A genetic pathologist and Nobel Prize winner, Norman Borlaug is credited with saving more than a billion people worldwide from starvation. His transformative work bringing new agricultural techniques and high-yield crop varieties to developing countries earned him an unofficial title as the father of the Green Revolution.
Norman Borlaug was interviewed by the Producers of Earth Days on June 8, 2007. He died September 12, 2009.
On a rising standard of living
When I was born in 1914, world population was probably about 1.6 billion people. About 1930 it was about 2 billion. But by the year 2000 it was 6 billion. This population monster — not only demanding more food, but more clothes, better medical care, better education, all of these things — was lifting the standard of living, much more rapidly in the USA and Western European countries, than in countries that had been left behind.
One of the great advantages of this country was the early general education for the masses of the people…. To me education is basic to building a better standard of living, in all kinds of ideological governments. Without exception. I would put this very high on the scale of necessity because it affects population growth; it affects the ability of the individual family to utilize their inherent abilities, to exploit them more, and in the process, to lift themselves to higher standards of living.
I fully believe — after having spent 62 years in developing countries and all my childhood, youth, and early years of maturity in the USA — that the human condition, in general, around the world, has improved greatly. But certain sectors have been left far behind. And that is not only sad from the standpoint of those people that live under these conditions, but [also] it is a destabilizing influence because of migration, because of all sorts of –isms — including terrorism — because they are fertile seedbeds in these vast areas of human poverty. Starting with hunger, no education. These are fertile seedbeds for planting all kinds of extremisms.
On environmental perspectives
I’m an environmentalist. I grew up on the land, a farm. A small farm. I know what the standard of living was like in the nineteen teens and ’20s, and the early ’30s. I saw the whole disastrous collapse of [the] US economy with the stock market crash, and where the rural people who produced the food couldn’t sell it.
Now the description of environmental devastation or destruction depends from the point of view of one — if I’m an affluent, capitalistic person with huge income, or even modest today, sitting in an isolated city, and you see trees being cut down, you get concerned. Or if you see agricultural chemicals being used, starting with chemical fertilizer, which is not a poison, but … [people tend to] put 'em all in one package. ... If you’re living in a big city, and you read about these things, you become sometimes a pretty aggressive environmentalist.
The general public — which, in the affluent countries, is urban — they don’t understand the problems of the small farmer. Or of the agriculture farmer in general. And it doesn’t mean that they are consciously trying to castigate the agricultural sector but it handicaps the agricultural sector. The only way you can get funds in a democratic government is by hopefully going through your local representatives and senators, to pass such legislation such as the emergency programs in the ’60s.
Before the Green Revolution took off in India, for two years in a row, there was 5 million tons of wheat, U.S. wheat, that came into India. Under President Truman, point four in his address to the union was, “we have to do something to help the countries that have been left behind. With hunger and poverty and misery.” It went through three changes in names, but that became USAID, eventually. So all of these things in their time were brought to bear on some of these problems.
On the Green Revolution
Well, the Green Revolution was a term first described by William Goud, the director of the USAID in a small conference held on the 8th of March in 1968 in a small hotel, in Washington, D.C. And it went about like this. Dr. Goud was speaking to about 30 people who were interested in international development. And he said, “some of you were in that first group [a similar group eight months previous], that are here today. I described that new technology in agricultural production was beginning to have an impact. Today I say, this impact is here. And it is not a red revolution, based on blood like that of the Soviet Union. Nor is it a white revolution, like what was done by the Shah of Iran. It’s a green revolution, based on science and technology.” ... This came from an economist in the USAID, a foreign assistance program.
Let me go back to the roots of the first Green Revolution, as described by Dr. Goud. This took place in wheat. A drastic change in improvement, during the 1960s in Pakistan first, and in India. But it affected many other countries to a lesser extent in the Near Middle East, like Turkey. Like Iran. .... But the seeds for that Green Revolution, in the case of wheat… was developed in Mexico. In the first foreign technical assistance program, a foreign organization — in this case the Rockefeller Foundation — [was] attempting to assist the government of Mexico to improve its agriculture. Originally, that program was aimed at three crops. Corn or maize as it’s called in Latin America, and beans, and wheat.
On his work
The basic problem that I’ve worked with from the time I began in international agriculture in 1944, is to produce more food for [peoples’] hunger. And most of these are very small farmers. They depend entirely on the agricultural production. To raise their productivity, so they not only produce more food for their family, but some to sell in local market. And to improve their standard of living, hopefully — [to] buy better clothes, and get their children through primary and secondary school, all of the better public health programs, all of these things. You’ve gotta try to bring all of these things together. But, for someone working in agriculture like I have been, you’ve gotta get the food-production thing going, and then at the right time, pressure governments to take action on policies on other aspects of rural development.
In many of those densely populated countries, there’s no more land to cultivate. You see, looking at the world picture on food production until the beginning of World War II, as more food was needed there were still vast tracts of land unused, or used for low-carrying capacity grazing. …More of that was planted [for production of] cereals. And this went on — in the USA it went on, in Argentina, it had gone on in European countries many times.
But [because of] that rapid growth in population that I mentioned, from 1930 onward… [came] better public health, better understanding of disease, better sanitation — this exploded. And so that then [required] the increased production [in food], especially in densely populated countries, by increasing yields per acre. .... In the case of Pakistan, production went from 4 million tons to 20 million tons in that same period of ’60 to 2000. Five-fold. In India, it went from, let’s say 12 million to 75 and a half million tons. This is a tremendous jump in production. And when this happens in one crop, the second one — if you’ve got good technology — will be accepted much more rapidly. Because that little farmer, he says, “Ah. If that fertilizer did increase wheat production like this, I’m gonna plant my rice using fertilizer too.” Even though the fertilizer dosage… and when you apply it for efficient application… he doesn’t know. But he’ll start [doing it anyway]. This forces their local research people to get out of their office and get out in the crops, and start making tests on farms. There’s a whole change in attitudes going on, of course there’s a lot of inter-fighting, some people say it’s all nonsense, it’s all foolishness, nothing’s going to happen. You’re battling all of these things.
On his Nobel Peace Prize
Most of the world doesn’t know that there’s no Nobel Prize for food or agriculture. I got the prize through the window of peace. Which is the place where most politicians get the prize for policies….
So after I received [the Nobel Prize], I was aware of this population-land-food problem, [the] environmental problem, and I said, “Look, do we have to wait for another crisis, whether it’s 30 or 40 years, before agriculture and ranching gets a fair place in the legislatures of the world from the standpoint of budget and prestige? Better we try to do something.”
Empty stomachs are not very conducive to peace. Someone who’s starving, and — especially if he sees his family starving — is going to become quite a[n] activist in trying to get that food. Killing, robbing, stealing, everything. All of the nasty things. Now, this continues to go on, but I think the general belief is that wherever you have extreme hunger and famine, there’s chaos. The whole system breaks down.
On international agricultural development
Here in the US what has happened [is] the big reduction of the percent of the total population on the land in ranching and agriculture has dropped precipitously over the last five or six decades to better jobs, and opportunity. In urban areas, in industries and computer, you name it. All sorts of high-tech. That means the size of the farms and ranches have tended to grow in size. And that was possible only by mechanization. And that came as a result of factories, working people, urban people, in those factories to produce the things that permit the farm size to grow. Now… there has to be a point where it becomes more and more difficult to produce the food even with improved technology. And so I’ve always spoken that the world needs to consider the importance of a stable or near-stable population growth, so that you can cope with this and not sacrifice standards of living and yet not be reckless in the use of that technology to attain this better standard of living. In other words, we don’t wanna cut down a lot more of our forests to open more land to cultivation. We wanna make sure that the chemicals we’re using are not very destructive to our health.
The first time that I went to China in 1974, the Cultural Revolution was still on and it was pretty miserable out there. And, we were shown some of the best communes. They didn’t look very good to me. You go out there now and you see a lot better. But, how long did it take [the US] to reduce our population from a rural population to industrial? From colonial times with 98% of the people on the piece of land, to where we are today [at] 1.5, 2%. [It] took a long time. China has to make a sizable reduction in rural population. I’m talking about income for rural life from industry rather than the land. They have made such a rapid jump in, for example, the increase in cereal production in China. All cereals. It’s even better for rice and for wheat, than for the other minor cereals. But, it’s gone from less than a ton, probably 800 kilo, to four tons per hectare. From, in other words, something on the order of 10 or 11 bushels of wheat, to 60, in 40 years. But, you aren’t going to be able to increase the standard of living of those people, if the vast majority still exist on the land, and you’ll be creating greater conflict between the rapidly increasing income and standard of living of the people in the factories, especially in high technology.
What would life be like in the United States, if we tried to go back to the technology of the early 1900s, rather than that being used now, in the early 2000s. The change has been tremendous, from the early 1900s, from my point of view, for the well-being of the tremendous number of Americans. This isn’t to say that all have benefited equally. Some sectors, small though that they be, have not benefited. And that we should try to correct. But, it has permitted the production of the basic necessities that we need for this high standard of living. Like the first one, food.
On Rachel Carson… and the upside of DDT
She was a darn good scientist at the lower biological level. And especially in marine organisms. You have to remember, when her book was written she had cancer. Like I have now. And yet she attributed her health and that of many more to the adverse effects of chemicals, which were becoming popular then. Insecticides, synthetic insecticides, herbicides, fungicides. She didn’t have any data to back up that. Of course, bits and pieces later were built to identify certain cases, where some of these had been misused.
But let me point out some of the things that were prohibited from being used [with] this emotional word: Malaria. The biggest killer to this day all across the tropical areas of Africa. At that time, in the Blacklands of the Torai in India, prior to the discovery of DDT, there was a huge area of swamp, of brush, of small trees, worthless for agriculture because of human disease. Malaria, primarily. When DDT came they could clear this, [and] it became some of the best lands in the world. In India, [DDT] played an important role in Indian wheat and rice production. Still continues to do that. These were lands that were worthless.
Now, what did the banning of DDT do to the peoples of Africa? There’s been no effective control. The world got the impression that they were spraying the jungle; this was not so.
At that time most of the use of DDT, effectively, was by spraying inside of the huts once a year or twice a year — especially the lower part — with DDT. And the insects, the mosquitoes, during the day when the sun is bright outside, they hide in darker parts. And it used to — In the case of India, when they started using DDT for malaria control, that swamp, the Torai area, was worthless. There was probably… no one knows how many millions of people with malaria. It’s not only a killer, it’s a debilitator, people can’t work effectively. It affects different people in different ways. So Ceylon, the little island, India had reduced [the number of people with malaria] from millions down to 250-300,000 people, when the ban came [on DDT]. They took it off and [the number of people with malaria] went back into the millions. In the case of Sri Lanka, they were down to 14. Took the ban off and it exploded. This is the same story, many places.
On his personal outlook
I say that life is a game. I’m talking about individual [life], or it could be an issue. It’s a game in the sense that many are participating, and you’ve gotta try to get them to pull together. If you’re negative, you will never bring together the forces of the individuals with great talent. The true leadership is what brings these pieces together. And once it’s achieved, it can be destroyed very rapidly.
First of all, there’s no question but that climate is changing. That’s not new. It’s been going on for millions and millions of years. We only need to turn back the time-clock and see how many continental glaciers have come across. Why did they come, and why did they melt? Long before there were internal-combustion automobiles and affluent people. So that’s one side to the issue.
Now, the question in trying to create this better environment, or hopefully to correct something that some say is going to destroy civilization, is, how much influence will our governments be justified in making, in trying to protect against these changes that are taking place? I say that this also has to come from science and technology with less emotions and more data. You see the tilt of the earth — the wobble of the axis — were there long before this fog and the smog of modern man. As a matter of fact, if you compare the environment we have today from the standpoint of smoke and smog, to what it was 70 years ago, it’s a lot better today than it was then. How much better? Who’s measuring it? How do you measure? These are not simple. But to go into these with a negative point of view — you go into any combat with a negative point of view, the chances are much more than 50-50, that you’re going to lose. Because, the psychology of the human being is important, rather than just the physical strength and stamina.