Norman Borlaug's life and legacy

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Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: One reason food is plentiful in much of the world is the so-called Green Revolution of the second half of the 20th Century. High yield crop varieties and other innovations helped to more than double world food production from 1960 to 1990. Experts say the advances saved perhaps a billion lives. One of the key figure behind the Green Revolution died over the weekend at the age of 95. Norman Borlaug was plant pathologist who helped develop the new varieties of wheat the helped spark the explosion in crop yield. That work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. To help us understand the legacy of Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, we turn to Lester Brown. Brown is the head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington and he's followed development in global agriculture and food supply perhaps as closely as anyone over the last four years. Mr. Brown, take us back, if you would, first to Norman Borlaug's work of the middle of the last century and the challenge he had at that time of feeding the world?

LESTER BROWN: Well, food supplies were tightening in the early '60s and even before that as we anticipate the huge growth in the human population during the last half of the 20th Century. And what Norm Borlaug did was to take the dwarf wheat that had been developed in Japan to Mexico and began breeding them with local varieties, but he was in a hurry to do this so he had two different plant breeding sites. In the summer time, he'd grow a crop in Northern Mexico and ten take those seeds down to Southern Mexico and grow them in the winter so he could get two crops a year and speed up the new variety development process. And what that did and even he was not sort of aware of it, was it produced high yielding varieties of wheat that were widely adaptable in growing conditions. So when it came time to look for varieties of wheat that would work well in Pakistan and India, he had the answer.

WERMAN: The Nobel Peace Price Committee said when they presented Borlaug with the Peace Price more than any other single person of this age he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. Is that an overstatement?

BROWN: No because it was those high yielding wheat that made such an enormous contribution to food production in many countries throughout the developing world.

WERMAN: The Green Revolution, of course, leads to some pretty serious unintended and unforeseen consequences. Tell us what we know now that we didn't know then that cast the Green Revolution, and Borlaug's work in the different light.

BROWN: Well, there's been a tendency particularly in the environmental community to criticize the Green Revolution because it lead to more intensive agriculture, the use of heavy applications of fertilizer, for example, and this would seem as not a good thing in the eyes of many. But in the eyes of the people in India, who hadn't very little new land that could be brought under the plow, it was the only way to go. The alternative would have been to totally deforest the rest of India in an effort to try to produce more food, but it wouldn't have worked because most of the remaining forest land was marginal land in any event. And it's easy to look at some of the problems associated with the Green Revolution, but in order to evaluate that you need to spin out the alternative scenario which would have been India without a Green Revolution, for example, and that would have been an epic tragedy.

WERMAN: Do you still feel that the world is better off with the developments of the Green Revolution than without?

BROWN: Well, I don't think there's any question that that was desirable. My big disappointment in the case of India and many other developing countries was that they did not, as I had hoped, give the same attention to getting the breaks on population growth. As a result, today we have an India not with half a billion people but more than a billion people, and some 46% of all children are chronically hungry and malnourished. So the problem has not been solved. We sustained a much, much larger population but we have not eradicated hunger.

WERMAN: Lester Brown, thank you very much.

BROWN: My pleasure, Marco.

WERMAN: Lester Brown is the author of the forthcoming book, Plan B4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization.