While the past few months have been host to a number of famous deaths of people famous (Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Patrick Swayze, to name just a few), I was disappointed that one very influential person passed with little fanfare. He wasn’t a politician and he didn’t captivate the masses with music or speeches, yet his work has profoundly changed the world as a whole. He used science to fight world hunger on three continents. This man was Norman Borlaug. Though he is not without his critics, his work has shown that sometimes it takes science to effectively reduce a systemic problem like food scarcity. This is the kind of man that college students looking to make a difference on people’s lives should aspire to emulate.
Before I address the critics of Dr. Borlaug and his Green Revolution, I want to make clear the dizzying ramifications of his work are known to the world. During the 1940s, he worked for the Mexican government to find solutions to the problem of the country’s grain crops that had been riddled with disease. His work not only stabilized wheat farming in Mexico but allowed the country to become a net exporter of wheat within a decade. After fighting hunger in Mexico, he turned his sights to South Asia. Working with both India and Pakistan during the 1960s, he braved an unstable political climate and introduced his methods of biotechnology to increase crop yields and produce record amounts of grain harvests for both countries. Moving on, he looked at new breeds of rice for Asia, which created still more food solutions.
His work created genetically diverse and disease-resistant crops, which required fewer resources and could withstand less hospitable conditions. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for almost single-handedly fighting back a Malthusian nightmare of famine across the globe while working directly in the field with farmers to address their concerns. He’s often been credited with saving the lives of a billion people.
But Dr. Borlaug’s fight is far from over. In Africa and other areas of the globe, there are still people dying of hunger. It’s unjust, and politics is one of the main reasons this situation persists. Besides dictators and warlords controlling regions via the control of food, pro-organic crop groups have advised some African nations to only grow crops organically, strangling their food diversity and yield options with inefficient farming methods and non-genetically modified crops. The question should not be whether or not science is allowed to change our food to meet the pressing needs of people around the globe. Borlaug’s work is proof that this is often necessary. The real focus should be on making sure food reaches the people who need it most.
Proponents of organic crops claim that because of lower nutrition in some biotech crops, malnutrition has become rampant. The truth is much more complex. Having a limited source of dietary options often leads to malnutrition, and even if biotech crops have less nutrition per pound, their nutrition per acre harvested is much greater. The efficient way to to fight malnutrition is to diversify crop choices in a region and look for vitamin supplements if necessary, but don’t shun scientifically-enhanced crops on principle alone. Without them, countless people would die. Natural farming methods simply require so much land, water, natural fertilizer from animals and manpower that hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation.
Critics also cite the chemicals used for inorganic fertilizer and pesticides as evidence of organic farming’s superiority. But if a crop lacks pesticides (chemicals that, regardless of their source, must harm insects), then its survival will be placed in the whims of insect attack and seasonal famines. Farmers often use more chemical products than are necessary, but this problem is due to a failure to educate farmers about efficient agricultural practices rather than an instrinsic evil in pesticides.
There is also an even greener benefit for this Green Revolution. By using fewer animals as sources of fertilizer, artificially fertilized crops also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Genetic or chemical additives fight weeds, which allows for farmers to reduce labor and burn less oil to work farm equipment and keep crops healthy. Studies like the one conducted by Graham Brookes of PG Economics credit genetically modified crops with curbing global warming is equal to removing over 4 million cars from the road.
If you study archeology, you learn that you can trace back human agriculture by looking at plants and the food we ate. Corn, wheat, fruit — all of these things looked very little like they do today. We have been breeding them since before recorded history to be bigger, to grow with less water, to separate from chaff readily and to be grown uniformly. Changing the food we eat to be more convenient and readily available allowed humans to spend their days better, giving them the strength and free time to create civilization.
There is never a black and white answer to most crises, and world hunger is certainly a complex issue. Addressing it requires a combination of political, economic, scientific and social changes. Borlaug said to the starving peoples he had worked to save, “We’re going to teach you to be rebels. Not with guns and daggers, but with science and technology.” Regardless of its criticisms, biotechnology still has room to grow — not only in advancing itself and improving on its old successes, but also in addressing the concerns of its critics through research. I can only hope there are scientific minds as ambitious as his to carry on the work for such global causes.
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.