Feeding a hungry world
November 01, 1997
by Teresa Acklin
Nobel laureate Borlaug urges action against African hunger.
By L. Joshua Sosland
In the twilight of a fabled career, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug remains a man with a mission and a man with a message. At an age when most men have been retired for nearly 20 years, the 83-year-old agronomist warns that no borders can be secure if there is mass hunger in the world. And, matching his deeds to his words, he is devoting much of his time to improving conditions in a part of the world where hunger has been most intractable Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work leading to the “Green Revolution,” gave a press briefing and was the keynote speaker at the summer leadership conference of the U.S. National Association of Wheat Growers.
Giving perspective to the world food situation, Dr. Borlaug criticized insular attitudes that are cropping up in the United States.
“When I was born 83 years ago, the world population was about 1.6 billion people,” Dr. Borlaug said. “Today, we are 5.8 billion people. We are adding approximately 1 billion more every decade.
“That's the problem you people, your children and your grandchildren will be dealing with in the years ahead. You don't build peace on empty stomachs and human misery, and you can't protect borders indefinitely with armaments. The sooner we all come to realize this again, the better. We learned it in World War II.”
Dr. Borlaug said that, after World War I, U.S. disillusionment with foreign entanglements provoked Americans to adopt policies of isolationism. Those policies ended with the outbreak of World War II hostilities against the United States, Dr. Borlaug said.
“Are we going to revert to isolationism? I hope not,” he said. “There are people in our own (U.S.) Congress who have actually recommended that we withdraw from the United Nations. This would be a disaster. Not that the United Nations is very effective, but I hope we don't get hoodwinked into believing that we are not part of this larger world. For your benefit as producers, and for your benefit as citizens of the world, whether we want to be that or not, we are more and more so every year that goes by.”Modernizing Agriculture
The equitable distribution of food, the problem of poverty and lack of purchasing power in many parts of the world, is as difficult as the challenge of producing for the needs of a rapidly growing population, Dr. Borlaug said. Little more than 30 years ago, Asia was where hunger loomed most dangerously in the world, he said.
These countries, especially China and India, which constitute a large part of the world population, are doing surprisingly well because of the changes in agriculture, he said.
“(Agriculture) was the motor that changed the whole economic system,” Dr. Borlaug said. “It is the generator that started industrialization. You can't industrialize if you have a large percentage of your population half-starving with no ability to sell and to buy so that they can improve their standard of living. And this is what happened 35 years ago in India, Pakistan and Turkey and a little bit later in China.”
Dr. Borlaug said the change in China did not begin until 1978.
“My first visit to China in 1974 was pretty miserable, under the Gang of Four, under Mao (Tse-tung),” he said. “After 1978, when things changed, science and technology became things that were looked at as tools to change and improve production, and standards of living and everything began to change drastically.”
The intensive agriculture that allowed Asia to dramatically increase agricultural production during the 1960s marked a significant departure from the past, when the cultivation of new lands was the route to such increases, Dr. Borlaug said.
“Then better machinery was introduced so that the family could control more land and control weeds and conserve moisture,” he added. “But the science behind plant breeding, agronomy and soil is much more recent.
“It wasn't until right before World War II when finally there was a lot of the technology about how to restore soil fertility, better crop varieties, something better (still not very good) for controlling insects, nothing yet on weeds. Things were starting to happen but then came the Depression, and so they were never put into operation until the shortage of food in Europe. Then all of our farmers … started to refine this accumulation of knowledge, and that changed the world.”
Exciting new technologies have made it possible to cultivate lands previously considered too acidic for crops, Dr. Borlaug said. The largest tracts are in Brazil and Africa, he said. In Asia, no more land can be brought back into production, and some land there should revert to forest, he said.
Bringing the new tracts into production and using science and technology properly will be critical components of feeding the world in the next generation, Dr. Borlaug said.
“World population by 2020 will be about 8.3 billion to 8.5 billion people,” he said. “Can we produce the food to do this? I say yes. Partly by opening up those tracts in the tropical areas of Brazil especially, Colombia, Venezuela, parts of Africa and Indonesia. We know how to handle the soil now.
“In addition, we have to continue research (on ways to attain) higher yielding varieties, better control of insects, he said. “With all of this together, we can produce the food we need.”Political Obstacles
The greatest obstacle to meeting the world food needs of the next generation may not be technical but political, according to Dr. Borlaug. For the past several years, the intensive agriculture that made the Green Revolution possible has come under attack by environmental groups that Dr. Borlaug described as misguided.
An article in a recent issue of Atlantic Monthly said pressure from environmentalists had caused the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Bank, key supporters of Dr. Borlaug's earlier work, to pull back financial support. While stating that the Rockefeller Foundation had always intended to gradually scale back support, he expressed considerable concern about the influence of these groups.
“Memory is very short,” he said. “The Greenies got started in western Europe. We've gotten infected with it here. They've forgotten that their grandparents were starving. That's how short memory is. Just stop to think about that. Here (in the United States), we have never known hunger.
“There are doom sayers,” he continued. “The worst pollutant in the environment is the negativism that seems to permeate our whole society. Not the mass of the people, but the voices that are heard. Why do we permit it to happen? Are we being poisoned out of existence?”
He said statistics indicated that in 1900, life expectancy for a baby boy was 46 years at the time of birth. For a baby girl, it was 48. In 1990, he continued, life expectancy for a baby boy was 73 1/2, and for a baby girl, 79 1/2. “So we are not dying at an earlier age,” he added.
Dr. Borlaug expressed particular exasperation with his opponents because his credentials as an environmentalist are considerable, he said. His early training was in forestry, and he lived and worked in national forests in Idaho and New England in the United States.
“I come into this very much with an interest in wildlife and forestry and land use,” Dr. Borlaug said. “I want it understood. There were certain people in the World Bank who were frightened by all of these noises against chemical fertilizer.
“That was a big handicap, and we're still having trouble with it. The idea is that we can solve these problems with organic fertilizer, but there isn't enough of it, especially in African countries where in many places there are no animals. Why? Because of animal diseases and the tse-tse fly, which causes sleeping sickness in humans.”
He said China had been a master of using all organic waste for hundreds of years. Still, in the early 1970s China made huge investments in chemical fertilizer plants, and today, it is the largest producer and user of chemical fertilizer, Dr. Borlaug said.
“What might be feasible in some places is not in another,” Dr. Borlaug said. “Somewhere along the way, we've lost common sense, and science and technology gets pushed into a corner. With that comes a lot of confusion.
“Most people don't think about the consequences when they criticize high-yield agriculture. High-yield technology should be used on land most suited for production.”
Emphasizing the impact of this technology, Dr. Borlaug noted that worldwide production of the 12 leading crops rose dramatically between 1940 and 1990 on less planted area.
“To have produced in 1990 a harvest using pre-World War II technology would have required an additional 177 million hectares” as fertile as land currently under cultivation, Dr. Borlaug said.Africa Focus
Since 1986, Dr. Borlaug has centered on the agricultural problems of Africa. In 1997 alone, the octogenarian has made three trips across the continent focusing on high-yielding maize, which he said “is the best crop” for these nations. The challenge is to help farmers benefit from existing research and technology, he said.
“The technology is useless unless it reaches the farmers,” Dr. Borlaug said. “It always has been a problem for the research people communicating to extension people. We've been bringing the extension people in for intensive training, and then they are sent back to their villages.”
Dr. Borlaug's work in Africa began in 1986 at the behest of the late Ryoichi Sasakawa, a Japanese philanthropist who two years earlier had flown emergency food supplies to Africa, where famine was raging in 20 countries. Mr. Sasakawa also recruited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who agreed to work with government leaders to enact more effective agricultural policies.
“The only way Africa can change its standard of living for the people south of the Sahara is to change its agriculture,” Dr. Borlaug said. “Between 65% and 85% of the whole population is on a little piece of land ( one to two hectares). That isn't because there isn't more land. There is. The only tools they have are hand tools, and there are no animals in west Africa. East Africa is a little better.”
Dr. Borlaug gave dire warnings about the consequences of a failure to address Africa's agricultural needs.
“You are going to see hordes of people crossing international borders hungry, miserable, starving people like you've seen in sizable numbers in Rwanda and now with all of the chaos in Zaire (Congo),” Dr. Borlaug said. “That's going to be minutiae, and finally the Europeans are starting to listen.
“I've been trying to say this for seven or eight years. The Sahara won't stop them. And who is going to be tough enough, cruel enough, mean enough, inhuman enough to cut them down with machine guns hungry miserable people? Those are the issues that you … need to convey.”
Dr. Borlaug described recent well-publicized warnings about soaring world food prices and world hunger as “too much negativism.” Citing China, where some of the most severe problems have been predicted, Dr. Borlaug was optimistic.
While wheat exports into China and India may be modest today, both nations will be larger buyers in the future, he said.
“Last year China had a (positive) trade balance of payments with the U.S. of U.S.$31 billion,” he said. “They have hard money. They're going to be importing more grain in the future. That population is 1.2 billion people.
“India had 10 million tonnes of grain going into that country each quarter in 1965 and 1966. They were helpless. Now they've made great progress in industrialization. Sure, they're not importing wheat right now, but they will be in 20 years.”
L. Joshua Sosland is senior editor, markets, for Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain.Norman Borlaug
Born: Cresco, Iowa, U.S., in 1914 Education: B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in forestry and plant pathology from the University of Minnesota, U.S.
Currently: Senior consultant at Sasakawa-Global 2000, a foundation devoted to modernizing agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, U.S.
Past work: Associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation for the Inter-American Food Crop Program and director of the wheat research and production program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Texcoco, not far from Mexico City Honors: Was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in the Green Revolution; credited with helping avert mass starvation in India and Pakistan