The Man Who Fed the World, And the Film that Condemned Him for It

Norman Borlaug statue

The first indication one gets that PBS’s new American Experience documentary on agronomist Norman Borlaug will not be overly laudatory is its title. Anti-hunger activist Leon Hesser called his 2010 biography of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner The Man Who Fed the World. But film writer/director/producer Rob Rapley was only willing to call Borlaug The Man Who Tried to Feed the World.

Still, while the program struggles to find fault with Borlaug and his methods, the positives cannot help but shine through. And though I was forced to grit my teeth in frustration through several scenes, I would still recommend it for the overwhelmingly positive lesson that viewers cannot help but draw from watching.

Norman Borlaug was a plant scientist, born in Iowa in 1914, whose innovations in wheat and rice breeding launched a worldwide transformation of agricultural production that became known as the Green Revolution. He specialized in developing super-productive crop plants for mainly poor, subsistence farmers—first in Mexico, then India and Pakistan, and later throughout Asia and Africa. According to science journalist Gregg Easterbrook:

Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted — for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine—1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

Preventing a billion deaths is a fine legacy. And The Man Who Tried to Feed the World acknowledges that Borlaug had a significant impact on agricultural productivity. But rather than focus on the fact that a billion or so people—mostly poor and not Caucasian—owe their lives to Borlaug’s innovations, the film makes a point of stressing the negative: “By increasing the world’s food supply, Borlaug made it possible for the planet to support far more people than had been thought possible, saving countless lives in the process,” writes Jennifer Robinson in a promotional essay about the documentary on the San Diego-based KPBS Public Media website. “But in doing so, he unleashed a series of unintended consequences that tarnished his reputation and forever changed the environmental and economic balance of the world.”

To suggest he “tarnished his reputation” is a bit much. In fact, most people have never even heard of Norman Borlaug. So, who is this guy?

For full disclosure, I knew Norm a bit. He insisted that everyone call him “Norm.” And he wrote the foreword to my 2004 book, The Frankenfood Myth.

As I wrote in a 2009 obituary for him:

In 1944, Borlaug got the opportunity that would come to define the rest of his life, joining a Cooperative Research Production Program co-funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Mexican government. [As the junior scientist employed by the program, Borlaug was assigned to study wheat, while his superiors got to focus on the “more important” crop varieties of corn and beans.] … In just four years, Mexico went from importing almost all the wheat its people consumed to being self-sufficient in wheat production.

Borlaug continued working in Mexico, but by the 1960s, his reputation had spread around the world. He was called on first to travel to India and Pakistan to help improve wheat production there. And after a stunning success, he went on to the Philippines and China, where his innovative breeding methods were used to raise yields in the rice varieties consumed by roughly half the world’s population. By the 1980s, Borlaug teamed up with Japanese billionaire philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa to try to spread the Green Revolution to Africa. Wherever he went, the combination of better plant varieties, along with agricultural chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia and other inorganic fertilizers, and synthetic herbicides and insecticides, helped to more than triple wheat yields.

None of this was easy, however. Borlaug and his colleagues met severe resistance from local seed breeders and farmers set in their ways, as well as national and regional governments who didn’t want to see others succeed where their own programs had failed. … But, perhaps no critics were tougher on Borlaug than western environmentalists.

It seems not much has changed—though we can now add “your local PBS station” to the list of his harshest critics.

The environmental movement’s most common criticism of the Green Revolution is that Borlaug’s super-productive crop varieties needed more water and more fertilizer to grow than the low-yield varieties they replaced. Well, yes. … Water and fertilizer are plant food. If you want your plants to grow three times as much harvestable grain, you have to feed them more. To argue that the Green Revolution failed because it requires more fertilizer confuses cause and effect. It also assumes, incorrectly, that a better alternative was available but left untried.

Ultimately, though, millions of poor farmers and the people they fed found it preferable to adopt the modern technologies associated with the American and European chemical companies the environmentalists disdained than to continue to go hungry. Tradeoffs are inescapable, and that one was a no-brainer.

More importantly, while the over-use of added fertilizers (whether it is synthesized nitrogen or animal manure) can have negative environmental consequences, the environmental value of growing more food on less land more than offsets that harm. Humans currently use about one third of the Earth’s land surface area for agriculture—about the same amount used in 1960. If farmers didn’t have the modern tools environmentalists so abhor—improved crop varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—we would have had to more than double the world’s cropland over the past six decades to produce the same amount of food we do today. Plowing under another third of the Earth’s surface would have been an ecological catastrophe far worse than anything green activists could imagine. That is certainly worse than using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

Similarly, the film criticizes the “social upheaval” that resulted from increased agricultural productivity: The poor of Asia and South America, who once toiled on subsistence farms were now living in cities, their backbreaking manual labor no longer needed in rural areas. To be sure, plenty of people who were poor before the Green Revolution remained poor after it. But today, the percentage of people around the world living in poverty is at an all-time low—a fact that is partly due to moving people out of subsistence farming and into cities. It is also true that farmers who could afford more of the chemical inputs that increased crop yields or had greater access to irrigation have benefited more than those who do not. But that would be true whether or not there ever was a Green Revolution. 

Of course, if your worldview depends on seeing agricultural chemicals and the corporations that produce them as inherently evil, that makes it harder to feel good about the processes and technologies that have increased crop yields and saved countless lives. Perhaps Borlaug would have been a hero to environmentalists if he had let the poor Mexicans, Indians, and Chinese starve instead of making it worth their while to use synthetic fertilizers? One has to break a few eggs, after all, to make an omelet.

Borlaug said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that:

[T]he first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world. Yet today fifty percent of the world’s population goes hungry. Without food, man can live at most but a few weeks; without it, all other components of social justice are meaningless. Therefore, I feel that the [International Labor Organization’s] aforementioned guiding principle must be modified to read: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.

Whether you agree or not with Borlaug’s view of food as a moral right, to fault his efforts to help feed billions of hungry people, and to criticize him for using the only tools available to do so, are not just shortsighted but cruel and inhumane.

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World does its level best to make viewers skeptical of Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. But in the end, you simply cannot watch this program and not be impressed by and grateful for the fruits of his life’s work.