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Ashleigh Smith

Jun 18
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Written By Lara Wadsworth

How It Began

Norman Borlaug was just a man who was born in 1914 in the American Midwest. He witnessed the aftermath of World War One and The American Dust Bowl, which led to widespread disease and starvation. These hardships, coupled with his humble beginnings, fueled his determination to make a difference. He was fortunate enough to get a solid education, something a farm boy in the 1920s was lucky to have. After completing high school, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Forestry. However, in the 1930s, the Dust Bowl hit. The over-farming of Midwestern and Western soil almost wiped out native prairies and left vast amounts of soil barren and dry. This, coupled with the characteristic high winds of the American Prairies, created unprecedented dust storms. The sky would blacken for days as dirt was carried hundreds of miles, entire homes were buried, and people were killed or sickened. The entire country was affected by this devastating time.

Borlaug was deeply impacted by what he lived as a young man and wanted to help others avoid the starvation that came from uneducated farming. Seeing as there were no forestry jobs available in such a desperate economy, he returned to school to study plant pathology and become a scientist. He began crossing and breeding wheat strains, setting the stage for his lifelong mission to combat world hunger. He was soon hired by DuPont and then started work in Mexico, where he had his first opportunity to impact communities desperate for food stability.

plant scientist looking through a magnifying glass

The Green Revolution

Borlaug’s adulthood was during the peak of the Green Revolution, and yet many people call him the Father of the movement. The Green Revolution was a time when mass amounts of resources and focus were invested in increasing crop yields across the globe. This movement started in developed countries such as the United States, where Borlaug became a messenger of this movement and delivered information to various developing countries. The Green Revolution increased agricultural production by about 2.5 times and reduced the cost of food by about 40%.

Borlaug was one of the main scientists to work on developing these desperately needed ‘miracle seeds’. He was widely successful at it and rapidly began developing promising varieties that could help to feed people. According to UC Berkeley, “In test plots in northwest Mexico, improved varieties of wheat dramatically increased yields. Much of the reason why these ‘modern varieties’ produced more than traditional varieties was that they were more responsive to controlled irrigation and to petrochemical fertilizers, allowing for much more efficient conversion of industrial inputs into food.”

Miracles and Controversy

Many people who have heard about Borlaug are aware of the controversial media attention his work has received since the 1980s. Despite these claims, it is without a doubt that he saved millions, possibly billions of lives. He miraculously produced a wheat strain that grew in various climates, was resistant to common diseases, and produced higher yields than traditional wheat. Using this wheat strain, he successfully helped India, Pakistan, Mexico, and parts of Africa triple (or more) their wheat production and become self-sufficient. He helped to end food shortages and famines in those areas. He also was one of the scientists to help develop a grain called triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, which has further helped increase nutrient access worldwide.

The trouble is that this wonderful new wheat strain required a significant amount of fertilization to be made viable. While Norman is said to have been a proponent of organic fertilization methods, this is not always possible in the areas where his developed wheat strains were needed most. However, Inorganic fertilizers contribute to long-term soil depletion, are expensive, and need to be imported from other countries in most cases. In addition, due to the high-yield capacity of this wheat, many farmers started growing specific wheat strains exclusively, which has contributed to widespread monoculture cropping and a general lack of biodiversity. Many claim that Borlaug’s wheat strains contribute to ecological collapse and create more demanding food shortages.

Borlaug's Effects On Agriculture

So, how do we reckon with these facts? Was Norman Borlaug a miracle worker or a well-meaning criminal? I had no idea I would face this moral conundrum when I began my research of influential agricultural figures. My answer is this: Does the creator of a tool get blamed for those who misuse the tool? I would say no. It seems to me that Borlaug was the man who paved the way to solving world hunger. The key word here is “paved”. He did not solve world hunger. The good news is that various other high-yielding wheat strains have been developed since Norman's time that requires significantly less fertilizer use. Would those have been developed without his pioneering work?

Norman Borlaug Statue Washington DC

Borlaug became aware in his later life of the perceived damage that his crop was doing to the world and the criticism he was facing. Concerning those who sought to get rid of his farming practices, he said, “They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Learn From the Past, Improve the Future

Hunger makes people desperate. What parent, when their child asks for food and says, “I’m hungry,” doesn’t do everything in their power to provide food for their child? However, now that we have an invaluable type of perspective called ‘experience,’ we can see how there are better and worse ways to fulfill that request. Now that we know, we can be better. Now that we have another option, we can be better. We should not penalize Norman Borlaug for doing what he could to benefit the world. However, we can learn from his mistakes and the mistakes of those who incorrectly use his tools and be better.

What can we learn from Norman Borlaug? The power to grow food for oneself, the power to be self-sufficient, is invaluable and deserves to be available to everyone. Most of those reading this article probably have all their basic needs met. You can grow your own food! You can help prevent famine by reducing waste. You can be generous and share your bounty with your community. Gardening and farming properly have the power to change the world. I invite you to do your part!

Lara Wadsworth, True Leaf Market Writer

I am a native of Southwestern Michigan, where I also reside, and I love all things plants! I got a Bachelor's Degree in Horticulture and found the first work-from-home job I could get. Now, I spend my days writing for TLM, playing with my dog, eating delicious food with my husband, and plotting my next landscape or gardening move. I believe everyone should get down and dirty in the soil now and then. Happy Gardening!

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