Borlaug, any more than it is to deify him.  He saw a problem and strove to solve it.  The U.N. Food Program paid tribute to Borlaug upon his passing, stating “We thank him for being our great champion in the battle against hunger.” Yet for all the efforts of Mr. Borlaug and others,  the UN recently estimated that 1 billion people are malnourished worldwide. 

While Norman Borlaug is admirable for his dedication and perseverance in ending the scourge of hunger, there is a long way to go, and some progress will involve “solving” the problems that he helped to create.

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Photo of Norman Borlaug, part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute

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8 comments

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10:23AM PDT on Sep 15, 2009

Lets restart Zero Population Growth. It was a movement of the late 60's and early 70's that was started by Paul Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" the warnings from which have now sadly come true. But it lost steam in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush era. The rationale for stopping it from the right was "We need those low income countries with low wage workers to make our stuff." and from the left it was "We should not be telling non-white and third world people to have small families, that is neo-imperialism." So the movement sputtered to a stop. Who wants to restart it? Are we ready, willing and able to put up with attacks from the left and right? This is not a first world third world problem, it is a human survival problem.

5:59PM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

Debbie Z is so right but we have to use birth control in the US. No one has the 'right' to a large family. Every woman in the world should pledge to have one child and the pledge should remain in practice for the next three generations . . . the modern generation of 33 years and not the Medieval generation of 20.

3:13PM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

Maybe one solution to the famine problem would be birth control. If women and men in third world countries had access to family planning methods, and used them, there wouldn't be so many mouths to feed.

1:58PM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

When will we stop maligning our heroes of the past because we do not know who they were or what they thought? Please read Borlaug's Nobel acceptance speech and you will stop seeing the man as either one dimensional or a heedless tool of agri-business. Norman used his entire Nobel acceptance platform to express concern over the fact that he had merely bought a few years of time for others to solve the population issue. Our corporate regimes purposely took their eyes off the ball and let the Zero Population Growth fervor die. In fact our government happily stopped funding almost all international family planning efforts from the day Reagan was inaugurated. Here is Borlaug's speech from 1970.

.."Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas."
"There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind."

11:31AM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

Oh take your head out of the sand Joel G. Your linear thinking and unbridled adoration of Borlaug's "solutions" are a bit sickening.
The problem with male "scientific" thinking is that you guys only use one side of your brain and are not capable of in depth critical thinking about consequences (intended or unintended) in the long range. Just check the latest studies of neuroscience. Women's brains are wired to work entirely in all arenas and we can SEE and analyze beyond the obvious. I am so sick of men seeing themselves are the judges and standards of EXCELLENCE. It's laughable.

7:43AM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

I am disappointed in this article. It has no substance to back it up besides one "renowned environmental leader" anecdotal quote. I believe this article is confusing Western developments with Borlaug's work in poor countries.

I believe Borlaug's hybridized seeds were more water intensive. But how much more water would sustainable farming require to feed equivalent number of people? I bet Borlaug's crops are more water efficient. His methods were most utilized in poor countries that couldn't afford much fertilizer, I doubt they were originally more fertilizer intensive. We only later discovered they would do even better with fertilizer. That is not Bourlag's fault, just as it isn't Borlaug's fault people decided to use his grains to feed livestock rather than to directly eat (and that doesn't happen in poor countries like it does in Western countries).

The one thing I believe this article gets right is saying Borlaug saw a problem and tried to fix it. He didn't have the luxury of foresight or time to develop fully sustainable and less corruptible forms of agriculture. The world needed more food as fast as possible to keep hundreds of millions from starving, and he met this call. The question is whether we will cultivate a Borlaug of sustainable agriculture that can move us into the needs of the next century, without sacrificing crop yields and causing more starving than we currently have.

In whole, this was an unwarranted and unsubstantiated slight on Borlaug.

7:02AM PDT on Sep 14, 2009

Kudelasz, Some people say they believe in God; but they really don't know what that means. They profess to do the things that he said; but they really don't do them. But the problem is that they thing they are doing it and they do so with the best intentions.
We have a saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions...Humankind is really just trying to find its way and we are imperfect, so much of the time, we run around lost.
No, most of the time, we don't live a single day as our Creator intended us to live - with love in our hearts for all our fellow man - but the point is we keep trying.
Be glad you were born a human. We are the only ones with choice who can change this world for the better. I love my dog; but as much as she stands for unconditional love, she can't make sure that my fellow humans have food, clothing, housing and education.
Some people believe that a book translated over and over from many different languages is the only true book ever written - they are not bad people.
Somewhere in America, we have forgotten that everyone here is supposed to be free. But having lived through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s & 90s I have seen some pretty awesome things humankind has done along with some pretty hateful things. Such is the life of humans - a little good and a little bad. If one has no good, one cannot recognize it, if one has no bad, one cannont recognize it. Balancing it is the crux of the problem. May you find Peace.

11:32PM PDT on Sep 13, 2009

We really belive in God, or we only speak about " I belive in God ". We really understand what it means? What are our normal life needs, and what are we doing ? We cannot live a single day as God want we to live, but we speak a life time about loving God. Sorry sometimes I feel sorry because I was borned as a man. I hope you will excuse me but my English it's a very bad one to explain all what I think and feel.

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