Did Norman Borlaug, deserve the accolades he received for ushering in the so-called “Green Revolution”? Was his work really responsible for saving millions of lives?
Nick Cullather, in a forthcoming book titled, “The Hungry world. Amercia’s encounter with rural Asia” (Link via Marginal Revolution) cites CIA analysts who attributed the bumper crop not so much to the dwarf variety developed by Borlaug, but to a pronounced shift in the weather, a phenomenon later to be called the El Nino cycle. And also to the fact that Indian farmers had till then not invested their resources on growing wheat, due to large scale imports of wheat from the USA. (Note the cause and the effect. Wheat was not imported because there was shortage or poor yield here. Rather, wheat was not cultivated because imports made local farming unviable)
But, he says, Borlaug did much more than prevent an imaginary catastrophe. In the 1960s, the sub-continent was viewed by the USA as a dangerous place. Separatist movements gained momentum drawing strength from the restlessness of peasants. The Rockefeller and the Ford Foundation, with the help of Borlaug, decided to introduce the dwarf wheat which would require the farmers to use methods that required more precision and a more scientific approach. This would change the attitude of the farmers and favourably impact their relationship with their families, leaders and each other.
In short, the dwarf wheat was a mechanical toy given to a naughty child to keep him engaged, quiet and more obedient. The Americans, ever the custodians of world peace and morality, took it upon themselves to rid the third world of its ‘militant attitude’ and decided to ‘move governments’ using the dwarf wheat variety as a red herring.
Commenting on the book extract, Salil Tripathi lists at least seven inaccuracies and wonders why he should buy the book.
Update 20/09/09: Graham Harvey, author of the book, “The carbon fields. How our countryside can save Britain” points out the unintended consequences of Borlaug’s revolution, in an article published in Times online.
“Borlaug intended his methods to be used for the benefit of people across the planet. Instead they were seized on by industrial countries with the wealth to pay for expensive seeds and fertilisers. Where they were used in developing countries, this often came at the cost of a crippling debt burden.
Today Borlaug’s ideas underpin the global food system. Three quarters of the world’s cultivated land is sown to grain crops and oilseeds. Most are dependent on massive amounts of oil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers, pesticides, diesel fuel and heavy machinery.
Though the Green Revolution has undoubtedly given the world more food, it has brought with it worrying consequences. An investigation into agriculture funded by the World Bank concluded that the benefits have been unevenly distributed. Equally disturbing, the revolution has led to widespread environmental damage that may reduce the planet’s capacity to feed future generations.