Borlaug proved Malthus wrong

Agronomist who helped double agricultural production dies at 95

paulseditors-desk-picNorman Borlaug, one of the most important people of the 20th century, has died at the age of 95. Borlaug is often referred to as the “father of the green revolution” – the new processes and techniques in agriculture that brought food to hundreds of millions of starving people and helped lower the cost of food products around the globe. Two magazines – The Atlantic Monthly in 1999 and Reason in 2000 – put the number of people who lived healthier and longer lives due to Borlaug’s agricultural advances at one billion, while newspaper obituaries peg the number of people he benefited as “in the hundreds of millions.” Don Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University, said that doubtlessly, with malnutrition less of a threat in the developing world, there were millions of babies born who otherwise would not have been. It is hard to imagine one life having more of a positive effect on so many people as Borlaug’s did.

The Washington Post obituary said that “Borlaug’s career was defined, on the one hand, by the ability of science to increase food production at an exponential rate and, on the other, by the Malthusian nightmare of an exploding population outstripping its ability to feed itself.” That isn’t true at all. Borlaug’s life’s work proved Thomas Malthus wrong. The 18th-century doomsayer thought that, left unchecked, population would grow geometrically while food supplies would only grow arithmetically. The first jump in agricultural production occurred at the beginning of the industrial revolution – at about the time Malthus was alive, but unable to see the changes going on right around him. The second – and larger – improvement in agricultural production occurred in the second half of the 20th century, with the widespread application of Borlaug’s work. (I went into detail about this in the July 2008 Interim cover story, “Why concern with overpopulation is wrong.”)

Borlaug was born and raised in rural Iowa, but it wasn’t until he went to school in Minneapolis that he saw the potential dangers malnutrition and hunger could pose when he witnessed large numbers of adult men unable to care for themselves because they lacked food to feed themselves. The experience would lead him to believe that development and social justice required hungry bellies to be filled.

He graduated from the University of Minneapolis in 1942 with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics and then headed to Delaware for employment. In 1944, Borlaug left his well-paying job at DuPont Co. and headed for Mexico to help combat malnutrition. With the financial backing of the Rockefeller Foundation, he improved wheat productivity in that country by selective breeding of new strains of the plant, the use of fertilizer, novel crop rotation techniques and other innovations. By 1948, the country that had suffered widespread malnutrition and which had to import wheat from abroad, was self-sufficient. Borlaug would later genetically modify crops to be more disease-resistant and less susceptible to changes in the weather. In the 1960s, he would revolutionize agricultural production in Pakistan and India and later, throughout Latin America and Asia. When he attempted to bring the project to Africa in the 1980s, his financial backers at the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, as well as the World Bank, stopped supporting him.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich said in his best-selling apocalyptic book The Population Bomb that the world was headed toward a Malthusian hell in which mass starvation would wipe out large swaths of people, most notably in Africa and Asia, making specific note that Pakistan and India would suffer collapse within the decade. Indeed, he called it a “fantasy” that India would ever be able to feed itself. By 1968, Pakistan had already achieved self-sufficiency in food production (rice and wheat) and India did the same two years later. India increased wheat production by about one-third over five years (seconding schools and theatres to store excess grain) and tripled it again over the next three decades. By 2008, it was a net food exporter, despite having 1.17 billion mouths to feed. Malthus’s disciple Ehrlich was proven spectacularly wrong – and yet four decades later, his doomsday predictions still have influence.

Surprisingly, Borlaug himself was susceptible to Malthus-Ehrlich hysterics about population growth. In 1975, he said the Green Revolution he helped usher in over the previous decade “only delayed the world food crisis by 20 to 30 years and we have already used seven of them.” In the 1980s, he attacked Ronald Reagan’s defunding of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which he thought was necessary to combat “monstrous” population growth.

Borlaug under-estimated the success of the programs he brought to the developing world. As Gregg Easterbrook reported in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1950, there were 2.2 billion people in the world and they produced 692 tons of grain. By 1992, there were 5.6 billion people and they produced 1.9 billion tons of grain. That is, there was a 220 per cent increase in global population, but a 280 per cent increase in global wheat production. For numerous food staples, this pattern held true. Furthermore, this increase in food production necessitated an increase of cropland of just one per cent due to Borlaug’s more efficient agricultural techniques and improved genetic strands.

Some environmentalists condemned Borlaug for his use of fertilizers and some even seemed peeved that the increased food supply made depopulation demands seem less urgent. Yet, the more efficient production of food preserved tens of millions of acres of forest from encroaching farmland because drastically more cropland was simply unnecessary to feed the additional mouths environmentalists worried about. Furthermore, as agriculture became less labour intensive and infant mortality rates declined due to improved nutrition, many rural families in the developed world naturally tended to have fewer children.

Today, famine is almost entirely caused by political events – government policy or government failures to respond responsibly to natural disasters. Today, 25,000 people still die from malnutrition every day – too many, to be sure, but fewer than in the 1950s and 1960s, despite a global population twice as large. Most of these deaths are a result, not of insufficient food, but of an infrastructure incapable of getting food to those who need it; in his interview with Reason in 2000, Borlaug singled out environmentalists who opposed the building of roads that could get food to hungry people in a timely manner, saying that their romanticized view of nature was skewed by the fact they visited it for hiking trips and weren’t condemned to live in subsistence-level poverty in desolate and difficult parts of the world far from the creature comforts enjoyed in the West.

Later in life, Borlaug no longer condemned population growth; he was confident that further improvements in agriculture, including the use of genetically modified foods, were capable of feeding the world.

For his achievements, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science and numerous other recognitions. Many cities in the developing world have named streets after him in honour of his life-saving improvements in agriculture. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby said in a column commemorating Borlaug’s passing, “Man may not live by bread alone, but he must surely die without it.” Because Borlaug lived and dedicated his life to eliminating mass starvation, countless millions “were spared that terrible fate.” The Nobel Committee stated 39 years ago that Borlaug “provided bread for a hungry world.” By doing so, he proved Malthus wrong and demonstrated what human ingenuity in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles can achieve.

– Paul Tuns

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