Reflections On The Industrial Agriculture Legacy Of Norman Borlaug

Guest post by Tom Philpott From Grist.org

In the early 1940s, Mexico was a fraught region for U.S. geopolitical
strategists. Not so long before--1939--a revolutionary government had
nationalized the Mexican oil supply, dealing a sharp blow to U.S. oil
interests, especially the Rockefeller family's dominant Standard Oil.
Meanwhile, as war raged in Europe, there was doubt about which side the
Mexican government would take--the Allies or the Axis. What if Mexico
chose to supply the Germans with oil?

Into that tense milieu, the Rockefeller family's foundation dispatched
a team of agricultural scientists into the Mexican countryside on a
mission of goodwill: to bring Mexican farmers the seed varieties,
knowledge, and inputs necessary to "modernize" crop production.

As the University of Texas economist Harry Cleaver put it in a 1972
paper in American Economic Review
, "The friendly
gesture of a development project would not only help soften rising
nationalism but might also help hang onto wartime friends."

One of the junior scientists on that mission would become the best
known, eventually netting a Nobel Peace Prize for his work: Norman
Borlaug, who died Sunday at the age of 95.

Borlaug is widely hailed as the father of the Green Revolution--the
grand effort, which started in Mexican wheat and corn fields in the
1940s, to bring industrial agriculture to the global South.

There's no evidence that Borlaug thought much about geopolitics during
his career as a plant pathologist and evangelist for industrial
agriculture. In their book Enough--largely a Borlaug hagiography--the
Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman portray him
as a man almost innocent of politics: He started out with a narrow
scientific interest in wheat rust and a desire to "secure a steady job
where he could work outdoors"; by the '60s and for the rest of his long
life, he wanted merely to "do what was best for the hungry," the
authors write.

Rather than focusing on the social relations around agriculture,
Borlaug honed in on one thing: increasing yield. For him, the
complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single
problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as
much as possible, using whatever technology available.

For Thurow and Kilman, Borlaug stands as an "international hero, an
example of what an individual can accomplish in the quest to end
hunger." That view is conventional, nearly universal. Borlaug's
accomplishments inspire a kind of awe--and rhetorical flights. "A
towering scientist" and a "great benefactor of humankind," declared the
U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in a communique after Borlaug's
death. The New York Times called him "the plant scientist who did more
than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself
and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives."

But it may be that Borlaug's blindness to politics--his refusal to
consider the power relations at work in the countries whose hungry he
set out to save--undermined his legacy. His tireless effort to
boost grain yields, while no doubt resulting in a flood of cheap
grain, created all manner of problems that won't be easily solved.

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in
the areas where Borlaug's techniques took hold. But while Thurow and
Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug's main intent was to "help poor
farmers," Mexico's smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis
for more than a generation. The so-called "immigrant crisis" here in the United States is better
viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA
alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of
their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere
near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican
farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico's agrarian disaster are
multiple and complex--including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop
subsidies--the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In
Borlaug's Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in
one or two commodity crops--say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were
to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers,
pesticides, and irrigation. (Borlaug's celebrated "dwarf" varieties can
thrive only with plenty of water and lots of synthetic nitrogen, and
face serious pest pressure, requiring heavy pesticide doses.) The award
for buying into the "Green Revolution package" was a bumper crop. The
problem was that when everyone did the same thing and yields spiked,
the price farmers received for their crops plunged.

The result is a kind of vicious cycle: farmers scramble to produce more
to offset losses, leading to yet more downward pressure on prices. Of
course, there's the temptation to boost yields with yet more inputs
like fertilizer--meaning that farmers' costs could continue creeping up
even as the prices they received in the marketplace fell steadily. The
result is a kind of structural economic crisis in farming.

The winners in the game are not farmers, but rather the buyers of the
cheap commodities (mainly transnational grain processors like Archer
Daniels Midland and Cargill) as well as input suppliers (like Monsanto,
Dupont, and, again, Cargill) that sell the needed seeds and
agrichemicals. As I've written before, Mexico's grain trade--both
corn and wheat--has fallen largely under the control of U.S.
agribusiness giants, and its culinary staple, the tortilla, has
succumbed to a kind of vapid industrialization.

Urban residents do benefit from cheaper food prices, to be sure; but
it's worth emphasizing that in post-Green Revolution Mexico, urban
poverty and malnutrition has remained stubbornly persistent, as anyone
who has visited Mexico City in the past 20 years can verify.

One of the most ironic things I see in Borlaug obits is the idea that
his innovations made countries like Mexico and India "self-sufficient"
in food production. Actually, these nations became perilously dependent
on foreign input suppliers for their food security. 

In India, site of the Green Revolution's greatest putative triumph, the legacy is even more mixed.

Today in India's grain belt, less than 40 years after Borlaug's Nobel
triumph, the water table has been nearly completely tapped out by
massive irrigation projects
farmers are in severe economic crisis, and cancer rates,
seemingly related to agrichemical use, are
tragically high.

In other words, to generate the massive yield gains that won Borlaug
his Nobel, the nation sacrificed its most productive farmland and a
generation of farmers. Meanwhile, as in Mexico, urban poverty and
malnutrition in India's urban centers remained stubbornly persistent.


For me, the point isn't that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields
don't matter; rather, it's that boosting yield alone can't solve hunger
problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers' economic
well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food
traditions--all of these things matter, too.

As the U.S. and European governments, along with the Gates Foundation,
turn their attention to Africa's hunger crisis, I hope those lessons
are heeded--despite Borlaug's near-canonization as a modern-day saint.

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