The guiltiest man in heaven

Norman Borlaug died on September 12, 2009. Clearly a genius, his name is more widely known in death than in life, especially in his home country.  His accomplishments were considered impossible until he proved that they weren’t. His legacy, however, is rather hotly debated. To some he was a visionary hero and the savior of millions. To others he was a villain of the first degree and gave us all cancer. Where you place him between those two extremes depends more on politics – in the broadest sense of the word – than it does on his actual work. And the truth, as always, probably exists between these two extremes. Unfortunately, the debate rages mostly between people who don’t have much actual experience or knowledge of the matter that they’re debating.

Borlaug went to Mexico in 1944 to work on the problem of wheat stem rust. It was in Mexico that he made his breakthroughs in wheat breeding: pathogen resistance, high yield varieties and dwarfing. He replicated his successes on multiple continents and with multiple cereal grain crops. And he changed agriculture forever, perhaps more drastically than anyone since humans domesticated grains.

He’s loved and loathed for the same reason, but he may not deserve either. All he did was give agriculture a new set of tools – albeit a Nobel worthy set of tools; how those tools have been employed and to what ends has little to do with Norman Borlaug.

In every case to which he applied his considerable energy, serious agricultural problems were averted. He’s credited with avoiding mass starvation in India. But in each of his success cases, nations with severe shortfalls became grain exporters. Had those nations not pushed to become exporters, the problems that resulted from Borlaug’s techniques might not have arisen.

When reading a critic, you’ll generally find the charge that Borlaug’s hybrids “required chemical fertilizers”. That’s not true. His hybrids require more nutrients because they work faster and harder than their non-hybridized kin. Chemical fertilizers are simply the easiest way to provide those nutrients, not the only way. A plant doesn’t care how it gets the nutrients; in fact, a plant can only take up nutrients in element form. Something with nitrogen in it doesn’t do a plant any good. It requires N. Chemical fertilizers are simple elements, so plants use them immediately. “Organic” fertilizer like manure has those elements, but they’re tied together with other bits and pieces. The combined lot is worthless to a plant until a host of soil biota break the organic matter down into forms that the plant can use.

When you’re trying to avert starvation you don’t have the years necessary to build healthy, active soil. Once starvation is averted, however, you’d be a fool to push your luck over the long term for the sake of export revenues.

The problem with Borlaug’s green revolution is in the politics and business of agriculture. The negatives come from pronouncements like “get big or get out” and “fence row to fence row”. They arise from forcing the multiple, overlapping life processes into an industrial model. To be sure, without Borlaug there could not have been the industrialization of agriculture. Between Borlaug’s hybrids and petro-chemical fertilizers, policy makers and money men decided that good horticultural practice was no longer necessary.

That’s the decision that fucked us, not high yield hybrids. Agriculture doesn’t fit into the industrial model very well, at least not if you’re concerned about anything more than tonnage and commodity prices. In even best case scenarios, there’s only so many bushels of any given grain that can be gotten from an acre of land. Borlaug managed to increase that number drastically, but it plateaued again. Once the yield/acre number has been reached, farmers are forced to reduce costs per acre. And every time yields increase the price for the crop decrease, forcing farmers to find “economic efficiencies” at the other end. The vicious circle of industrial agriculture is only sustainable so long as prices are subsidized.

It is cheaper – in the short term – to monocrop; reduce or eliminate rotation; forgo soil building exercises like like green manure cover crops; rely on heavy applications of chemical fertilizers; and fight pathogens and competition with more chemicals. It’s sustainable only when the long-term external costs are socialized.

Maybe Borlaug’s responsible for our belief that nature had been conquered, but if that’s the case it only proves that the rest of us are fools. It’s easy to imagine an alternate history for Borlaug’s contribution to agronomy. Using his hybrids does not necessitate overtaxing the finite resource of arable land. His increase in yield per acre could just as easily have enabled us to concentrate on investing in soil.

I don’t know what Borlaug’s motivations were. He always claimed to be apolitical and working for the well-being of the poor in developing nations. And since he spent most of his life doing just that, including coming out of retirement to work in Africa, it is difficult to cast aspersions. I do know that many people are alive today who wouldn’t be if not for Norman Borlaug.

Maybe Borlaug is the guiltiest man in heaven. He’d be second guiltiest if we blamed Einstein for the fear and horror of nuclear holocaust.

10 replies »

  1. Actually, I’m surprised that his death would be noticed over here. Having spent much of my life in the rather insular grain business, and with my background in chemistry, I had more than a nodding acquaintance with Norm. I will say that he took no shit from anybody, and wouldn’t put up with second rate minds and/or arguments. He did what he did to benefit man. My back of the envelop estimations put him as the greatest creator of wealth(for everyone) in the history of mankind. Funny to read this here, as I’m working on a piece about Norm on my own blog but it’s not quite ready yet.


  2. Jeff: why would you find it strange to read this here? You know my profession and my interests. Or do you mean that the piece on him here isn’t calling him the personification of all that is evil?

    Because i work with plants…not so much genetics but making them grow…i’m a realist. I have nothing against chemical inputs, though i may disagree with how some people use them. I have nothing against chemical pest control, though they’re often overused/used incorrectly. And while i’m a full share member in an organic CSA and i grow almost completely organic, i’m interested in the process rather than the politics.

    Actually, political-organic pisses me off to no end. Nothing gets me spitting a stream of profanity faster than a customer who’s worried about whether the bagged manure they’re buying is “organic”. An organic gardener wouldn’t be buying bagged manure, and an organic rancher would be using every bit of manure to fertilize the perennial grasses that the cows eat.

    I’ve reached the point where if i sense a political-organic customer i answer that everything’s organic. Should they come back and bitch, i plan on saying that they didn’t specify whether we were using chemistry definitions or political definitions…and then i’ll ask to see an inorganic plant.

  3. Lex,

    You’ve misinterpreted what I said, trying to read between the lines. I was just surprised to see a grain guy mentioned at S&R.


  4. Sorry, Jeff. I don’t think of him so much as a grain guy…though that’s what he worked with…as i do a plant guy. But that’s probably because i’m more interested in what he did with plant genetics/breeding than what he the results were. That’s probably where the misinterpretation was. That and the mild controversy stirred by his death. It’s always touchy to talk plants amidst politics.

  5. Lex,
    When he came to town, he didn’t hang out with the academics, he came down to the exchange and hoisted a few with us traders and merchants, and he came through town quite frequently. He was considered to be a grain guy through and through.


    • I guess there’s all kinds of things in the world that you’d just never think of. Like now – until this exchange, it had never occurred to me that there were “plant guys” and “grain guys” and that these might be distinctly different crowds. Now that I hear it, I guess it seems plausible enough. But I’d never have thought of it on my own.

      Live and learn….

  6. Sam, there’s certainly some overlap…

    Jeff, i can see that. I think of him for his genetics and plant pathology work more than anything. For us plant guys, his recurrent backcrossing of pureline genotypes within a stable phenotype is what’s amazing about Borlaug…and the fact that he did breeding considered impossible until he proved that it wasn’t. Or at least that’s how this plant guy sees it.

  7. Lex,
    A lot of self taught grain guys have a knowledge of genetics that would rival PhD’s from ag programs at Purdue or Iowa. That’s not to count the grain guys who are actually scientists, or who have extensive scientific training like myself. Many of the smartest people in the world(not self described intellectuals, but really smart, practical people) gravitate towards the grain business, and we share a high appreciation of real intelligence.

  8. Jeff, that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m not formally trained in anything related to botany or horticulture. It’s a field where practical experience and self-teaching mean as much as book learnin’…and often times more. And since you can spend your whole life learning and still not know close to everything, there are no secure ivory towers.

    And i’d sooner take agricultural/horticultural advice from a sunburned, calloused old salt-of-the-earth guy than a PhD any day (which is not to say that i wouldn’t listen to the PhD).