Greens vs. The Green Revolution
HAVE YOU EVER felt hunger? Sure, we've all, at one time or another, felt irritable and impulsive after skipping lunch, but that's not true hunger.
First, there are the pangs, throbbing contractions of the stomach muscles triggered by high concentrations of the hormone ghrelin, a compound released when the body's blood sugar dips too low. For most of us in the developed world, that's as far as the symptoms extend, for they can be easily assuaged by a sandwich, salad, or soda pop. 826 million people in the developing world won't be so lucky, however. Starvation comes next.
The body starts off by metabolizing whatever fat stores are available. Skeletal muscle gets consumed next, followed by the internal organs least essential to survival. Organs that at one point seemed vital, like the liver, kidney, and pancreas, become food. To the famished body, everything looks appetizing. Only the heart and brain are left off the menu of this internal feast.
As the stomach wastes away to a shriveled mass, pains of hunger diminish, leaving the sufferer listless and numb. Apathy ensues, agonizing and blissful at the same time. The starving person knows that death is approaching, but is often indifferent. In such a state, being dead may be preferable to being hungry.
NORMAN BORLAUG became well acquainted with hunger at the age of 21. As a supervisor in the Civilian Conservation Corps -- a New Deal work relief program that employed out-of-work, unmarried men to work jobs related to the conservation of natural resources -- he met a lot of destitute individuals, many of whom were starving when they joined, and watched how food and meaningful work renewed their confidence and transformed their lives. It was these indelible memories that were on Borlaug's mind when he completed the work that would spark a revolution in agriculture, and later garner him the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Science, among a long list of other acknowledgements.
In 1944, Borlaug made use of his degree in agriculture from the University of Minnesota and traveled to Mexico with a team whose goal was to boost wheat production. He'd work there for 16 years, toiling for endless hours in the lab and in the fields to breed a wheat plant that was resistant to disease, thick-stemmed, and enormously productive. He succeeded. By 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops grown were Borlaug's dwarf variety, and the country's overall yield was six times higher than in 1944, the year he arrived.
Over the coming decades, Borlaug's wheat would be sown in developing nations around the world. At the time, biologist Paul Ehrlich was portending global starvation. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over..." he wrote. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
Borlaug proved Ehrlich wrong. Global yields skyrocketed. Starvation rates decreased. Doom was postponed.
THE GREEN REVOLUTION, as it is now termed, has been credited with preventing over a billion deaths by starvation. You'd think that'd be something universally celebrated, but not everyone is happy. In her 1991 book, The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics, physicist Vandana Shiva decried Borlaug's efforts as a hoax, no more than a selfish ploy of the Ag industry, saying that it destroyed India's crop diversity, left the country more susceptible to drought, and created a dependence on "poisonous" agrochemicals. She wasn't the only critic.
When Borlaug attempted to extend The Green Revolution to Africa in the 1980s, environmental lobbyists unified to stop him. Arguing that Borlaug's farming methods would despoil the continent's environment, they successfully persuaded the World Bank and the Ford Foundation to pull back almost all of their funding for Borlaug's efforts. Even the Rockefeller Foundation, which had originally funded Borlaug's wheat research in Mexico, withdrew monetary support.
Despite that incalculable setback, Borlaug tirelessly strove to feed Africa. His efforts helped Ethiopia, where 28% of all child mortality is associated with undernutrition, boost yields of their major crops to record levels. But ultimately, Africa remains swamped with malnutrition.
“Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists..." he told The Atlantic. "If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
Select environmentalists also neglect to realize that environmental conservation and agricultural advancement are not locked in a zero-sum contest. As Borlaug pointed out in 2000, if world cereal yields had remained unchanged since 1961, the world would need 850 million hectares of additional land to equal the 1999 harvest.
"Think of the soil erosion and the loss of forests, grasslands, and wildlife that would have resulted had we tried to produce these larger harvests with the older, low-input technology!" he wrote.
As with most debates, this one comes down to intrinsic values. From our lofty position in the developed world, we have the luxury to value the fallacious image of pristine, untouched nature over feeding ourselves. Hunger simply isn't something that most of us are familiar with.
"These people have never been around hungry people," Borlaug says of people like this. "They're Utopians. They sit and philosophize. They don't live in the real world."
Proselytizing is easy. But try doing it when you're starving.