The Man for All Seasons

Life really can imitate art. Leon Hesser's straightforward yet gripping biography of Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution (“The Man Who Fed the World,” Durban House Press, 2006, $24.95), portrays the kind of nobility and idealism shown by Jimmy Stewart in the title role of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” If the Borlaug story were a movie, this week's presentation in Des Moines of the 2006 World Food Prize, first envisioned by and spurred by Borlaug, would be the denouement. Borlaug's life has been one of extraordinary paradoxes: a child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression who attended a one-room school, aspired to become a high school science teacher, flunked the university entrance exam – but went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the death of millions.Borlaug introduced several innovations. First, he and his colleagues laboriously crossbred thousands of wheat varieties from around the world to produce some new ones with resistance to rust, a destructive plant pest; this raised yields 20 to 40 percent. Second, he crafted so-called dwarf wheat varieties that would not fall over in the field when aggressively fertilized to achieve maximum yields. Third, he devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding”- growing two successive plantings each year, instead of the usual one, in different regions of Mexico. The availability of two test generations of wheat each year cut by half the years required for breeding new varieties. Moreover, because the two regions possessed distinctly different climatic conditions, the resulting new early-maturing, rust-resistant varieties were broadly adapted to many latitudes, altitudes and soil types. This wide adaptability, which flew in the face of agricultural orthodoxy, proved invaluable, and Mexican wheat yields skyrocketed. Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation.In his professional life, Borlaug, who is now 92, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations. How successful were Borlaug's efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield of more than 150 percent. Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion. Borlaug recalls without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers' customs, habits, and superstitions.”Both the need for additional agricultural production and the obstacles to innovation remain, and in recent years, Borlaug has applied himself to ensuring the success of this century's equivalent of the Green Revolution: the application of gene-splicing, or “genetic modification” (GM), to agriculture. Products in development offer the possibility of even higher yields, less inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition, and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.However, extremists in the environmental movement are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help. Borlaug sees history repeating itself: “At the time [of the Green Revolution], Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, 'Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts.' Hill was right. His prediction anticipated the gene-splicing era that would arrive decades later . . . The naysayers and bureaucrats have now come into their own. If our new varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available” [emphasis in original].Borlaug observes that the enemies of innovation might create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”Although we must be prudent in assessing new technologies, these assessments must not be based on overly conservative — or overtly inaccurate — assumptions, or be swayed by the self-interest of bureaucrats or the anti-business, anti-establishment, anti-globalization agendas of a few activists. Borlaug's story is a saga of the greatness of America during the 20th Century – of opportunity, individuality, courage and achievement. He strove to exploit new technology in a way that was based on good science and good sense. I have known Norman Borlaug personally for more than a decade. As remarkable as his scientific and humanitarian accomplishments are Borlaug's modesty, guilelessness, and the fact that the desire to contribute to society still burns in his belly. Borlaug's modus vivendi might be summed up in several observations that he made about the importance of food and the application of science to feeding the hungry. First: “There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse.” Second: “You can't eat potential.” In other words, you haven't succeeded until you get new developments into the field and actually into people's bellies. And finally: “It is easy to forget that science offers more than a body of knowledge and a process for adding new knowledge. It tells us not only what we know but what we don't know. It identifies areas of uncertainty and offers an estimate of how great and how critical that uncertainty is likely to be.” How to capture the essence of Norman Borlaug? I'm reminded of a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold, who described Sophocles as a man “who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />