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Obituary to Dr Norman Borlaug: He wouldn’t accept agriculture without chemicals
By Devinder Sharma

The simple scientist, credited with the Green Revolution, was a die hard supporter of using chemicals and pesticides to increase food production.


It was discovery of a stocky Japanese wheat variety Norin-10 that the US military advisor, Dr D C Salmon, sent back home in the early 1960's that changed the face of global agriculture. This was the variety, the only known semi-dwarf traditional wheat strain, that Dr Norman Borlaug was keenly looking for. Crossed with the rust-resistant varieties that Borlaug had developed at the International Centre for Wheat and Maize Research (CIMMYT) in Mexico, the world got the miracle improved varieties that made history.

These semi-dwarf plants developed by Dr Borlaug responded to the application of chemical fertilisers and produced a bountiful grain harvest. The yields multiplied under favourable conditions, and Borlaug knew that the best place to apply the new technology was obviously India, with the largest population of hungry and starved in the world. "I tried my best to convince the Indian politicians about the utility of these semi-dwarf varieties in fighting hunger, but they were not interested," he had once told me. Although the agricultural scientists, by and large, were convinced about the yield potential of these varieties, the politicians were not.

"When I didn't see much headway being made, I played the political card knowing the political rivalry between Indian and Pakistan," he went on to explain. "I told India that if you don't want these varieties, I will give them instead to Pakistan." I am not sure whether it was because of the political astuteness of Dr Borlaug or the domestic necessity, India imported 18,000 tonnes of wheat seed of the semi-dwarf varieties in 1966. Within a few weeks of the import, the seed was made available in 5 kg packs and distributed widely in the areas where irrigation was abundant.

The rest is history. India emerged out of 'ship-to-mouth' existence. Although hunger prevails, famine certainly has become history.

For several years after the Green Revolution was launched, I had the pleasure of accompanying him on his annual visits to the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. As a young journalist I was always in awe of Dr Borlaug, and found him to be a simple and dedicated scientist. He would spend hours in scorching sun in the wheat research fields and was always keen to visit farmers. At one such evening at a farmer's house, I remember the host saying: "The three major inputs for raising wheat yields are: farmers, improved seed and Borlaug."

Walking along the sprawling wheat fields in Ludhiana, I asked him once: "What is your biggest achievement. I mean what you would like to be remembered for." I thought he would say that he wanted to be recalled for his contribution to plant sciences and fighting global hunger. But in all humility, Dr Borlaug replied: "I want to be remembered as someone who introduced baseball in Mexico." And when I burst out laughing, Dr Borlaug gave me a detailed account of how he actually spent hours playing and promoting baseball.

Green Revolution subsequently spread to parts of Asia and Latin America. It did enable a number of developing countries to emerge out of the hunger trap. Agricultural scientists globally promoted the technology - cultivating the water guzzling high-yielding varieties of wheat (the same technology was subsequently applied in rice) application of chemical fertilisers, and pesticides - and were never able to understand why the environmentalists were opposed to the technology.       Such was the blind faith in the technology that Borlaug developed and promoted that agricultural scientists refused to see the flip side which was clearly evident through the deterioration of the plant ecology and the destruction to the environment.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1970

Such was the blind faith in the technology that Borlaug developed and promoted that agricultural scientists refused to see the flip side which was clearly evident through the deterioration of the plant ecology and the destruction to the environment. Several years after Rachel Carlson published her historic work The Silent Spring I asked Borlaug whether he had read the book: "She is an evil force," he reacted angrily, adding: "These are the people who do not want to eradicate hunger." I didn't agree with him, and asked him why agricultural scientists can't accept that chemical pesticides simply kill. "You too, Sharma," he quipped, and then replied: "Remember, pesticides are like medicines. They have to be applied carefully and safely."

Dr Borlaug remained steadfast all through on the role of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. He was so adamant that when the Third World Academy in Italy presented a paper on how Brazil had achieved remarkable crop yields in soybean and sugarcane without applying chemical nitrogen, he didn't agree. It was only after he travelled to Brazil and saw for himself the crop yields that he at least acknowledged the reality. But even then, he wouldn't accept agriculture without chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Such was his blind faith in plant breeding that initially he even rejected biotechnology, saying it was a 'waste of time." However, later in life, he became a supporter of Genetic Engineering.

He would often tell me that if India had not followed the Green Revolution technology, the country would have required bringing an additional 58 million hectares under cultivation to produce the same quantity of food that was being produced after the high-yielding varieties of wheat were introduced. My argument to this was that although the country saved 58 million hectares but 40 years after Green Revolution, more than double -- close to 120 million hectares -- are faced with varying degrees of degradation. Borlaug never pardoned me for espousing the cause of long-term sustainability in agriculture. He never accepted that the world could produce enough food with Low-external Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) techniques. In fact, knowingly or unknowingly he did espouse the cause of corporate control of agriculture.

Although Green Revolution did bypass small farmers, Borlaug knew and appreciated the role farmers played in producing food. Perhaps the world does not know that it was for the sake of farmers that he had even decried a Nobel prize for Poland's popular leader Lech Walesa. At a time when Lech Walesa had emerged as the leader of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the Nobel Prize committee constituted a small team to go and find out whether Walesa deserved a prize.

The team was headed by Dr Borlaug.

Upon return, he told me that how appalled he was to learn that all that Walesa was talking about was cheaper food for the industrial workers. He was not bothered nor did he care to know as to what would happen to the livelihoods of millions of farmers who were producing food for the industrial workers. "My report had therefore categorically ruled out a Nobel for Walesa." It is however another matter that Walesa did receive a Nobel Peace prize.       "When people stop talking about farmers, when people fail to recognise their role in feeding the country, be sure there is something terribly wrong happening in agriculture."

"Be warned, Sharma," he told me during one of his visit to Pantnagar University, "when people stop talking about farmers, when people fail to recognise their role in feeding the country, be sure there is something terribly wrong happening in agriculture." These prophetic words hold true today. In India, it no longer hurts when farmers commit suicide or quit agriculture. For quite some time, farmers have disappeared from the economic radar screen of the country. This is a clear pointer to the terrible agrarian crisis that prevails. 


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

Devinder Sharma  |  Food and trade policy analyst, columnist and activists' guide  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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