Food for millions

Norman Borlaug, whose pioneering work as a crop scientist saved millions of people across the world from starvation, has died. Known as the father of the Green Revolution in agriculture, Borlaug used innovative plant breeding techniques to produce disease-resistant varieties of wheat, which produced more grain than traditional strains. His role in developing high yielding crop varieties contributed to a dramatic increase in food grain production. This proved to be a boon to the developing world. It reduced their dependence on food grain imports and enabled them to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency with regard to producing their own grains. It freed millions from the awful prospect of starving to death. Borlaug will be remembered with particular fondness here in India. He freed India from famine. Thanks to his work India underwent a Green Revolution in the late 1960s that quadrupled food grain production. India ceased to be a ship to mouth country ie a country that was fed by grains imported from abroad. From an importer of food grains, India not only achieved self-sufficiency but also began exporting it. None of this would have been possible without Borlaug showing the world the way.
Borlaug’s innovative work enhanced food security. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But his way of increasing food grain production had its negative fallout. His genetically modified food grains depended on intensive use of fertilisers and water, prompting critics to reject his way as environmentally unsustainable. GM seeds need three times the water required by other seeds. Indeed, one of the fallouts of the revolution in India has been the massive depletion of groundwater reserves. The revolution led to prosperity but it was only the middle and rich farmers who gained. It deepened the impoverishment of peasant farmers contributing in a big way to the violent conflict in Punjab in the 1980s and 90s.

Borlaug showed that with scientific intervention in agriculture, it was possible to feed the world. With the global food crisis deepening, calls for a second Green Revolution are growing. Governments will turn to Borlaug’s way of fighting hunger. But they need to bear in mind that more than biotechnology, it is sustainable agriculture that can tackle human hunger and food insecurity over the long term. Even Borlaug came around to calling for judicious use of fertilisers. The world must learn from past mistakes as it sets out on another food grain revolution.

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