A troubled legacy

Borlaugs Green Revolution

Age was no deterrent to his passion and determination. Till he lost the battle to cancer early in September at an age of 95, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug was relentlessly fighting his arch enemy, the rust fungus, which had engaged him since he had first landed in Mexico in 1944 to breed shorter, straighter, stronger wheat which were to liberate the world from hunger over the next decades. His sheer brilliance of pulling India out of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence is history.

The rust fungus that had helped him achieve “more than anyone else in the 20th century” did not allow him to rest, reappearing as dreadful Ug99 in 2000, a strain of black stem rust that threatens to wipe out much of the worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from its base in eastern Africa. Since farmers everywhere have grown rust-resistant wheat, the fungus has evolved to take advantage of its genetic uniformity, and almost no wheat crops anywhere are resistant to it.

Borlaug could foresee the threat posed by the new stem rust, making a global food crisis imminent should the governments fail to support the rescue mission. His greatest worry was that not only was the pace of research lagging behind the speed with which the winds were blowing away the fungus, having already recorded its presence in Iran, but that the dreadful rust could erase the footprints of his green triumph in India.

The stem rust, one of three rusts that afflict wheat plant, has been longer in existence than the bread wheat — that is only about 10,000 years old. Borlaug’s painstaking work on breeding rust-resistant wheat was erroneously construed as putting the dreadful fungus to ‘sleep.’ Ug99 is the result of fungus-at-work, evolving into a potent variant that can devastate the wheat plant with deadly reddish blisters within two weeks. The genetic uniformity of wheat, engineered by Borlaug’s pioneering work, has been handy for the new rust to go about its job.

Resolute and uncompromising in the pursuit of his conviction, Borlaug’s agricultural philosophy was rooted in fighting hunger at any cost and with any technology. Such was the blind faith in the technology that he developed and promoted that agricultural scientists refused to see the flip side, which was becoming evident through the deterioration of the plant ecology and destruction to the environment. Oblivious to such concerns, Borlaug honed in on increasing yields.

In their recently published book ‘Enough’ — largely a Borlaug hagiography — Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman argue that his tireless effort to boost grain yields did result in a flood of cheap grain but not without all manner of problems that won’t be easily solved. In India, the site of his greatest putative triumph, the legacy is even more mixed. In less than 40 years after Borlaug’s Nobel work, the water table in the country’s green revolution arena has been completely tapped out by massive irrigation projects, farmers are in severe economic crisis, and the cancer rates, seemingly related to agrichemical use, are tragically high.

Fertiliser and pesticides
Borlaug’s obsession with chemical fertiliser and pesticides was obvious, his celebrated ‘dwarf’ varieties would not grow without plenty of water and lots of synthetic nitrogen, and face serious pest pressure, would require heavy pesticide doses. No wonder, he considered Rachel Carson an evil spirit and reacted to her monumental work ‘The Silent Spring’ as “coming from one who did not want to eradicate hunger.” The delayed entry of green revolution into Africa was partly Borlaug’s own doing.

All solutions engender more problems, but it’s scary to imagine what the world would have been without what Borlaug’s science started. For him, the complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as much as possible, using whatever technology available. However, riding on the phenomenal success of his efforts, Borlaug did ignore the cumulative impact of generating high yields to his own peril.

Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers”, that smallholders remained in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation slipped his attention. No wonder, rural migration, urban poverty and malnutrition remain stubbornly persistent — both in India as well as in Mexico. The so-called ‘immigrant crisis’ in the United States is better viewed as an unresolved agrarian crisis in Mexico.

In the later part of his distinguished career, Borlaug was an object of severe criticism. While famines may have become history, hunger persists in its diverse manifestations. Critics contend that the vast majority of increases in grain yields didn’t feed hungry people — it went to feed livestock to make meat in the rich world. Without doubt, self-sufficiency in food grain has been achieved at the cost of being perilously dependent on inputs (seeds, fertilisers and pesticides) from transnational corporations. Borlaug’s blindness to political dynamics — his refusal to consider the power relations at work in the countries whose hungry he set out to save — undermined his legacy.

The point isn’t that Norman Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions -all these things matter, too.

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