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