Saturday, September 19, 2009

A dwarf variety that caused a giant leap

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.


Dilip Muralidaran said...

Raj, here is what i think after reading the article. Just as much as accurate numbers are not available on how many lives Norman Borlaug saved, the article is totally vague if not for want of me calling it tabloid in nature.

The fact that the world was facing a potential mass starvation is fact no one can deny. To write a book and talk conspiracy theories is easy. Its like this. As much as i hate gandhi for some political reasons, that gives me no right to discredit the father of the nation with the efforts he put in for free-ing india from the british rule. As one of my friends said, this is what we can call "Using the Personality to discredit the Hero" in him.

IR18, Golden Rice, Ponni 1 are all varieties of rice that came out of Norman Borlaug and other indian scientists hard work. Its hard work and dedication that takes to save the world from starving to death. Its hardly any work to discredit the same.

Calling the food crisis an imaginary catastrophe is an illiterates work. Count the number of people & divide it by available agricultural land multiplied by yield per hectare would tell one the clear result.

"Separatist movements from restless peasants?" Is that a nice way of saying "Farmers are barbaric bastards if they are jobless and idle" ??? Why do i smell a rat on this book? How can people dying of starvation be separatists? How come i don't find the name of even one such separatist movement that the US was concerned about in this article. I mean its like saying anything you want to about a dead person cuz he ain't alive to discredit it or prove your lies wrong. Michael Jackson & Norman Borlaug seem to be lovely examples of this trend off late. Sigh!

Raj said...

Dilip, I agree with most of what you say. I have also heard Dr M.S.Swaminathan explain what the Green Revolution was all about, the conditions that prevailed before, and the transformation thereafter. So, I tend to believe that Borlaug's contribution was immense. But, I cited the book for the alternate view it presents. We need to be open-minded while reading it, but can disagree with it, of course

ramesh said...

from all i have read of dr Borlaug, it is apparent that he is truly one of the greatest persons of the century .. of course to think of 'what if..' in retrospect is very very easy .. what he did that time should have been commended with a bharat ratna, but then they go to politicians ..