Norman Borlaug died over the weekend. He was a gifted plant scientist credited with achieving a significant increase in agricultural production in Asia and Latin America during the 1960s, the so called “Green Revolution.” He developed special varieties of wheat that boosted production six fold in Mexico, and then brought them to India. The new disease-resistant varieties helped both these countries become self-sufficient in wheat. “Descendants of these wheat varieties now cover virtually all of the spring bread wheat area in the developing world,” says Melinda Smale, a researcher in Oxfam’s office in Washington. Gary Toennissen, at the Rockefeller Foundation, estimates that about half the world goes to bed each night having eaten bread made from them. Accomplishments like these led to a Nobel Prize for Borlaug in 1970.
As we face a future of 9 billion people, and the possible need to double total food production to meet this demand, we are thinking about how to achieve another revolution in agriculture. The issue became urgent last year when food prices skyrocketed and millions could not afford to buy enough to eat. This year, the number of hungry people will surpass 1 billion – a sad reversal in the long-term trend toward reduced hunger.
Over the last few weeks I have been trying to finish a magazine story about how women I met in Mali last spring were trying to prepare for the inevitable jump in food prices during the summer rainy season. They were understandably concerned with the 25 percent increase in grain prices they saw the previous year, when many people across West Africa and other parts of the world suffered terribly. In June of 2008 Oxfam estimated that the “current food price levels constitute an immediate threat to the livelihoods of around 290 million people.” That’s almost as many people as live in the United States.
Borlaug’s passing comes at a time when the debate about how to achieve the next big change in agriculture is running hot. According to the experts I have spoken with, we can’t just expect a big advance in technology to bail us out this time. We have neglected the soil, we are using up all the water, the planet is getting hotter, and we are devoting land to growing plants for biofuels.
Borlaug and others have not been able to engineer the big increase in food production in Africa that they saw in Asia. But we still need to use Borlaug’s innovative spirit to achieve more on the continent that eluded the first Green Revolution. We need more drought-resistant varieties of grain, programs to improve soils, and a concerted effort to help the many small farmers who can produce food for local markets more efficiently.
“Dr. Borlaug took on the problem of hunger in the modern world with the intelligence of a scientist, the ingenuity of a Midwest farmer, and the generous heart of a saint,” said our colleague Jim French, himself a farmer in Kansas. “In the face of climate change and growing food insecurity, Dr. Borlaug’s example will continue to call on us to support and nurture agriculture in the developing world.”