Norman Borlaug saved millions of lives, would his critics prefer he hadn’t?

By Justin Cremer

April 24, 2020

Norman Borlaug is perhaps the most important person in human history whose name and legacy remain largely unknown. A hero to those in the realms of plant science and humanitarianism and a villain to some in the environmental movement, Borlaug nonetheless never achieved the widespread recognition that should have accompanied his outsized impact on agriculture.

Borlaug’s relative obscurity among the masses was a source of frustration and wonder for me during the five years I spent as the communications director of The World Food Prize Foundation, which Borlaug created in 1986 to recognize achievements in food and agriculture. The more I learned about his life and the impact of his work, the more I was shocked that Borlaug’s name was largely unknown, even in our shared home state of Iowa.

I was therefore happy to hear that he would be featured in a new episode in PBS’s documentary series “American Experience.” More people should know Borlaug’s incredible story and the episode, entitled “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World,” would surely help to spread the word. But the program’s subtitle, “A Tale of Good Deeds and Unintended Consequences,” hints at a seeming intention to muddy the waters when it comes to Borlaug’s legacy.

Borlaug finds his life’s work

The documentary does a good job of tracing Borlaug’s life, from his upbringing on a small farm in Cresco through his studies at the University of Minnesota, where a clash between struggling farmers and poor and hungry citizens showed him “how fast violence springs to life when hunger, misery and desperation infect the public mind.” In 1944, Borlaug moved on to Mexico, where he headed up the Rockefeller Foundation’s wheat improvement program.

Over the course of several years — often defying crop experts and even his own boss — Borlaug implemented a breeding program that would result in the development of wheat varieties that were resistant to stem rust, a plant disease that Borlaug biographer Charles Mann describes in the documentary as “one of the oldest enemies of the human race.” The varieties Borlaug developed could produce yields 10 times higher than that of the average wheat farmer, and Mexico quickly became not only self-sufficient in wheat but an exporter.

It was after his success in Mexico that Borlaug, in the words of the filmmakers, “had found his life’s work,” committing himself to feeding people wherever there was hunger and poverty. It is was also at about this point that the documentary begins to take a wider view of Borlaug’s impact, first casting him as an unwitting soldier of the Cold War, with his miracle wheat a potent tool that United States policymakers could deploy to “win hearts and minds in the struggle against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.” These aspersions are largely left to hang in the air unchallenged, casting unwarranted doubts on Borlaug’s intentions.

When Borlaug brings his techniques to India in the 1960s at the invitation of agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, the film then starts to pair Borlaug’s success with the problems of overpopulation and environmental degradation — the thrust of the “unintended consequences” hinted at in its subtitle.

When saving hundreds of millions of lives is not enough

Archival clips used in the documentary shows that India was already struggling to feed its rapidly growing population before Borlaug stepped foot in the country. “In the next 25 years, if nothing happens, that huge population will double to 800 million. If India has trouble feeding 400 million now, how can she feed twice that number within a generation?” ABC News anchor Howard K. Smith asks.

Well, as we know, something did happen: the Green Revolution. The hundreds of millions of people who may have starved in India and elsewhere did not, thanks in large part to Norman Borlaug. It’s worth noting that those projections of India’s population growth didn’t quite pan out. India’s population doubled in about 40 years, not the 25 that was originally feared. But more importantly, India’s population had been growing by about two percent a year well before the Green Revolution.

Before Borlaug’s techniques led India to record crop yields in 1968, and many other countries to follow suit in the following years, it had been all but a foregone conclusion that food production would never be able to keep up with population growth. In the popular book “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich argued that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.”

“In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” he wrote. “At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

Ehrlich clearly did not anticipate Norman Borlaug. But his book reflects that fears of overpopulation were real and preceded anything that Borlaug did. Yet the PBS documentary tries to pin “the massive growth of the human population […] the urbanization of our species [and mankind’s] tremendous increasing ecological impact on the world” on the Green Revolution, even while also admitting that “unprecedented population growth was straining the food supply of countries around the world, raising the specter of widespread famine and social chaos” long before Borlaug achieved his breakthrough success.

Some of Borlaug’s critics seem to want to blame him for something that he neither caused nor ever claimed to have solved. When accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug stressed that the world still faced enormous problems in feeding its population. He made it clear that the Green Revolution had not solved world hunger, it had merely bought us time. He would mention “the population monster” in nearly every speech he gave in the latter part of his career. With our current global population of 7.8 billion projected to reach 10 billion in around 35 years, we clearly have not tamed this monster. But Borlaug’s Green Revolution did not create it. The global population growth rate was nearly twice as high in 1950, when Borlaug was still toiling in the fields of Mexico, than it is now.

Criticizing is easy, offering solutions is not

While critics ascribe blame to Borlaug for something out of his control, it’s notable that they never seem to be able to offer an alternative. Should hundreds of millions of people been allowed to succumb to famine? What were the more environmentally-friendly choices for ensuring an adequate food supply for mankind? No answers are offered to these or other similarly difficult questions.

To be fair to those who participated in the documentary, the filmmakers may not have done them any favors. At the outset of the film, we see the economist and writer Raj Patel suggest that Borlaug was undeserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, yet viewers are never told why, nor does Patel suggest a hypothetical alternative to what should have been done to the millions of people who faced starvation. Maybe those answers were left on the cutting room floor because Patel does expand on his views in an interview posted to the PBS website, where he blames the Green Revolution for “an urbanization in which we become more and more divorced from the sources of our food” and romanticizes an alternate reality in which we are all “much more connected with the ecology through which our food moves” and “derive deep satisfaction” from eating together.

Perhaps Patel thinks that alternate reality would be worth millions of people starving. Though we as viewers don’t know, I doubt it. And therein lies the problem with this posthumous questioning of Borlaug’s legacy. In a written statement, Dr. Ronnie Coffman, director of International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said it’s far too easy to criticize Borlaug while offering no solutions.

“People who criticize Borlaug should be forced to identify an ethical alternative to what he did,” Coffman wrote.

Another former colleague of Borlaug’s, Richard Zeyen, said that Borlaug often posed the same query to his critics.

“Norman didn’t take it personally — usually he just said you had to be there to see the death and starvation and to smell it and taste it,” Zeyen, professor emeritus in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota, said. “Then he’d ask them, ‘What would you do if you knew how to avoid this suffering and death?’”

Borlaug himself saw suffering and death and he committed his life to minimizing it. By all objective measures, he succeeded wildly, saving upwards of one billion lives by some estimates. Does that mean his legacy should never be questioned? Of course not. But with “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World,” PBS has conflated what Borlaug managed to do with grand societal issues well beyond his control.

In the documentary’s closing moments, historian Tore Olsson suggests that widespread famine and hunger still remain not because of a lack of food but because of inequality, class and poverty. This may indeed all be true, but the way the filmmakers seem to lay these enormous problems at Borlaug’s feet is unfair. Sure, he didn’t solve problems that have vexed mankind for centuries, but didn’t the man do enough?

Photo: Norman Borlaug (center) in the field in Mexico with a group of young international trainees. Courtesy of CIMMYT.