The backward attacks on Norman Borlaug

Who could possibly think that Borlaug’s ideas for feeding millions were a bad thing? Green activists, that’s who.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

The death of Norman Borlaug on 12 September was widely marked as a sad loss. Borlaug’s development and introduction of high-yielding crop varieties into Mexico, India and Pakistan in the mid-twentieth century helped avert a humanitarian disaster of biblical proportions. Instead of hundreds of millions of people starving, food production in these and other developing countries shot up as a result of his work.

Nobody could complain about that, right? In fact, in amongst the lavish praise for Borlaug there has been an environmentalist critique of his work – and the underlying message is that, somehow, Borlaug helped to make things worse rather than better. It takes some extraordinarily twisted thinking to conclude that the preservation of hundreds of millions of lives could be a bad thing, but green commentators have given it their best shot.

To achieve the best gains in yield, the techniques pioneered by Borlaug require increased use of chemical fertilisers and water. After all, food crops are ultimately miniature factories, converting carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water and a few trace minerals into protein, carbohydrate and oils. And while carbon dioxide is easily captured from the atmosphere by plants, water and nitrogen may not be present in soil in the quantities required to raise yields. Therefore, farmers need to supply these things, one way or another.

Nitrogen can be added to the soil using certain kinds of ‘nitrogen fixing’ plants, like clover, or indirectly through manure produced by cattle that eat said plants. But as organic production yields testify, this kind of nitrogen isn’t as easily used by plants as it is in artificial fertilisers where the nitrogen is in a chemically simpler form. Moreover, land is required to produce organic fertiliser, either by leaving a field ‘fallow’ or by grazing cattle. Artificial fertiliser, on the other hand, is produced by combining nitrogen from the atmosphere with hydrogen from natural gas to produce ammonia. Effectively, an industrial process on a mass scale is used to do the ‘fixing’ of nitrogen that previously had to be done by plants.

Borlaug was blunt on the need for artificial fertiliser. In response to the claims of organic agriculture, he told Reason magazine: ‘Don’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertiliser.’

Water is a thornier issue. At present, many farmers rely on ground water supplies or rivers and streams to irrigate their crops. In some areas, water is being used considerably faster than it is being replaced, raising the question of whether there may soon be a dramatic collapse in production in some parts of the world as the water runs out. Potential solutions include more efficient irrigation that uses less water and the engineering of new crop varieties that require less water to grow.

For environmentalists, all of this ‘meddling’ in nature is a dangerous business. The Guardian‘s Leo Hickman approvingly quotes the Indian campaigner Vandana Shiva, who wrote in 1991 that ‘in perceiving nature’s limits as constraints on productivity that had to be removed, American experts spread ecologically destructive and unsustainable practices worldwide’. Hickman argues that we will have to wait and see on Borlaug’s legacy in the ‘context of overpopulation, peak oil, climate change, water depletion and all the other issues now so inextricably linked to modern farming’. (1)

Perhaps we could ‘wait and see’. Or, as greens are wont to do, we could retreat to earlier forms of food production, the ones that had failed to feed the world in the first place. It would be far better if we continued to adopt Borlaug’s problem-solving approach, recognising that each new innovation brings new problems to be solved, rather than retreat to whatever is deemed to be ‘natural’.

Over at eco-website Grist, food editor Tom Philpott argued that Borlaug’s work was at least partly responsible for Mexico’s agrarian crisis. ‘While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex – including neoliberal trade policy and US crop subsidies – the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialise in one or two commodity crops – say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridised seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation.’ (2)

The trouble is, says Philpott, that ‘when everyone did the same thing and yields spiked, the price farmers received for their crops plunged’. But this is simply typical of capitalist production, which is both creative and destructive in equal measure. Ultimately, rises in productivity, which are a good thing for society as a whole, mean a falling requirement for labour in that specific industry. This process is hardly unique to agriculture. Increasing productivity can lead to short-term impoverishment for some, but long-term improvements in living standards across society.

Philpott also criticises the notion that Mexico and India are now ‘self-sufficient’ in food, pointing out that their agricultural systems require a variety of inputs from elsewhere. But why should Mexico or India need to be self-sufficient in agricultural inputs or food as long as the world produces plenty of both and people can afford to buy them? For example, Britain is largely dependent on American and East Asian companies for semiconductors, but I don’t see anyone demanding that Britain should become self-sufficient in computer chips. The real question is the production and distribution of wealth, not who makes the fertiliser or pesticide. Making use of the most efficient methods of production is greatly preferable to back-breaking labour and shovelling shit.

But these arguments are merely side issues. What greens really hate about Borlaug is the attitude he personifies: that scientific advance, allied to an expanding scale of production and global division of labour, can be more productive than the anti-modern, small-scale, labour-intensive practices that environmentalists prefer. In recent years, Borlaug was a staunch defender of genetically modified (GM) crops, on the basis that they were the best way to pursue the kind of work he had been doing during his own career.

His work put the interests of human beings, not a misplaced worship of Nature, at the centre of society’s efforts. While critics might be right to highlight the many perversities of the market system, they seem to be doing that only in the name of retreating from modern society rather than with an eye for superseding it.

Borlaug didn’t do himself any favours in the eyes of greens. Not only was he a fan of GM crops – he also questioned the idea of catastrophic climate change. ‘I do believe we are in a period where, no question, the temperatures are going up. But is this a part of another one of those (natural) cycles that have brought on glaciers and caused melting of glaciers?’, he said in an interview in 2007. He didn’t claim to know whether temperatures would rise alarmingly in the future, but he was certainly suspicious of some of the claims made about climate change, and he thought global cooling would be far more disastrous than global warming.

When greens have been keen to promote the idea of a ‘scientific consensus’ on the need for action on climate change, the last thing they needed was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist introducing a note of caution. In fact, food writer Graham Harvey even managed to implicate Borlaug in climate change itself, writing in The Times (London): ‘The shift to industrial grain production has added hugely to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.’ (3)

The key to feeding the world is to tackle poverty, not rail against particular crop varieties or modern agricultural systems. If people can afford to purchase food, the means of producing that food will, in all probability, be found. In the meantime, we should be praising Borlaug, both for the work he did himself in enabling people to feed themselves, and for the human-centred, scientific outlook he represented.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons celebrated the life of Norman Borlaug and spiked luanched a debate about the future of food. Alex Avery asked why the media swallowed a toxic Greenpeace study on GM food.Rob Johnston had no beef with cloned meat, while James Panton explained why he wouldn’t go vegeterian. Or read more at spiked issue Food.

(1) Against the grain on Norman Borlaug, Guardian, 15 September 2009

(2) Thoughts on the legacy of Norman Borlaug, Grist, 14 September 2009

(3) The Green Revolution wasn’t green enough, The Times (London),
14 September 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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