The Green Revolution: Norman Borlaug and the Race to Fight Global Hunger
Ray Offenheiser discusses the humble plant breeder’s audacious plan to feed the world and the fallout he didn’t forsee.
When Norman Borlaug set out after World War II to develop an ultra-resilient strain of wheat in Mexico, he had no idea the impact his work would have. Borlaug’s wildly successful efforts to increase crop yields came to be known as the “Green Revolution” and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in fighting global hunger. But over time, the midwestern agronomist’s methods came under increasing attack, with critics decrying his work’s profoundly negative impact on rural farmers and the environment. To learn more about Borlaug’s world-changing work, American Experience spoke with Ray Offenheiser, former president of Oxfam America and Distinguished Professor at Notre Dame, where he also leads the Pulte Institute for Global Development.
This is Part 1 of a three-part interview series. Read the second interview, a conversation with author Raj Patel about the Green Revolution’s social consequences and the third interview with Food Tank co-founder Danielle Nierenberg about the Green Revolution’s environmental impact.
American Experience: What was the Green Revolution and what were its goals?
Ray Offenheiser: The Green Revolution was the emergence of new varieties of crops, specifically wheat and rice varietals, that were able to double if not triple production of those crops in two countries. Norman Borlaug, who was the originator of what was a dwarf wheat variety in Mexico, is considered the godfather of the Green Revolution. The varieties of wheat that he developed there became a model for what could be done in other staple crops around the world. In the case of Mexico, he increased productivity dramatically. Once the new varieties of wheat were widely reproduced, you saw diminished malnutrition across the country. He was then asked to experiment with introducing wheat in India and Pakistan during dramatic famines in the 1960s, and they had a similar type of effect there. At some point those programs were named the “Green Revolution” by another agronomist, and Borlaug was credited with being the father of that kind of creative breeding he was doing.
AE: What was so trailblazing about his techniques?
RO: At the time there was a real question as to whether one could grow more crops on less land, and he was really interested in whether you could redesign the plant itself to do that. One of the things he realized was that normal wheat at that particular time grew on a very tall, long stalk that was basically seeking to get as much sunlight as possible. Borlaug realized that if he actually grew a smaller variety with a shorter and sturdier stem that it could hold more grains on its head. A similar type of thing was done in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute with rice, where you could take the plant, produce a dwarf variety with a sturdier stem and get more grains of rice on the head. Borlaug also was credited with developing a variety of this dwarf wheat that could be grown in pretty much any sort of environment around the world, because other varieties were sensitive to light and also temperature and other sorts of environmental changes. But over time his methods and these technologies have come under increasing scrutiny.
AE: What were some of the unintended consequences of the technologies that Borlaug helped to innovate?
RO: Well he was using the knowledge of what was known at the time about breeding for crop improvements—this is in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s—to try to create these new varieties, and in doing so was relying on the idea that they were going to need fertilizer, and they were going to need water. He discovered that producing much more significant yields was going to require those kinds of inputs, but he didn’t think that was particularly a problem. He came from a background of organic agriculture in the midwestern United States [in the 1920s and ‘30s] when nitrogen fertilizer wasn't available in abundance, but when it then did become available more easily in the ’50s and ’60s, he saw it as something that was going to aid this productivity increase and so was not necessarily averse to it.
Simultaneously with Borlaug’s introduction of these new varieties, there were large investments by the World Bank and other major international funders in the India case, and also to some degree in Mexico, in large or modern irrigation systems. So in the Indus Valley that is along the border with India and Pakistan the irrigation system was not necessarily a problem, since water was there in abundance, and it became the breadbasket for wheat in India. What became a problem was that these new high-yielding variety crops were reliant on water fertilizers and pesticides. As time went on, what was realized was that that could have impact on the soil in terms of pollution. So there was a lot of criticism of the application of these crop varieties by environmentalists, who felt that if you intensified their use all over the world—here in the United States well as in Asia and Latin America, which is really where they took off—it meant we were just going to be exacerbating the kind of water pollution that we saw in the states, and which became the basis for the emergence of the environmental movement here in this country.
There were some other things that were happening that don't get talked about quite as much. Borlaug was very committed in his early years to working with very poor farmers in Mexico and really trying to create a crop and a product that would improve their livelihoods and reduce malnutrition and generate disposable income for those families. As time went on, however, one of the peculiar effects of this was that because you had to purchase inputs, and because you had to have access to water, to some degree it became the case that in many parts of the world only the more capitalized farmers can actually get access to the money needed to buy the fertilizer, or buy the pesticides or herbicides, and also have access to water. So to some degree you've got consolidation in the agricultural sector and instead of actually necessarily helping small farmers in certain instances, more in Latin America then in Asia, you ended up displacing the small farmers that Borlaug had intended to help. So those were other socioeconomic and political implications to the technology that were not forseen when Borlaug, I think with the best of intentions, was breeding for these new varieties to help these small farmers.
From there a larger critique began to emerge about the Green Revolution itself, its intentions, and whether the productivity increases that it had proposed should be viewed alone or whether you needed to take into account these environmental and social and political and economic factors.
AE: And yet it also seems that while Borlaug was addressing a pretty dire humanitarian crisis, even he understood that that these methods weren't intended to be a long-term solution…
RO: I think the interesting thing to remember about Borlaug is that he came from a forestry background and then became interested in plant pathology and genetics. He was looking at this interesting convergence of environment, population and food security, and he was looking at it at a time when nobody else was thinking about these issues quite that way. In other words, he was thinking about the larger food system and how we needed to make sure that the productivity of our core crops were actually exceeding the growth of the general population. At the same time he was trying to minimize the broader environmental effects on watersheds and on forests and so forth. Those are things that were very much top of mind for him way back in the ’50s and ‘60s. Today we would define that as just thinking about sustainable development, but he was thinking about it back then. His view was that if we could achieve more productivity on small plots of land, we would actually minimize the amount of deforestation or damage to the environment that we would get otherwise. He was looking at the conservation of natural resources that we probably all desire and seeing higher levels of productivity as achieving that. And now ironically we're seeing the reverse with the modern food system, where we are deforesting at a very rapid rate and we're planting soybeans and other grains in those deforested lands in a way that I don’t think he would feel very comfortable with.
Borlaug was a very down-to-earth humble guy, very much your Midwestern sort of agriculturalist, and he kept that identity despite all the commentary that's been made about him. What I appreciate is that from the very beginning, he took a job that nobody wanted initially—which was to go to Mexico and start this breeding program at a time when Mexico was a very poor country, relatively speaking, and there were some really serious food challenges. He could have easily had a very successful career as a breeder and plant pathologist at a major land great university in the Midwest, and instead chose this opportunity to learn about Mexican farmers and the problems they faced trying to feed their families.
He was someone who came out of a Depression-era background, with the sensibilities of the Depression generation, and brought that sensibility of a humble midwestern farmer who had grown up before the modern agricultural revolution. He was comfortable talking to farmers and listening to their perspectives on their particular problems, and then bringing that commentary and applying the best science of his era to problem-solving.
Raymond C. Offenheiser is Director of the Pulte Institute for Global Development, part of the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, where he serves as Distinguished Professor of the Practice and provides strategic leadership to the Pulte Institute’s academic, research, and public policy activities. A widely-known nonprofit leader, innovator, and international development expert, Offenheiser served as President of Oxfam America for 20 years. Prior to joining Oxfam, Offenheiser represented the Ford Foundation in Bangladesh and the Andean and Southern Cone regions of South America, as well as directing programs for the Inter-American Foundation in Brazil and Colombia. At the 2012 G20 Summit, Offenheiser was appointed by the Obama Administration to represent civil society on the leadership council of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa. Offenheiser was a co-founder of the ONE Campaign, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, and the Food Policy Action Network. He has also served on the advisory boards of the World Economic Forum, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute, the World Agricultural Forum, the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and both Harvard and Cornell Universities.