Gregg Easterbrook calls Norman Borlaug the greatest American alive.

Borlaug created the “Green Revolution.” Biotech improved agricultural productivity. New strains of wheat, corn and other crops helped save millions from starvation. Borlaug’s work in Mexico, Pakistan, India and China allowed their populations to grow without facing severe famine and starvation.

The Green Revolution was one of the more important events of the 20th century.


…in a decade, India’s food production increased sevenfold, saving the Subcontinent from predicted Malthusian catastrophes. Borlaug moved on to working in South America. Every nation his green thumb touched has known dramatic food production increases plus falling fertility rates (as the transition from subsistence to high-tech farm production makes knowledge more important than brawn), higher girls’ education rates (as girls and young women become seen as carriers of knowledge rather than water) and rising living standards for average people.

Agricultural Revolutions save a large portion of the population from starvation. Even better, it raises the productivity of individual farmers, freeing a portion of farmers to head to cities and begin industrialization. This is a critical step to lifting Third World countries out of subsistence farming and extreme poverty.

Borlaug comments on Biotechnology in this interview: What is the Green Revolution?

Borlaug: It started in the 1940s when I joined a new program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, aimed at assisting poor farmers in Mexico to increase their wheat production. We spent nearly 20 years breeding high-yield dwarf wheat that resisted a variety of plant pests and diseases and yielded two to three times more grain than traditional varieties.

Eventually, in the 1960s, we were able to expand the program and teach local farmers in Pakistan and India to cultivate the new wheat properly. The results were wonderful:

Pakistan produced 8.4 million tons in 1970, up from 4.6 million in 1965.
India’s production was 20 million tons in 1970, up from 12.3 million 1965.

And that’s just the wheat. What do you say to those who oppose the use of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries?

Borlaug: Biotechnology will help these countries accomplish things that they could never do with conventional plant breeding. The technology is more precise and farming becomes less time consuming. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production so it won’t be so critical.

Today, socialists and environmentalists are striving hard to prevent Africa from having a Green Revolution. What about risks to the environment?

Borlaug: Biotechnology helps farmers produce higher yields on less land. This is a very environmentally favorable benefit. For example, the world’s grain output in 1950 was 692 million tons. Forty years or so later, the world’s farmers used about the same amount of acreage but they harvested 1.9 billion tons — a 170% increase! We would have needed an additional 1.8 billion hectares of land, instead of the 600 million used, had the global cereal harvest of 1950 prevailed in 1999 using the same conventional farming methods.

If we had continued practicing conventional farming, we would have cut down millions of acres of forest, thereby destroying wildlife habitat, in order to increase cropland to produce enough food for an escalating population. And we would have to use more herbicides in more fields, which would damage the environment even more. Technology allows us to have less impact on soil erosion, biodiversity, wildlife, forests, and grasslands.

Yes, the Green Revolution is environmentally friendly.

Here’s another interview with Borlaug at Reason.
Reason reviews the belief that the Third World was doomed to famines and a population crash.

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich also said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.” He insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

Today, India’s population is nearly 1 billion. It has not had a famine for decades.

Borlaug is working on Sub-Saharan Africa these days. He continues to support biotechnology and calls for an added focus on Africa’s lack of infrastructure, especially roads.

Reason: What other problems do you see in Africa?

Borlaug: Supplying food to sub-Saharan African countries is made very complex because of a lack of infrastructure. For example, you bring fertilizer into a country like Ethiopia, and the cost of transporting the fertilizer up the mountain a few hundred miles to Addis Ababa doubles its cost. All through sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of roads is one of the biggest obstacles to development–and not just from the standpoint of moving agricultural inputs in and moving increased grain production to the cities….

Reason: Environmental activists often oppose road building. They say such roads will lead to the destruction of the rain forests or other wildernesses. What would you say to them?

Borlaug: These extremists who are living in great affluence…are saying that poor people shouldn’t have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let’s see whether they’d have the same point of view then.

I should point out that I was originally trained as a forester. I worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and during one of my assignments I was reputed to be the most isolated member of the Forest Service, back in the middle fork of the Salmon River, the biggest primitive area in the southern 48 states. I like the back country, wildlife and all of that, but it’s wrong to force poor people to live that way.

He continues discussing different biotechs and the benefits. There are often fewer risks with biotech than relying on conventional pesticides and ‘natural’ foods.

Bourlag is also skeptical of some of the New Age Farming fads.

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it’s better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That’s ridiculous. This shouldn’t even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have–the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues–and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it’s up to them to make that foolish decision. But there’s absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can’t tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it’s better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It’s a free society. But don’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That’s when this misinformation becomes destructive.

The whole concept behind “Organic” farming is insulting. Plants require certain chemicals and nutrients to grow. If they lack them, they do not grow at all. If they have them, they grow as normal. The plant will have the same nutrients either way. It’s simple enough. Without offering health benefits, organic farming is vastly more land-intensive and environmentally destructive than normal farming. Yet it’s a new age fad. Why? Because people are so far removed from farming that they will believe in fairy tales. Borlaug is right: at some point, these beliefs become destructive. Many Leftwingers are blocking development in Africa based on nothing more than magical thinking – and these are real lives being ruined as a result.

Final Thoughts

Reason: You mentioned that you are afraid that the doomsayers could stop the progress in food production.

Borlaug: It worries me, if they gum up all of these developments. It’s elitism, and the American people are vulnerable to this, too. I’m talking about the extremists here and in Western Europe….In the U.S., 98 percent of consumers live in cities or urban areas or good-size towns. Only 2 percent still live out there on the land. In Western Europe also, a big percentage of the people live off the farms, and they don’t understand the complexities of agriculture. So they are easily swayed by these scare stories that we are on the verge of being poisoned out of existence by farm chemicals.

Bruce Ames, the head of biochemistry at Berkeley, has analyzed hundreds and hundreds of foods, including all of the basic ones that we have been eating from the beginning of agriculture up to the present time. He has found that they contain trace amounts of many completely natural chemical compounds that are toxic or carcinogenic, but they’re present in such small quantities that they apparently don’t affect us.

Agricultural Biotech is one of the greatest advancement in our lifetimes, but so many people are outrageously ignorant and suspicious of it.

So Easterbrook isn’t quite right. Borlaug is a great hero, yes, but many urbanites prefer to remain ignorant. If they learn a little bit about the man and his work, they are more likely to curse him as if he was a medieval witch.