Batman, Superman, Norman Borlaug - And Us

When the movie "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" opens in theaters across the United States March 25, many viewers will think they're watching pure fantasy. I will not be one of them.

It's not that I actually expect to see the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader duking it out in Gotham City any time soon; this is unlikely, in my scientific judgment. It's because, from what's already been disclosed about the plot, I believe the movie can be viewed as a parable.

And I'm tempted all the more to frame it that way because of a coincidence of timing: March 25 is also the 102nd anniversary birthday of one of the greatest real heroes of the 20th century - my friend and mentor Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution and one of only seven people ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Let me explain.

According to the advance notices, the new movie begins with Batman and Superman locked in conflict "while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs." I'm sure we're treated to a few scenes that will radiate delight across the young synapses of the target demographic everywhere.

Then, however, a new threat arrives, "putting mankind in greater danger than it's ever known before." And Holy Synergism, the two superheroes team up to save the world.

All of which - and here's my point - makes for a good parallel to what is actually happening in today's world of agriculture.

On which, it just so happens, the future of human life on Earth depends.

The background to this dramatic statement can easily be explained. Agriculture is currently as divided as the rival camps of the two superheroes appear to be at the start of the movie. In one group are organic farmers and their supporters ("organics"), who reject the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds, as well as most synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, in favor of manure and pesticides derived from natural sources such as copper sulfate and boric acid. In the other group are conventional farmers, many of whom embrace GMOs and use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, like Roundup®, to improve their yields.

As those who follow these matters know, the passions between the camps can run high, even toxic at times. "Organics" often see supporters of conventional farming as engaged in nothing less than the destruction of the food supply and the environment. Backers of conventional farming accuse organics of spreading groundless fears about them, and of pursuing romantic delusions that will bring them a sense of moral superiority, but leave the world's underfed millions still hungry.

So the two sides have been and are at a standoff. But consider, for a moment, the context.

In the next 35 years or so, the demand for food around the world is expected to rise at least 70 percent as global population increases 30 percent as more people gain the affluence needed to eat more and better food. Over the same period, extreme weather - droughts, floods, and withering heat waves - are expected to become the new normal. Meanwhile, unless farming methods are changed significantly, agriculture itself will contribute to the further deterioration of the climate and the overall environment - making farming less and less productive.

So as others have said before me, we don't face one challenge in feeding and clothing ourselves over the next few decades. We face at least three: improving harvests; doing it in the face of a more difficult climate; and doing it while reducing agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water depletion, and all the other environmental externalities for which this activity is responsible.

This multi-faceted challenge is huge - perhaps the biggest of the 21st century. And although I won't know the exact reason that Batman and Superman joined forces in the defense of humanity until I see the movie, I do know this: This real challenge ought to have the same effect. It should bring together everyone - supporters of organic agriculture, of conventional agriculture, and every other kind - in a common effort to provide global food security, in a sustainable way.

In other words - and here's where Norman Borlaug comes in - we need a second Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug's pioneering work gave us new wheat strains that doubled yields, averting famines in India and Pakistan that could have saved as many as one billion lives. But the Green Revolution he fathered relied on some techniques we now realize may have led to high greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts.

So we need a second Green Revolution, one that not only increases yields again - and for more types of crops - but does so sustainably. We need what's sometimes called "sustainable intensification" - the capacity to grow more with a reduced environmental footprint. Less land, less water, less fertilizer, less pesticides.

Now here's the irony: We already know how to do a lot of these things, and the techniques involve a combination of the methods and goals of the two rival camps. Cover crops and crop rotation, for example, have been promoted by organics for such benefits as improved soil quality and reduced use of herbicides, fertilizer and water. But they're also increasingly being adopted by conventional farmers, who recognize that in addition to all their benefits they also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, precision agriculture and GMO seeds are already showing how we can boost yields while reducing inputs, and rapid advances in both technologies promise more. Seeds that can tolerate drought, that need fewer chemicals of any kind (natural or synthetic) to grow and to fight bugs, that can produce higher yields and therefore require less land - all of these are already available and stand only to get better and proliferate across all types of crops. In fact, we've already made so much progress that it's now possible to take aim at making the whole U.S. Corn Belt carbon-neutral.

Again, although it's conventional farmers that have embraced these technologies in the past, the benefits they confer are consistent with the goals of the organics.

So let's all absorb the lesson of "Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice." Let's drop the pointless, empty fighting between the organic and conventional schools of agriculture. Instead, let's celebrate the diversity of our food production systems. And let's use the strength inherent in that diversity to meet our real challenges: addressing both the lifestyle aspirations and the need for food security of people in the United States and around the world.

Together.