Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Norman Borlaug
- Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug is a plant breeder who for most of the past five decades has lived in developing nations, teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted -- for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine -- 1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.
He is credited with saving more human lives than any other person in the history of mankind. Dr. Norman Borlaug has been involved in programs of research and production in ten American, eight African, and ten Asian countries.
He has trained more than 150 young scientists from 23 countries. He has also been honored by scores of governments, scientific associations, farmer’s groups, and civic associations. He holds fifty honorary
doctorate degrees from universities spanning the globe and belongs to the academies of science in twelve nations. He has served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions and was the driving force behind the establishment of the World Food Prize in 1985. In 1984, Dr. Borlaug’s name was placed in the Agricultural Hall of Fame at the national center in Bonner Springs, Kansas. In 1977, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1970, Dr Borlaug was awarded the Nobel people of our planet.
Dr. Borlaug was born in Iowa and spent his childhood in a small community, where he first developed his lifetime interest in farming. After receiving his Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1942, he joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s technical assistance program in Mexico in 1944 as a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. For the next sixteen years, he worked to solve problems that were limiting wheat cultivation.
It was on the research stations and farmers’ fields of Mexico that Borlaug developed high yielding dwarf wheat varieties with increased tillering, number of fertile florets and the number of grains per spike. These varieties were disease resistant and could grow under a variety of climatic conditions.
The high-yielding wheat varieties that Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues developed are grown today on more than 187 million acres worldwide. Since 1960, because of this work, world wheat production has increased from 300 to 650 million tons, and consequently has saved hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people from starvation. The success of these wheat types along with improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production into what is referred to as “The Green Revolution.”
The following are excerpts from a lecture he recently gave at the International Fertilizer Development Center on the TVA Reservation in Muscle Shoals.
“When I was born in 1914, world population was approximately 1.6 billion, at present we are approaching 6.2 billion. So far, agricultural research and production advances - and the efforts of the world’s farmers - have kept food production ahead of aggregate world population changes.
“Even with the reported slowing in global population growth, food production must be increased by 50 per cent over the next 25 years, just to maintain present, often inadequate, levels of food availability.
“It is only since WWII that chemical fertilizer use, and especially the application of low-cost nitrogen derived from synthetic ammonia, has become an indispensable component of modern agricultural production. Professor Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba has studied nitrogen cycles for most of his professional life. He estimates that 40 percent of the world’s 6.1 billion people are alive today, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia. 70% of the world’s fertilizer technology came from TVA. You should be very proud. Indeed, it would be impossible for organic sources to replace this amount of nitrogen. I continue to be astonished by the claims of some ecologists that the world can do without chemical nitrogenous fertilizers. If we tried to do it with cattle, the world beef population would have to increase from about one billion to six or seven billion head.
“The invention of agriculture - some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago - heralded the dawn of civilization. It began with rainfed, hand-hoe agriculture, which evolved into animal-powered, scratch-tooled agriculture, and finally into an irrigated agriculture along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that for the first time allowed humankind to produce food surpluses. This permitted the establishment of permanent settlements and urban societies which, in turn, engendered culture, science and technology. The rise and fall of ancient civilizations in the Middle East and MesoAmerica were directly tied to agricultural successes and failures, and it behooves us to remember that this axiom still remains valid today.
“Science and technology are under growing attack in the affluent nations where misinformed environmentalists claim that the consumer is being poisoned out of existence by the current high-yielding systems of agricultural production. In almost every environmental category, far more progress is being made than most commentators in the media are willing to admit. Why? I believe that it’s because ‘apocalypse’ sells. Technology is not growing more dangerous and wasteful but cleaner and more resource-efficient.
“I now say that the world has the technology - either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental movement seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science.
“I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World - and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America and Asia - access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their economic development. While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically under-nourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.
“I often ask the critics of modern agricultural technology what the world would have been like without the technological advances that have occurred. For those whose main concern is protecting the ‘environment,’ let’s look at the positive impact of science-based technology on the land. Had 1961 yields still prevailed today, three times more land in China and the U.S.A. and two times more land in India would be needed to equal current cereal production. Obviously, such a surplus of land of the same quality is not available, and especially not in populous China and India.
“I have calculated that if the United States attempted to produce today’s harvest of the 17 most important crops with the technology and yields that prevailed in 1940 it would have required an additional 470 million acres of land of similar quantity. This theoretically could have been achieved either by plowing up 73% of the nation’s permanent pastures and rangelands, or by converting 61% of the forest and woodland area to cropland. In actuality, since many of these lands are of much lower productive potential than the land now under crops, it really would have been necessary to convert an even larger portion of the rangelands or forests and woodlands to crop production. Had this been done, imagine the additional havoc from wind and water erosion, the obliteration of forests, the extinction of wildlife habitats, and the enormous reduction of outdoor recreational opportunities.
“Had Indian farmers continued with the low-yielding pre-Green Revolution technology, they would have needed to plant an additional 168 million acres to equal current wheat harvests. This is extra land that India did not have to spare.
“On a global scale, world cereal production increased from 728 million tons in 1950 to over 2000 million tons today. Had the world attempted to produce the cereal harvest of today with the technology (yield) of 1950, it would have required 4500 million acres of land of the same quality — an increase in cultivated area of 2875 million acres over the 728 million acres that were actually used.
“Even in regions where land is more abundant, the adoption of high-yield agriculture has spared millions of acres for other uses. How many square miles of forest would have been destroyed, how many species of plant and wildlife would have been pushed to extinction, had traditional low-yielding agriculture continued?
“Not very long ago nearly all of us lived on farms. Then we started moving to the cities and we’d go to the country to visit. We still had roots there. Nowadays, the current generation has no connection with the country or with agriculture. The backlash against agricultural science and technology from urbanites has brought on the ‘organic versus inorganic’ debate.
“This debate has confused – if not paralyzed – policy makers in the international donor community who, afraid of antagonizing powerful environmental lobbying groups, have turned away from supporting science-based agricultural modernization projects which are so urgently needed in the Third World. The result has been increasing misery in smallholder agriculture and accelerating environmental degradation.
“Certainly, we must be environmentally responsible in our efforts to produce ever-greater quantities of food to feed our unrelenting population. But we must also face up to the fact that we cannot turn back the clock and use technologies that were adequate for a much smaller world population.
“I do not agree with the critics of transgenic crops who say that there is no need for conducting research because the world is now producing a surplus of food and fiber — and that the problem is largely one of distribution. Oh, if only it were so simple! While improving the equity of food distribution is certainly a global imperative, we cannot forget that world population still continues to grow by 80 million per year.
“Farmers, by all means, should strive to return organic matter and nutrients to the soil, through appropriate crop rotations, and use green manure crops and animal manures. Somehow, we have failed to communicate to the public that it makes no difference to a plant whether the nitrate ion it “eats” comes from a bag of urea or from decomposing organic matter.
“The new tools of biotechnology will permit us to speed the development of improved cultivars increased resistance to diseases and insects, and greater tolerance to drought, heat, cold, and soil toxicities. By incorporating genes for crop protection into the seed, production costs can be reduced, as well as the need to use pesticides. This is good for farmers, the environment, and consumers.
“I believe that scientists who have been part of bringing the benefits of high-yield technology to the 20th century must speak up when pseudo-science is used to spread fear and misinformation about agricultural technology among the masses, including political leaders who consequently make disastrous policies.
“Let us not be misled into believing that such a scientific ‘Dark Age’ could never happen in India or Europe or the U.S., especially if those who know better sit on their hands. We need to educate urban people about the importance of agriculture.
“I have been working in food production programs in developing nations for six decades. During this period, I have seen much progress in increasing the yields and production of various crops, especially the cereals, in many food-deficit countries. Clearly, the research that backstopped this progress has produced huge returns. Yet, hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people are unable, due to unemployment or underemployment, to purchase the food they need, despite its abundance in world markets.
“Fortunately, there are many improved agricultural technologies – already available or well-advanced in the research pipeline – that can be employed in future years to raise crop yields, especially in the low-income food deficit countries where most of the hunger and poverty exist.
“Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent, Latin America, the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to work at the farm level.
“Yield gains in China and industrialized North America and Western Europe will be much harder to achieve, since they are already at very high levels. Still, I am hopeful that scientific breakthroughs - particularly from genetic engineering, will permit another 50% increase in yields over the next 35 years.
“99% of all human food is produced on the land - only about 1% came from the oceans and inland waters, even though 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water.
“Plant products constituted 93% of the human diet, with about 30 crop species providing most of the world’s calories and protein, including eight species of cereals, which collectively accounted for 66% of the world food supply. Animal products, constituting 7% of the world’s diet, also come indirectly from plants.
“Most of the opportunities for opening new agricultural land to cultivation have already been exploited. This is certainly true for densely populated Asia and Europe. The vast acid-soils areas found in the Brazilian cerrado and llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, central and southern Africa, and in Indonesia are among the last major land frontiers.
“Total land area on earth is 33.5 billion acres. Of that, 22.5 billion acres is usable with 3.75 billion being arable and permanent crops, 8.75 billion being permanent pasture and 10 billion being forest and woodland. The other 11 billion acres are either too dry, too shallow, too wet or in permafrost making them unavailable for agricultural use.”
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