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Miss the wood for the trees

What Norman Borlaug didn’t figure was that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems, writes Sudhirendar Sharma.

india Updated: Oct 06, 2009 22:46 IST

Age was no deterrent to his passion and determination. Till he lost to cancer on September 12, Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug relentlessly fought his arch enemy, the rust fungus, which had engaged him since he first landed in Mexico in 1944 to breed shorter, straighter, stronger wheat which were to liberate the world from hunger over next decades. His brilliance of pulling India out of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence is well known. The rust fungus that had helped him achieve ‘more than anyone else in the 20th century’ did not allow him to rest: it reappeared as Ug99 in 2000.

Borlaug could foresee the threat posed by the new stem rust, making a global food crisis imminent should the governments fail to carry out 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, but that the rust could erase the footprints of his green triumph in India.

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 the blind faith in the technology that he promoted, scientists refused to see the flip side: deterioration of the plant ecology and destruction to the environment.

In their recently published book Enough (largely a Borlaug hagiography), Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman argue that his efforts 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, the legacy is even more mixed. In less than 40 years after Borlaug’s work, the water table in Punjab has been completely tapped out by irrigation projects, farmers are in severe economic crisis, and cancer rates, seemingly related to agrichemical use, are high.

Borlaug obsession with chemical fertiliser 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”.

All solutions give rise to 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.

Thurow and Kilman 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 persistent — both in India as well as in Mexico. The ‘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. Without doubt, self-sufficiency in food grains has been achieved at the cost of being dependent on inputs (seeds, fertilisers 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 Borlaug is a ‘villain’ and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems. Farmers’ economic well-being, biodiversity, ecology, local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions — all these things matter, too.

Sudhirendar Sharma is Director, The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi

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