‘No Silver Bullet Solution’: Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution
Danielle Nierenberg discusses how the renowned agronomist’s revolution wasn’t so green after all.
After plant breeder Norman Borlaug’s innovative technologies changed the way food was grown in Mexico and India, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts in combatting global hunger. In the years to follow, however, the true cost of those increased yields became clear. To find out more about the profound environmental impact of the “Green Revolution,” American Experience spoke with Food Tank co-Founder and President Danielle Nierenberg.
This is Part 3 of a three-part interview series. Catch up with the first interview, a conversation with former Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser about the historical context of Norman Borlaug’s work and the second interview with author Raj Patel about the Green Revolution’s social consequences.
American Experience: What was the Green Revolution and what were its goals?
Danielle Nierenberg: The Green Revolution came about because the world was in crisis. People were starving in places like India, and the Green Revolution developed high-yielding crops in an effort to feed those people. But along with those hybrid crops came agrochemicals and artificial fertilizer. In the past, farmers were part of mixed-crop livestock systems that were self-sustaining. After WWII, though, there was a lot of research and development that went into figuring out how to use a lot of the chemicals and the technology that had been developed during the war [for agriculture].
I think so many of the intentions around the Green Revolution were good ones. People were starving, and it was a critical time for many people in the global south. But what we're seeing now, 50, 60 years later is that there are unintended consequences that came about from those types of production systems. One of the things that we've learned from that time is that research and development and agriculture has often focused on the western world telling the rest of the world how to grow things instead of learning from them.
I think there's a real opportunity for farmers and farmers’ groups to be part of that research and development process. Often farmers are given tools that are developed in laboratories and research institutes, and those places are like, "here, this is the silver bullet that's going to save the food system and increase yields and make more money." And that hasn't worked. Those silver bullet solutions that I think the Green Revolution unintentionally espoused have not worked. And farmers need to be part of participatory research practices that allow them to be there from the beginning until the end.
AE: What was so innovative about Norman Borlaug’s work at the time?
DN: I think he was doing things that were radical. There was lots of experimentation. He was going into the field and working with farmers. I think we would look back on that now and unfortunately see it as a kind of white savior approach—but he was doing things that had never been done before. He was experimenting and failing and experimenting and failing until he and his colleagues came up with things that they thought would work—and did work in the short term to increase calories and yields.
We focused all of that research on starchy staple crops—things that were good at filling people up but that weren't really good at nourishing them. We left behind a lot of indigenous and traditional crops and traditional practices that were more nourishing. Millet and sorghum were, a long time ago, staple crops for many farmers and eaters in sub-Saharan Africa. But those were looked down upon. Because of Green Revolution practices, they were considered poor people’s food. These are the foods now of the future because they're very nutritious. They're high in protein and vitamins and micronutrients, and they're resilient. A lot of the Green Revolution crops that were developed are not resilient. They need all those inputs that I spoke about before, and they're not resilient to things like what's happening with changes in weather. They're not always responding well to droughts or flooding or some of the other extreme weather events that are happening with climate change.
So we need to go forward by going back and looking at some of the traditional practices and then combine them with the knowledge that we now have and the technology that we now have. I think there's a way to apply technology that helps farmers of all sizes, whether we're talking about small-scale farmers in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa or medium-scale farmers in the United States or large-scale farmers in Brazil. I think all of those types of farmers can learn from these high and low technologies, and creative ways to combine them that are sustainable for both people and the planet.
AE: It feels like there's a real irony there. The whole point of Borlaug’swork was to create something resilient enough to conquer stem rust in the first place. Now those crops are no longer resilient…
DN: Yes, those crops are very vulnerable. This is probably a really bad comparison, but it's like when you breed dogs too much and they become very fragile creatures. I think that's what we have with these crops. What we need are crops that are hardy, that are resilient, that are nutritious. That's what we lost when we focused on Green Revolution crops. We lost the nutrition side of it, and that's so important right now. We need more nutrient-rich crops.
AE: How did people's diets change because of over-focusing on specific crops?
DN: Millet and sorghum were able to be stored year-round; they were combined with vegetables and sauces that made them extra nutritious. And when people are only eating things like garri [a type of flour common to Africa typically made from a mix of corn or wheat, sugar and tapioca] with a little bit of meat or sauce, it’s just not the same type of nutrients. Cassava is just not as nutrient-rich. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, and you gave me a piece of cassava with a little bit of oil and some onion on it, and I was happier than a clam. That's why a lot of Peace Corps volunteers get malnourished during their first year: you’re just filled up with starch all the time! So the Green Revolution really changed how people eat.
Farmers and eaters in the global south lost self-esteem because they were told that the crops that they were growing were not good anymore, that traditional and indigenous crops were poor people's food. "You should be eating these new crops. These new ones are the cutting-edge technology." If you grew the old crops, you felt like you were behind, and governments in Africa made you feel like you were behind.
AE: It really feels like a tragic loss, that homogenization of farming.
DN: It's happening in our U.S. Midwest where I grew up. A farmer used to have very mixed-crop livestock systems that were then switched to corn and soy. And all of those are either going to animals for animal feed or ethanol. Farmers in parts of the Midwest and in the Northwest are some of the hungriest people in the United States right now, and that should not be happening. That's a travesty.
AE: What's different about the time that Borlaug did his work and the challenges we face today?
DN: That's a really interesting question. I mean it was such a different time in terms of how information spreads, because now more and more farmers across the world, no matter how poor they are, either have access to a cell phone or the internet. I think there's a real power in how farmers are learning from one another. Farmers and research institutions in the global north are now looking to what's been happening over the last 10 or 15 years in the global south around how farmers are dealing with climate change. Especially with the droughts that happened in the Midwest and California over the last few years, farmers are like "I've got to change when I'm growing these crops," whether it's maize or almonds or whatever. It isn't working if this is the climate that we're going to have in the future. Farmers in places like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have been dealing with those problems for a long time. They didn't call it climate change, but they knew that they were planting at different times, they were harvesting at different times, the rains were coming at different times. I think there's a lot to be learned from what's happening in the global south around some of these crises, because those folks have been dealing with it and have come up with solutions. They just don't get a lot of attention.
AE: What are the next big global food challenges?
DN: The first of our two biggest challenges globally and domestically is how we're going to deal with climate change, and that's nothing new. I'm not saying anything groundbreaking. Our biggest challenge is looking at the food system as part of the landscape, and not thinking of food production as separate from everything else we do. It's really about finding a holistic way to produce nutrient-rich food that doesn't harm the planet, that helps farmers make money, that is affordable and accessible and healthy for eaters, and that recognizes the need for social justice in the food system—that farmers and food workers and everyone along the food value chain needs a living wage. Really, our biggest challenge is how do we create more democracy in our food systems, globally and domestically.
We're definitely at a tipping point. The urgency has never been greater, but we have the solutions to these problems. We know how to address them. We just have to do it.
Danielle Nierenberg is co-Founder and President of Food Tank, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to sharing stories of hope and success in the food system.