This year’s award to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) made no mention of Borlaug’s prize in 1970, but seems interestingly timed to recall his long battle against world hunger. But where the WFP is mostly admired — even critics of the UN admit it works well and has tried to correct earlier problems, for example, doing more local sourcing — the same cannot be said about the Green Revolution.
The Punjab protests, for example, stem from farmers’ feelings that grain surpluses will lead to falling returns if they are left to the mercy of the markets. But these surpluses would not exist without the high-yield wheat developed by Borlaug. One of the key characteristics of these varieties is short, thicker stems that can hold up the heavier heads. MS Swaminathan developed rice varieties on the lines of Borlaug’s wheat varieties. But the stubs of these too are harder to clear after harvesting. So farmers simply burn them.
Norman Borlaug has been praised for helping feed millions and also criticised for making farmers dependent on irrigation and fertilisers, leading to other problems.
Borlaug’s varieties were developed from Mexican wheat strains meant for leavened bread, which needs high gluten. But this is not suitable for unleavened chapatis and people still have bad memories of the tough rotis it made. Suitable wheat was later developed by Swaminathan, but a lot still had to go into making leavened bread, which was promoted to new consumers in rice-eating areas like South India. Malabar parottas, whose high fat content compensates for the hard wheat, were another product made widely popular in this era, hence the GST Council’s contention that they are not essential or traditional products which need a lower tax rate.
And this is not even touching on the main criticisms of the Green Revolution, such as how it needed high levels of fertiliser and irrigation, locking farmers into dependence on such inputs and causing lasting environmental damage. The drumbeat of damnation has been kept going steadily by antagonists like Vandana Shiva who accuse it of everything from poisoning our food to overcrowding cities due to poorer peasants driven from their land by richer farmers who benefitted unfairly from Borlaug’s seeds. Left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn even called him “aside from Kissinger, the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize…”
This is extravagantly unfair to Borlaug, who had more experience of the reality of peasant lives than most of his critics. He was born into a poor Midwestern American farming family, and only managed college through scholarships for sports (he was a wrestler) and deprived youths. But his fieldwork in central Mexico meant years with people far poorer than that which was why, while he generally avoided countering critics, he asked writer Charles C Mann if he had “ever been to a place where most of the people weren’t getting enough to eat. Not just poor, but actually hungry all the time.” Mann told him he hadn’t been to such a place. “That’s the point,” he said. “When I was getting started, you couldn’t avoid them.”
Mann recounts this conversation, from a few years before Borlaug died in 2009, in his book The Wizard and the Prophet, which probably provides the fairest approach to the Green Revolution debate. Instead of focussing solely on Borlaug, as both hagiographical supporters and damning critics have done, he pairs him with a polar opposite — William Vogt, a pioneering American environmentalist, who warned vehemently about the dangers of humans overloading the sustainable capacity of the world. He is the apocalyptic prophet of the title, while Borlaug is the wizard, believing in the power of science to find amazing solutions.
Mann shows how these opposing positions have deep roots, such as “Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether natural law truly is a guide for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the ideal character of citizens. Robert Malthus scoffing at the claims of the radical philosophers William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet…” And the arguments continue forward too into Covid times. Mann’s book came out in 2018, but the same debates can be seen over whether to trust in science to find vaccines, and then return to our lives as they were earlier, or whether to accept the hard processes of herd immunity, with the resulting deaths and, also a more constrained world living alongside the virus, and all other such natural limits to our lifestyles.
As scientists struggle to find a vaccine, the argument seems to be shifting towards the prophets, who have long predicted a world-altering event like Covid. But the sacrifices they demand are not easy to accept, which is why hopes remain high for what the wizards can achieve — and as Borlaug demonstrated with his development of high-yield wheat from unpromising existing varieties, human ingenuity is formidable. He acknowledged that his techniques had problems, but noted that his opponents never openly admitted that the alternative would have been leaving millions to starve. Was that an acceptable cost to avoiding the Green Revolution?
Yet as Mann notes, Borlaug’s approach had costs as well. Depending on the ingenuity of wizards means having to deal with their hard-to-understand methods, the fact that they can fail and their disdain for the human sides to their solutions. Borlaug simply ignored the unsuitability of his wheat for chapattis. The success of the Green Revolution came in hindsight, but at the time seemed to be as hard to achieve as vaccines are now. And the failure, or inability, of scientists to explain what they could or could not do leads both to unrealistic hopes and lasting distrust. This can be seen in a widespread readiness to believe conspiracy theories and unscientific solutions, which is happening again with Covid. Borlaug deserved his Nobel Prize, but also perhaps some of the opposition that came with it.