The Green Revolution's Irascible Champion:
By Michela Wrong
At 86, the agronomist has certainly earned the right to have strong opinions. But being on the receiving end of them can prove a sobering experience. When he is roused, his voice suddenly loses the quaver that gives his sentences a staccato quality, like a needle skipping across a vinyl record. Belying his benign appearance as a white-haired patriarch, the man hailed as the father of the Green Revolution unleashes the testiness amassed during a lifetime's labour.
"Ridiculous," he snorts, dismissing suggestions that organic farming could hold the key to agriculture's future. "Hogwash," he snaps at environmentalists' criticisms of the Green Revolution. "Oh come now, this is plain nonsense. I've had to listen to this for years."
The intellectual cuffs are administered across the board, although with varying degrees of sharpness. On the one side, he harrumphs over the "extremists" he feels have turned the phrase "genetic modification" - the aim of plant breeders since Mendel experimented with pea varieties in the mid-nineteenth century - into something frightening and alien.
It is Mr Borlaug's role in the Green Revolution that puts him at the heart of that debate.
Working in Mexico in the 1960s, he crossed a Japanese dwarf wheat with a disease-resistant local strain to produce a high-yielding hybrid. Transplanted to Asia and Latin America and benefiting from a new understanding of farming techniques, it was one of a generation of disease-resistant crops that contributed to a tripling and quadrupling of harvests, allowing begging-bowl countries to become self-sufficient. In recognition of his efforts, Mr Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
But not everyone has proved as appreciative as the Nobel committee. The Green Revolution, today's development groups claim, encouraged the intensive farming methods that have polluted rivers and destroyed wildlife. As monocropping spread, it threatened biodiversity. While millions have been saved from starvation, diets have grown poorer as people have abandoned the traditional source of vitamins and minerals: fruit and vegetables cultivated on garden plots and field verges.
Mr Borlaug acknowledges such concerns but says the critics exaggerate what the Green Revolution set out to achieve. Agricultural experts, whose role is to produce better crops and identify ways of improving soil fertility, are taking the flak for the failures of policymakers. "It was a step in the right direction but it was never said that it would solve all the world's nutritional deficiencies. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that," he says, pounding the table. "Never, never."
The exasperation may be explained by the way in which the familiar debate has been revived with the launch of quality protein maize (QPM), Mr Borlaug's last and most treasured project. Endowed with the most important amino acids, QPM, nutritionists believe, could dramatically reduce the number of children who die of malnutrition after being weaned on to protein-poor maize gruel.
As president of the Sasakawa Africa Association, a Japanese-funded development agency, Mr Borlaug played a crucial role in ensuring that research on QPM continued to the point where commercialisation was possible. He has travelled more than ever before this year, a level of activity aimed at giving QPM a significant toehold before he dies. "QPM is like a child with great genetic potential. If it doesn't get the right nutrition or healthcare it will never go far," he says.
So it is not surprising that criticism of the new maize, regarded by some as yet another top-down approach to a problem best tackled through education, has him almost squirming with impatience. "To say 'Why don't you just give people a piece of meat, an egg or a glass of milk?' as some people do, reflects the elitism that has come into this issue. To people in the third world, these are luxuries, the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce in Britain."
His own understanding of deprivation is rooted in family history. Mr Borlaug's Norwegian ancestors migrated to the US during the potato famine of the 1840s. He grew up in Iowa, where his parents raised oats, clover and cattle, and was educated at a one-room country school. He has never forgotten the hunger glimpsed in the Great Depression, when he saw people queueing for soup.
"I don't think many Americans can remember it now. But I was steeled in that and I think that is the reason I've spent my life in the third world."
Just as those experiences explain a lifetime's obsession, much of today's biotechnology backlash, he feels, can be traced to a halcyon vision of "traditional" agriculture entertained by a generation that has lost touch with the practical realities of farming.
"I can see this with my own son, who used to come with me on my visits but went into a different profession. Now he sees an anti-science programme on television and says: 'Dad, what's going on?' He's lost touch with the land. Only 2 per cent of the population in the US now lives off the land. In western Europe it's 8 per cent."
For Mr Borlaug, no avenue - whether organic or biotechnological - can be barricaded off if humanity is to meet a massive mathematical challenge. Having soared in the Green Revolution, yields have recently shown signs of levelling off. But to feed a population expected to top 8bn by 2025, the world needs nearly to double the 5bn tonnes of food produced each year. So either new ways must be found of boosting productivity or millions of hectares of forest must be felled to make room for cultivation.
Having originally believed the GM backlash was a temporary "hiccup", Mr Borlaug now recognises he underestimated the phenomenon that has played its part, he says, in a drop in funding to the agricultural research institutes he works alongside. But it would not take much, he believes, for a western world that appears to have forgotten the potato famines to discover the joys of GM: "Two or three crop failures and it would disappear real fast," he comments sardonically.
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited
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