Was Borlaug Too Good?

Published on: 14:59PM Sep 14, 2009

I read this obituary this morning while eating breakfast.  It noted the passing Saturday of agronomist Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farmer’s son who has been lauded over the years (including a Nobel Peace Prize, not just the Nobel for chemistry or medicine) for his role in sparking the Green Revolution.  It’s rare for the Post to put a non-celebrity obituary on the front page, but today, they gave him his historical due.  Few have done more to help feed people in history than Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug lived long enough to read criticisms of his model for agriculture, such as this lengthy opinion column last week by Michael Pollan, the perennial critic of U.S. farm policy, who wrote that health care reform can only come if the food system is reformed (i.e., somehow it’s incented to produce less cheap grain).  And I had to wonder as I ate my cereal:  would the late Dr. Borlaug agree that farms today, at least those in the developed world, are too productive? 

To read Pollan’s thesis – which is essentially the same as in movies like Food Inc. and King Korn – we grow too much corn, and that makes high-fructose corn syrup too available and too cheap…which makes most other forms of processed food too cheap, too available, and too fattening; which makes us all susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, etc. 

Borlaug came of age, as the Washington Post obit (and this similar one in the Wall Street Journal) points out, at a time when farming in the U.S. was a lot like subsistence farming still is in parts of the Third World:  it featured plows, scythes, and the indiscriminate use of animal waste as fertilizer.  Crop protection was nowhere to be seen, unless it was a scarecrow to keep the birds out.  Obviously, that system led to penury for too many farmers, and it was inefficient.  Today, modern agriculture feeds countless more mouths than farming could, pre-World War II.  So many  mouths, in fact, that to listen to the critics, we’d be better off eschewing any type of GMO seed traits or pesticides and fertilizers, and go back to the ethos of American Gothic (ironically Borlaug’s native Depression-era Iowa).

Even near the end of his life, Borlaug defended the progress he helped create in the lab and ultimately, in the field.  It’s funny how no one criticizes Henry Ford for making auto production too efficient or too cheap, even though one could argue the result – too many cars for the masses, emitting greenhouse gases – is analogous to the situation with corn, soybeans and wheat today:  Efficiency as villain, science as suspect, progress as pain. 

The inventions of modernity can often be a two-edged sword.  The first technology, fire, still can burn us dangerously today.  But turning our back on the ability to do more with less is ultimately a fool’s errand, something that Borlaug understood.