Filed under: Farming
In the wake of Norman Borlaug’s death, Tyler Cowen posts a link to this fascinating piece of what I suppose should be called revisionist history, “Norman Borlaug’s Complicated Legacy” by Nick Cullather. Cullather’s interests seem to be in the broad field of diplomacy by other means, with one of those other means being food; this paper, available on line is a thought provoking history of the political and social meanings of the calorie. In the Borlaug piece he is very interesting on what was actually going on in terms of food in Asia in the 1960s. For one thing, the bumper 1968 crop may have had a fair deal to do with climate (specifically ENSO) and increased wheat prices (following a dropping off of food aid to Asia, which had been suppressing them) as well as the introduction of dwarf wheat varieties. Also, he points out that it is possible that predictions of impending mass famine made in the 1960s and early 1970s were not accurate-for-the-world-they-were-made-in-but-confounded-by-the-subsequent-technological-improvements — the standard narrative — but rather would have been proved wrong anyway. Counterfactuals — whattcha gonna do? (According to Cullather, Borlaug himself had little time for the “doomsayers”.)
Which is not to say that Borlaug did nothing, or that science did not provide far more high yielding crops in the 1960s and 70s (there’s a personal account of how that research was brought together into the CGIAR system in an article Lowell Hardin did for Nature a couple of years ago). What Cullather does in his piece (and presumably in his forthcoming book, which is called “The Hungry World” or “Parable of the Seeds” depending on the source you ask, and which I now eagerly await) is tease out what that meant in terms of changing the ways people thought and acted, personally and politically:
The Rockefeller and Ford foundations set out to change the mentality and politics of rural Asia. Food was their tool. “I’ve worked with wheat, but wheat is merely a catalyst,” Borlaug explained. “I’m interested in the total economic development in all countries.” Development meant installing progressive leaders, like military dictator Ayub Kahn, and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos who ran for office on the slogan “progress is a grain of rice.” By requiring imported fertilizer and fuel, the new grain production strategy broke India’s planned economy, forcing Gandhi to divert resources from industry and devalue the rupee. Borlaug and President Lyndon Johnson saw this as a victory. In retrospect it’s less clear. China and India were evenly matched in 1966, but China continued its industrial drive without letup.
Borlaug believed the process of high-yield agriculture would change the mentality of farmers. The dwarf wheats required cultivators to precisely regulate water and chemicals, to set aside beliefs in nature and custom and put trust in technology. It made peasants into scientists. He expected this new attitude to affect their relations with their leaders, each other, and their families. They would follow the profit motive, and he hoped, have fewer children. The link between the new seeds and state birth control and sterilization programs was so plain that in many countries it was rumored that the seeds caused impotence. “If only that were true,” Borlaug sighed. “We would really merit the Nobel Peace Prize.”
At a time when farming was marginalized in his own country, Borlaug recognized that agriculture was intimately connected with human life, and consequently with every political act. More than feed the world, he aimed to change it. Asked if he considered himself an extension agent to the world, he shook his head. “No,” he replied. “We move governments.”
There’s a list (which I have left out in order further to encourage you to go and read the article) of unintended consequences, including Maoism in the Philippines and the secession of Bangladesh, which impressed me, though I should note that aspects of it are disputed in comments on the piece, and I’m not in a position to judge the merits.
It all makes you ask what we should be thinking about in terms of a second green revolution for Africa. It’s not enough to just say there’s a need for biotechnology (which there is), or that that need has to be looked at in the context of “technical, agronomic and institutional factors” (which it does, as this review of Robert Paarlberg’s powerful and influential “Starved for Science” makes clear). Beyond that which such contexts do for agriculture is that which agriculture does for and to those greater contexts. What future changes are we looking for in how people think and believe, as well as how they farm — and what are they themselves looking for? How should we conceptualise personal changes in practice as political acts? And how deeply wrong will be in our expectations?
All that said, Borlaug’s contribution was immense, and he was a great presence to be in. I was deeply impressed when I heard him speak a few years back. The last word goes to my friend Anna, third-personified by her Facebook page:
Image from AgBioWorld, permission to use requested
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