Borlaug, the Indian farmers' friend

Borlaug, the Indian farmers' friend

It was discovery of a stocky Japanese wheat variety Norin-10 that the US military advisor, Dr D C Salmon, sent back home in the early 1960s that changed the face of global agriculture. This was the variety, the only known semi-dwarf traditional wheat strain, that Dr Norman Borlaug was keenly looking for. Crossed with the rust-resistant varieties that Borlaug had developed at the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Research in Mexico, the world got the miracle improved varieties that made history.

These semi-dwarf plants developed by Borlaug responded to the application of chemical fertilisers and produced a bountiful grain harvest. The yields multiplied under favourable conditions, and Borlaug knew that the best place to apply the new technology was obviously India, with the largest population of hungry and starved in the world.
“I tried my best to convince the Indian politicians about the utility of these semi-dwarf varieties in fighting hunger, but they were not interested,” he had once told me. Although agricultural scientists, by and large, were convinced about the yield potential of these varieties, the politicians were not.

Debut in India

“When I didn’t see much headway being made, I played the political card knowing the political rivalry between India and Pakistan,” he went on to explain. “I told India that if you don’t want these varieties, I will give them instead to Pakistan.” I am not sure whether it was because of the political astuteness of Borlaug or the domestic necessity, India imported 18,000 tonnes of wheat seed of the semi-dwarf varieties in 1966. Within a few weeks of the import, the seed was made available in five kg packs and distributed widely in the areas where irrigation was abundant.

The rest is history. India emerged out of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence. Although hunger prevails, famine certainly has become history.

For several years after the Green Revolution was launched, I had the pleasure of accompanying him on his annual visits to the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. As a young journalist I was always in awe of Borlaug, but always found him to be a simple and dedicated scientist. He would spend hours in scorching sun in the wheat research fields and was always keen to visit farmers.

Green Revolution subsequently spread to parts of Asia and Latin America. It did enable a number of developing countries to emerge out of the hunger trap. Agricultural scientists globally promoted the technology and were never able to understand why environmentalists were opposed to the technology.

Such was the blind faith in the technology that Borlaug developed and promoted that agricultural scientists refused to see the flip side, which was clearly evident through the deterioration of the plant ecology and destruction to the environment. Several years after Rachel Carson published her historic work ‘The Silent Spring’ I asked Borlaug whether he had read the book: “She is an evil force,” he reacted angrily, adding: “These are the people who do not want to eradicate hunger.”

Borlaug remained steadfast all through on the role of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. He was so adamant that when the Third World Academy in Italy presented a paper on how Brazil had achieved remarkable crop yields in soybean and sugarcane without applying chemical nitrogen, he didn’t agree. It was only after he travelled to Brazil and saw for himself the crop yields that he at least acknowledged the reality.

Revolution indeed

He would often tell me that if India had not followed the Green Revolution technology, the country would have required bringing an additional 58 million hectares under cultivation to produce the same quantity of food that was being produced after the high-yielding varieties of wheat were introduced.

My argument to this was that although the country saved 58 million hectares, 40 years after Green Revolution, more than double — close to 120 million hectares — are faced with varying degrees of degradation. Borlaug never pardoned me for espousing the cause of long-term sustainability in agriculture. He never accepted that the world could produce enough food with Low-external Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) techniques. In fact, knowingly or unknowingly he did espouse the cause of corporate control of agriculture.

“Be warned,” he told me during one of his visit to Pantnagar University, situated at the foot of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand: “When people stop talking about farmers, when people fail to recognise their role in feeding the country, be sure there is something terribly wrong happening in agriculture.”
These prophetic words hold true today. In India, it no longer hurts when farmers commit suicide or quit agriculture. For quite some time, farmers have disappeared from the economic radar screen of the country. This is a clear pointer to the terrible agrarian crisis that prevails.