Norman Borlaug

January 2, 2011

I spent a chunk of time over the last week reading Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman (2009). It is in many respects informative and well-written. Thurow and Kilman are Wall Street Journal reporters who have strung together and expanded on a series of WSJ articles they have published over the last decade. Most are focused on Africa, and all of them focus on the story of a single individual. Chombe Seyoum is a comparatively well-off Ethiopian farmer who modernized his farm in the 1990s, achieving yields comparable to those in the U.S. During the 2003 famine, he was forced to turn off his irrigation pumps and allow a crop to die in the fields while the poorer farmers, such as Tesfaye Ketema, struggle to keep their children alive. Not all succeed. As the book concludes in 2008, Ketema’s son Hagirso is still alive, but his bout with severe hunger has stunted his growth and he is still unable to work in the fields.

The tale of Chombe and Tesfaye illustrates a profound dilemma in agricultural development.  Although farmers such as Seyoum can produce as well as anyone, they have difficulty succeeding economically because American farmers receive subsidies that allow their crops to be sold below production cost on international markets. When famines strike the U.S. government provides food aid from American farms rather than purchasing from local farmers. Ironically it is in these food insecure times when farmers like Chombe Seyoum lose it all. Their crops languish in warehouses while the starving are fed from American stockpiles. Unable to make it in farming, Seyoum is Ethiopia’s John Deere dealer by the book’s conclusion.  It is not that African farmers can’t compete as farmers, but they truly cannot compete against the advantages derived from the largesse of the American taxpayer.

Thurow and Kilman lionize the American agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1972 for his contributions to Green Revolution farming methods. Borlaug’s scientific achievement was to be one of the first breeders to figure out how to grow two crops a year by shuttling between geographically disparate regions, cutting crop development time in half. His Peace Prize may have owed as much to his tireless campaign on behalf of his new seeds in both Mexico and in Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Thurow and Kilman mainly use Borlaug as a foil for the stupidity of the World Bank and other development agencies who, in the throes of the Regan-era mania for markets, deemphasized agricultural development for a good quarter century. We see Borlaug seemingly working alone in the late 1990s, trying to prove that the Green Revolution can do for Africa what he saw it do for Mexico and Asia.

Borlaug and I were on the faculty together at Texas A&M University from 1984 (when he came) until 1997 (when I left). He was a very kind and impressive individual. We both participated in several workshops for graduate students, and I always stuck around to hear what he had to say. He stressed that the science part is actually the smallest part of a successful Green Revolution style agricultural development. The new seeds have to be followed up with a constant and painstaking effort to be sure that farmers know how to use them. Thurow and Kilman recount such follow-up by Borlaug in late 90s Africa, and their account is true to the man I knew. He also talked of the need to support the seeds of the Green Revolution with appropriate policies, and that would appear to be where many of the problems of the last quarter century lie. Thurow and Kilman have chapters on African dictators who have undone good scientific works, but it is U.S. policies like those I mention above that are the most infuriating. It was the Democrats who in 2007 refused to cut subsidies for large farmers, and to this day the U.S. insists that the aid they offer to the World Food Program arrive in the form of crops grown by U.S. farmers.

Borlaug was also irascible and impatient. Thurow and Kilman make this out to be a virtue. He was fighting against hunger, after all. But Borlaug himself came to recognize that the Green Revolution technologies that worked in Asia were inappropriate in Africa, where people are too poor to take the risk to start the businesses needed to support them. It was not, as Thurow and Kilman suggest, just a matter of throwing more money at the kind of agricultural development Borlaug knew how to do.  We do need a renewal of our commitment to agricultural science, and this book does a good job of making that exceedingly boring topic come alive for even moderately interested readers. But we also need a broader approach to ensure that the smallholders Borlaug wanted to help are truly the beneficiaries.

MSU’s Professor Sieg Snapp was interviewed on NPR last December 1st. Sieg was discussing the need to move away from so much emphasis on commodity crops in agricultural development.  Her way balances soil health with higher yields, and the smallholder gets a healthy food crop that U.S. farmers are not trying to sell in world markets. I think I’ll take Sieg’s approach over Borlaug’s nowadays, I think.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

1 comment to Norman Borlaug

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