Food for peace

Print edition : August 24, 2007

The book pays tributes to the work of the man who guided the destiny of the Green Revolution.

IN this inspiring biography of Dr. Norman Borlaug, to whom the world owes a lot, Leon F. Hesser pays glowing tributes to the tireless and dedicated work of an individual against a background of constant pessimism and scaremongering. The book also depicts how modern science and technology rose to the occasion and met a major contemporary challenge faced by humanity.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970 for his contribution to improving agricultural productivity throughout the world, which helped many nations to escape from the grip of famines in the 1960s and 1970s. On this account he was also honoured as the Father of the Green Revolution. A true Gandhian, he had a strong background in agriculture and often remembered his grandfathers words: Look at the soil and the green things; there you will find God.

His background made him conversant with all kinds of agriculture-related activities from tilling, harvesting, plant breeding, animal care and grain handling to storage. After completing his masters degree at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug joined E.I. Dupont de Nemours and Company in 1941 as part of its agro-chemical research team.

Soon after the Second World War, famines broke out in Mexico, the United States, India, China and the Soviet Union. In 1968, the biologist Paul Ehrlich published his famous work, The Population Bomb, in which he prophesied that hund reds of millions of people might starve to death in the coming decades. Borlaugs work helped Mexico become self-sufficient in wheat by the late 1950s; later it enabled several countries of the developing world to forestall mass starvation.

Impressed by Borlaugs capabilities in plant pathology, breeding and agriculture, his mentor and professor at the University of Minnesota, E.C. Stakman, told him that life would be worthwhile if he worked to put bread into hungry bellies in Mexico.

Encouraged by Stakman, Borlaug left Dupont in 1944 to work on a Rockefeller Foundation programme to combat hunger in Mexico. In less than five years his work started yielding results; he could cross the Japanese dwarf wheat with the Mexican variety to give a dwarf Mexican variety which doubled the yield from 4,500 kilograms a hectare.

He also guided the destiny of the Green Revolution in India and Pakistan, upon the invitation of the respective governments. According to Hesser, Pakistan was the first to adopt Borlaugs technique. Soon India followed suit. Borlaugs challenge was more daunting in India than in Pakistan. He was successful in convincing Union Ministers C. Subramaniam, [Minister for Food and Agriculture] who took courageous and historic decisions, and Prof. Ashok Mehta, [Minister of Planning] who pioneered farm-friendly policies on several fronts.

Borlaug always had a fanatical interest in developing new plant varieties, experimenting with them and breeding them in farms. During a meeting with the Minister for Food and Agriculture while visiting India, he sought five years time for the country to be self-sufficient in wheat production. Indeed, this goal was achieved when India became self-sufficient in the production of cereals in 1974.

His association with Ashok Mehta led to a change in Indias fertilizer policy, and to the development of a dynamic programme of increased fertilizer production. During the time, India imported its largest-ever consignment of wheat seeds, which gave birth to a new era of agricultural productivity in its wheat fields. It was Borlaugs Mexican dwarf wheat varieties and their Indian and Pakistani derivatives that were the principal catalysts of the Green Revolution.

Borlaugs Mexican experience identified scarcity of trained people as the basic impediment to improving agriculture in developing countries. Subsequently, a global network of 15 international centres was established for research and training for the benefit of these countries.

Presenting the Nobel World Peace Prize to Borlaug, the Chairperson of the Nobel Committee, Aase Lionaes, observed: Behind the outstanding results in the sphere of wheat research of which the dry statistics speak, we sense the presence of a dynamic, indomitable and refreshingly unconventional research scientist.

Norman Borlaug and agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan at the centenary convention of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, in 2005.-RAMESH SHARMA

Norman Borlaug and

In his acceptance speech, Borlaug summarised his philosophy thus: If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace. While winning several laurels for himself, he understood the necessity of organising researchers and scientists who were working to improve agricultural productivity and enhance food production across the world. Thus he founded the World Food Prize in 1987 to be the highest individual honour for truly exceptional and unique achievements in improving the quantity, quality and availability of worlds food supply and its access to all human beings.

His intervention in China gave him utmost satisfaction. Among the countries that adopted his new-generation plants, the most impressive increase in yield and production of cereals was recorded in the Peoples Republic of China. Looking at the Chinese success, he listed out the essential ingredients of enhanced crop productivity: improved crop management practices, better irrigation, use of chemical fertilizers, weed control, and the stimulant provided by economic policies of the government which encourage high-yielding technology and fair prices.

On arguments centred around the safety of organic versus inorganic fertilizers, he was clear in his perception that the plant does not differentiate between mineral fertilizer or decomposing organic matter: nitrogen is absorbed in the same form from decaying organic matter and inorganic mineral sources.

From 1950 to 1992, the worlds grain output rose from 692 million tonnes produced on 1.70 billion acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] of cropland to 1.9 billion tonnes on 1.73 billion acres an extraordinary increase of more than 150 per cent. Still Borlaug does not believe that the Green Revolution is an end in itself. A Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimate says that at the current rate of progress, the poverty reduction target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to halve the number of hungry people in 2000 in 15 years will not be met. At best the number may fall from 842 million today to 600 million by 2015. The impediment is that international development assistance from the developed world as promised (0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, or GDP) is not forthcoming. The U.S. provides only 0.2 per cent towards this end.

Borlaug, now 93, is still struggling against prodigious professional obstacles, including critics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. Even though his work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China and parts of South America to feed their populations, the fight against hunger, the world over, is not over.

Serious efforts at the level of national governments may be needed to increase further the productivity of farmlands and also keep the growth of population at a sustainable level. The imbalance between affluent countries and poor countries in terms of lifestyles and the size of military spending worries Borlaug who advocates more funding for agricultural research and education.

To meet the food demands in 2025, the world food production is to increase by 57 per cent from what was achieved in 1990. According to Borlaug, 70 to 80 per cent of the above increase is to come from land currently under cultivation in the former Soviet Union, South-East Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, where large yield gaps exist.

The present mode of land utilisation leaves little scope for increasing cropping area in South and East Asia. Essentially, the crop productivity of small landholdings also needs to be increased.

Borlaugs work enabled several countries of the developing world to forestall mass starvation and become self-sufficient in foodgrain.-SANDEEP SHARMA/AP

Borlaugs work enabled

Borlaug continues to research and teach at Texas A&M University and in Mexico. Recently he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the civilian version of the Congressional Medal of Honour. He is also a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico and president of a Japanese foundation working to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

Hesser has had five decades of intimate association with Borlaug. The book speaks of the transition of several nations living in poverty to ones producing abundant crops thanks to the high-yielding grain.

Borlaug has had an inclination to experiment and adopt all that was new in science and technology. As regards current developments in plant biotechnology, he holds the view that Mother Nature has been creating transgenetic plants for eons and responsible biotechnology is not the enemy of mankind, but starvation is.

The title of the book, according to Hesser, suggested by author Illihia Gionson, is apt. Indeed, Borlaug is the annadaata (food-giver in Sanskrit) to millions across the world. The narration is excellent. To policy planners in gover nments, the book is a guide to learn from past experiences in combating world hunger and frame future policies to make food available to all citizens at affordable cost.

The volume is laid out in 17 chapters with a foreword by Jimmy Carter, carries a list of awards received by Borlaug and an extensive bibliography, and is well-indexed.

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