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Not so green legacy
By Sudhirendar Sharma

While Dr Norman Borlaug is revered for his contribution in bringing Green Revolution to India, one can't ignore the deterioration of the plant ecology and destruction to the environment due to excess chemical inputs used to increase yield.

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Age could never deter either his passion or determination. Till he lost to cancer on September 12, at the age of 95, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug was relentlessly fighting his arch enemy, the rust fungus, which had engaged him since he had first landed in Mexico in 1944 to breed shorter, straighter, stronger wheat that were to liberate the world from hunger over the next decades. His brilliance of pulling India out of 'ship-to-mouth' existence is history.

The rust fungus that had helped him achieve 'more than anyone else in the 20th century' did not allow him to rest, reappearing as dreadful Ug99 in 2000, a strain of black stem rust that threatens to wipe out much of the worldwide wheat crops as it spreads from its base in eastern Africa. Since farmers everywhere have grown rust-resistant wheat, the fungus has evolved to take advantage of its genetic uniformity, and almost no wheat crops anywhere are resistant to it.

Borlaug could foresee the threat posed by the new stem rust, making a global food crisis imminent should the governments fail to implement any rescue mission. His greatest worry was that not only was the pace of research lagging behind the speed with which the winds were blowing away the fungus, having already recorded its presence in Iran, but that the dreadful rust could erase the footprints of his green triumph in India.       Borlaug could foresee the threat posed by the new stem rust, making a global food crisis imminent should the governments fail to implement any rescue mission.

The stem rust, one of the three rusts that afflict wheat plant, has been longer in existence than the bread wheat - that is only about 10,000 years old. Borlaug's painstaking work on breeding rust-resistant wheat was erroneously construed as putting the dreadful fungus to "sleep". Ug99 is the result of fungus-at-work, evolving into a potent variant that can devastate the wheat plant with deadly reddish blisters within two weeks. The genetic uniformity of wheat, engineered by Borlaug's pioneering work, has been handy for the new rust to do the damage it is capable of.

Resolute and uncompromising in the pursuit of his conviction, Borlaug's agricultural philosophy was rooted in fighting hunger at any cost and with any technology. Such was his faith in the technology that he developed and promoted, that agricultural scientists refused to see the flip side, which was becoming evident through the deterioration of the plant ecology and destruction to the environment. Oblivious to such concerns, Borlaug honed in on increasing yields.

In their recently published book Enough - largely a Borlaug hagiography - Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman argue that his tireless effort to boost grain yields did result in a flood of cheap grain but not without the problems that won't be easily solved. In India, site of his greatest putative triumph, the legacy is even more mixed. In less than 40 years after Borlaug's Nobel work, the water table in the country's green revolution arena has gone down drastically due to irrigation projects, farmers are in severe economic crisis, and cancer rates, seemingly related to agrichemical use, are tragically high.

Borlaug's obsession with chemical fertilizer and pesticides was obvious, his celebrated 'dwarf' varieties would not grow without plenty of water and lots of synthetic nitrogen, and facing serious pest pressure, would require heavy pesticide doses. No wonder, he considered Rachel Carson an evil spirit and reacted to her monumental work The Silent Spring as 'coming from one who did not want to eradicate hunger'. The delayed entry of green revolution into Africa was partly Borlaug's own doing.

All solutions engender more problems but it's scary to imagine what the world would have been without what Borlaug's science started. For him, the complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as much as possible, using whatever technology available. However, riding on the phenomenal success of his efforts, Borlaug did ignore the cumulative impact of generating high yields to his own peril.       For him, the complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as much as possible, using whatever technology available.

Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug's main intent was to 'help poor farmers,' that smallholders remained in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation slipped his attention. No wonder, rural migration, urban poverty and malnutrition remain stubbornly persistent - both in India as well as in Mexico. The so-called 'immigrant crisis' in the United States is better viewed as an unresolved agrarian crisis in Mexico.

In the later part of his distinguished career, Borlaug faced severe criticism. While famines may have become history, hunger persists in its diverse manifestations. Critics contend that the vast majority of increases in grain yields didn't feed hungry people - it went to feed livestock to make meat in the rich world. Without doubt, self-sufficiency in food grains has been achieved at the cost of being perilously dependent on inputs (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) from transnational corporations. Borlaug's blindness to political dynamics - his refusal to consider the power relations at work in the countries whose hungry he set out to save - undermined his legacy.

The point isn't that Norman Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don't matter; rather, it is that boosting yield alone can't solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers' economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions --all these things matter too.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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