The man who fed India and Pakistan now turns to Africa

Interview / Dr. Norman Borlaug

Dr. Norman Borlaug has likely saved more lives than any person alive. The native Iowan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, largely for helping India and Pakistan avert large-scale famine that threatened both nations in the 1960s.

His work on high-yield agriculture, which produces smaller more nutritious grains, soon spread to Asia and much of the third world.

Borlaug recently spoke to the Monitor about his career and current world hunger issues.

Why are there still food shortages in India and Pakistan?

India has tons of grain in storage, yet you see people that need more food. They don't have enough purchasing power because of underemployment. They can't afford to buy enough to exist on.

How can the government help?

You must sell governments on the idea of change, so they not only take on new agricultural practices, but change their economic policy. They can't just import new agricultural practices. They must have fertilizer available at the village level. They have to have credit available for the little farmer to buy fertilizer.

Do you support bioengineering of agriclutural products?

It's simply a continuum of genetics and plant breeding that we were doing in the 1940s. The only difference is we can now reach out across new borders. We can grab a gene from a bug and splice it into a plant's genetic makeup. You cannot turn off research like a water faucet. This is what most people don't understand. You need it to expand food production on a sustainable basis.

What do you mean by sustainable?

When I was born 87 years ago, the world population was 1.6 billion people. Today, we're close to 6.2 billion, and we're adding 85 million more a year. If we didn't continue to expand and improve the yield with new technology, we would have to increase production by calling up marginal lands, cutting down forests, destroying wildlife habitat. Here in the US, if we tried to produce the harvest of 1999 with the technology of 1940, we would have had to cultivate 470 million more acres of land.

Are organic agriculture practices wise?

You cannot grow enough food organically to feed 6 billion people. We wouldn't be able, on a sustainable basis, to provide for more than 4 billion people a year. I don't see 2 billion people volunteering to disappear. If you tried to produce nitrogen for fertilzer naturally, it would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure.

What do you think about concerns regarding the overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizer?

I think they are grossly overexagerated. So-called natural foods go into many natural food stores. But these products don't go through the right testing by the Food and Drug Administration. They are exempt. Many of them have toxic substances. They aren't truly natural. There is never zero risk in the biological world.

What are the challenges of your work in Africa?

Unlike in Asia and India and Pakistan, in Africa, all the railroads were built directly to the mines. The raw materials the colonial powers wanted were minerals. In India and Pakistan, the railroads were right where we wanted them, because Britain wanted fiber and cotton and other agricultural products. It's a question of infrastructure.

Why did you come to Africa so late in your career?

We didn't have the research done on the right crop species. The two most important crops in Asia and Eastern Europe and North Africa are wheat and rice. Most of our original tests in Mexico were done with these in mind. Corn hadn't been tested widely and wasn't ready for distribution. We didn't fully realize how important corn was as a basic food in Africa. It's the most basic food in all Sub-Saharan countries, except for South Africa. Now, the push is on. We can see big changes in production in small test plots in a number of countries.

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