17 September 2009

Defusing the Population Bomb

At the risk of turning this into "Norman Borlaug Week," I wanted to pass along an excellent piece from Gregg Easterbrook about the father of the green revolution.

He gives a nice review of Borlaug's accomplishments, and the significance of his work. This datum in particular is startling:

Green Revolution techniques caused both reliable harvests, and spectacular output. From the Civil War through the Dust Bowl, the typical American farm produced about 24 bushels of corn per acre; by 2006, the figure was about 155 bushels per acre.

Making a similar point as my original post about Borlaug, Easterbrook observes:

Paul Ehrlich gained celebrity for his 1968 book "The Population Bomb," in which he claimed that global starvation was inevitable for the 1970s and it was "a fantasy" that India would "ever" feed itself. Instead, within three years of Borlaug's arrival, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; within six years, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.

But Easterbrook's most important --- and insightful --- observations might be these:

After his triumph in India and Pakistan and his Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug turned to raising crop yields in other poor nations especially in Africa, the one place in the world where population is rising faster than farm production and the last outpost of subsistence agriculture. At that point, Borlaug became the target of critics who denounced him because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was "inappropriate" for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists "have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things."

Environmentalist criticism of Borlaug and his work was puzzling on two fronts. First, absent high-yield agriculture, the world would by now be deforested. The 1950 global grain output of 692 million tons and the 2006 output of 2.3 billion tons came from about the same number of acres three times as much food using little additional land.

"Without high-yield agriculture," Borlaug said, "increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion." Environmentalist criticism was doubly puzzling because in almost every developing nation where high-yield agriculture has been introduced, population growth has slowed as education becomes more important to family success than muscle power.

Go read the whole thing.

1 comment:

Zach said...

There is a different (and highly skeptical) take on Dr. Borlaug's legacy here: http://hnn.us/articles/116855.html

It's worth reading as a counterpoint to the hagiographies.

"[I]n the spring of 1968, India and Pakistan reaped the largest wheat harvests on record. After two drought years, the sudden abundance caught officials off guard. They commandeered school buildings and theaters to hold the overflow, but it was not enough. Thousands of bushels, piled on roads and railway sidings, rotted for lack of storage. Nonetheless, the governments of Indira Gandhi and Ayub Kahn—along with the Rockefeller Foundation—claimed credit, attributing the turnaround to rural revitalization programs emphasizing fertilizer, irrigation, and new dwarf strains of wheat developed by Borlaug.

Trusting both the forecasts and the press releases, the Norwegian parliament awarded Borlaug the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for lifting the “menace of doomsday hanging over us.” There were other explanations for what had happened on the Punjabi plains. Central Intelligence Agency analysts were deeply skeptical of “the so-called green revolution.” Noting that too few acres were planted in the new wheats to account for the statistical gains, and that China, without dwarf varieties, had also seen a major turnaround, they chalked up the bumper crop to a pronounced shift in the weather, a phenomenon later known as the El Nino cycle."

The entire article is worth reading.