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Norman Borlaug: another subjective obituary

Norman Borlaug (centre) contemplates crops at the International Rice Research Institute.

Photo by: IRRI Images under a CC Licence

All of the poor people were going to starve. Then Norman invented some better seeds and everyone had enough to eat. Some people didn’t think that this was a good idea. But we don’t talk about them.

That, or something to that effect, is all that could be conceivably taken away after reading Norman E Borlaug’s innumerable obituaries in recent days. Borlaug, in case you hadn’t heard, was the man revered as the architect of the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution, in case you hadn’t read it, was the saviour of the ‘Third World’ and liberator of starving communities everywhere from the shackles of nature.

No miracle

In reality the Green Revolution was the dissemination of an agricultural package of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides combined with the introduction of machinery and Borlaug’s ‘miracle seeds’, across the Global South. The seeds were developed through hybridization and back-crossing with the view to creating a plant that shed the traditional problems of staple food crops. Borlaug’s ‘miracle’ wheat for instance, was developed to be more responsive to artificial additives, to have altered photosensitivity (eliminating the restraints of localized day-length) and was ‘dwarfed’ (allowing the heads of the plant to be heavier without the risk of lodging, and enabling the plants to exert less energy growing inedible components such as the stem).

Reports of Borlaug’s passing were guilessly, yet somewhat expectedly, subjective

Reports of Borlaug’s passing were guilessly, yet somewhat expectedly, subjective. Worldwide, we produce enough food for approximately 11 billion people – almost double the global population – and this can be largely attributed to Borlaug’s efforts. Nonetheless, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), a colossal 1.02 billion people do not have enough to eat. That doesn’t mean that the WFP found that one sixth of the population of earth harbour regret for not going ‘Super Size’ when asked; it means that for every six people living one of them is experiencing chronic malnutrition. What’s more, that ill-fated sixth person is invariably located in a country categorized as ‘developing’.

Discriminatory developments

What his obituary writers failed to acknowledge was that in the short term Borlaug’s work bought low-income nations some much-needed time and helped avert almost certain humanitarian disaster. But in the long term, Borlaug’s advancement of genetically-adapted grains and industrialized agriculture has created new organizational structures in the global food system that increasingly marginalize poor rural communities. The simple fact is that the technology, methods and external inputs that Borlaug not only created, but championed during the Green Revolution were – and are still – discriminatory.

It has been argued that, in some measure, the fate of the smallholder represents the fate of international development

Nearly 90 per cent of all farms are smaller than 2 hectares and represent a significant proportion of world agricultural producers. However, these smallholders also account for 75 per cent of the people living on less than one dollar a day and therefore make up the bulk of the 1.02 billion people living in hunger. The sad irony that the vast majority of the world’s malnourished live in rural areas and make their living through farming should be evidence enough that Borlaug’s Green Revolution was never able to be socially sustainable.

Smallholders were already experiencing an incomparable set of obstacles and Borlaug offered little to balance the crippling disparity within rural communities. It has been well documented that, unlike larger landowners, the resources, capital and person-power of smallholders are often restricted, limiting their ability to negotiate their involvement in newly globalized structures or withstand market disturbances. Borlaug devised the implementation of Green Revolution methods to be ‘scale-neutral’, benefiting small and large farms alike, but this could never have been realized in practice.

Production up, profits down

Green Revolution technology was prohibitively expensive. As Vandana Shiva laconically summarises, ‘[It] changed the structure of social and political relationships, from those based on mutual (though asymmetric) obligations within the village to relations of each cultivator directly with banks, seed and fertilizer agencies, food procurement agencies, and electric and irrigation organizations’. By design, the commercially supplied irrigation equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery required to realize Borlaug’s seeds’ potential was beyond the means of the smallholder.

When the farmers wealthy enough to adopt the methods saw their production skyrocket, grain prices inevitably fell and those smallholders unable to partake in the revolution’s initial success were forced to compete and sell their produce at a loss. Naturally, the increased production and subsequent reduction in grain prices benefited consumers, but farmers were only able to profit where the reduced cost of production outweighed the decrease in price. Without state policies that provided countercyclical emergency support to farmers when world prices dropped, small farmers in low-income countries were left to endure the loss of earnings and livelihood. In ‘developed’ nations, such policies attempt to redirect the downturn in prices back into the market rather than absorbing it domestically, but no such safety net existed for Green Revolution farmers.

A precarious life

It has been argued that, in some measure, the fate of the smallholder represents the fate of international development. While world food production is unquestionably at an all time high, thanks in no small measure to Norman Borlaug, life has never been more precarious for rural communities. In the words of Ben Jackson, ‘crop-boosting technology uprooted from one place and thrust into another without taking account of the local society and economy not only fails to feed the hungry but can make matters worse’. Although the threat of famine was deferred, Borlaug’s revolution very quickly created a state of indebtedness and disparity within farming communities not seen since colonial times.

Borlaug’s revolution very quickly created a state of indebtedness and disparity within farming communities not seen since colonial times

Behind the acclamation of the Green Revolution lay the harsh reality that Borlaug contributed to the commercialization of social relations and therefore the impoverishment of small producers who became the casualties of a shifting market and polarized society – and I haven’t even mentioned the cultural and environmental charges against him. So perhaps his obituaries should lean less towards ‘Nobel-winning hero’ and more towards ‘well-meaning technocrat’. Alfred Nobel once wrote: ‘I would rather take care of the stomachs of the living than the glory of the departed in the form of monuments’. Following this unintentionally fitting quote, perhaps I shouldn’t mention the life-sized butter sculpture of Dr Borlaug erected at the 2008 Iowa state fair either?

Suggested Further Reading Jackson, B. (1990) Poverty and The Planet: A Question of Survival. London: Penguin. Narayanan, S. & Gulati, A. (2008) ‘Globalization and Smallholders: A Review of Issues, Approaches, and Tentative Conclusions’ pp131-154 in von Braun, J. & Diaz-Bonilla, E. eds. Globalization of Food and Agriculture and The Poor. New Delhi: OUP. Shiva, V. (1997) The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. London: Zed Books. Willis, K. (2006) ‘Norman Borlaug’ pp45-49 in Simon, D. ed. Fifty Key Thinkers on Development. Oxford: Routledge.

Paul H. Johnson is Associate Director of Durham University’s Project Thailand: Knowledge in the Community and a doctoral researcher in the department of geography. His work seeks to reappraise the role of neoliberal governance upon agricultural production in rural South India.