Norman Borlaug on the Food Crisis

Alex Tabarrok posted an excellent reference to father of the green revolution Norman Borlaug’s lecture marking the official designation of The Norman Borlaug Institute. The complete lecture is at the Institute website. Alex picked the best excerpt:

Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent, Latin America, the former USSR 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….

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 from the rich nations 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 – 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.

And here is an awesome graph showing how much land has been saved by improved agricultural productivity in the United States:


I also liked Cassandra’s comment — she knows what she is talking about:

You are missing the point that “spared” land is a bio-diverse natural habitat. Forests have an essential part in regulating our climate, preserving the water table, purifying the air, providing habitats for animals/birds, preventing soil erosion, preserving biodiversity, etc.

Most people do not have any idea how much the yields have increased over the course of the 20th century. Corn yields in Nebraska now top 210 bushels per acre. Even the best organic is only able to produce about 70 bushels per acre. To produce the same amount with organic farming therefore requires more land.

If you consider that only 2% of the population is engaged in ag, the yields are phenominal. It isn’t called the GREEN REVOLUTION for nothing. Norman Borlaug worked for decades transforming conventional methods of cross breeding to create lower growing, disease resistant, high yield wheat. He reasoned that a shorter plant would put more energy into the grain than in leaves and stems. The same approach was applied to rice resulting in high yield rice varieties. Another innovation in corn production was to increase nutrients to improve the dietary nutrition of the world’s poorest people. Few of us are aware of any of these innovations in crop breeding.

30% of the world’s food supply depends on just 3 crops: wheat, rice and maize (corn). Failure in any of these crops would result in mass starvation of millions(like the potato famine in Ireland during the 19th century). Crop breeding must continually fight the evolution of diseases such as the wheat rust.

A great read is “The Man Who Fed Millions”, the biography of Norman Borlaug who was awarded a Nobel prize in 1976 for his tireless efforts to feed the world. It is quite a story of one of the most remarkable men of our time. Mr. Borlaug is now in his 90s and continues to work to try to help people in sub-Saharan Africa.

See also my earlier post A Green Revolution for Africa?

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