Sunday, April 20, 2008

Norman Borlaug just turned 94 — and is still going strong. If “invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Norman Borlaug has lived Thomas Edison’s maxim to the fullest — sweltering in corn and wheat fields of Africa, India, Mexico and Pakistan. At 94, the “Father of the Green Revolution” is still “an Energizer Bunny,” says his daughter Jeanie.

When the Nobel Committee awarded him the 1970 Peace Prize, it said his work had saved a billion lives. Mr. Borlaug simply observed that “you can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” He later won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. No wonder.

While neo-Malthusians were predicting mass famine, Mr. Borlaug used Rockefeller Foundation grants to create sturdy “dwarf” wheat varieties resistant to destructive “rust” fungi, put less energy into growing leaves and stalks, and thus had higher yields. He also taught modern farming methods to Third World farmers and persuaded governments to lift price controls and permit the use of chemical fertilizers, thereby generating unprecedented harvests.

Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat by 1960, India and Pakistan soon did likewise, and Mr. Borlaug next helped China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries achieve great success with wheat, corn and rice. In 1985, he began working with former President Jimmy Carter to bring a Green Revolution to Sub-Saharan Africa, emphasizing hybrids, biotechnology and intensive modern farming methods.

Unfortunately, their progress may be undermined by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and his misleadingly named Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Mr. Annan says biotech crops are unsafe, untested and likely to enslave poor farmers to mega-corporations and expensive seeds. He wants to battle Africa’s chronic poverty and malnutrition with “traditional seeds” and methods.

Mr. Borlaug fears that would be a devastating failure, especially if the world relies more on biofuels. “Our planet has 6.5 billion people,” he notes. “If we use only organic fertilizers and methods on existing farmland, we can only feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2.5 billion people volunteering to disappear.”

To feed everyone with organic and traditional farming, we would have to plow millions of acres of forests and other wildlife habitat, he calculates. If, instead, we continue to use commercial fertilizer and hybrids, and have strong public support for both genetic engineering (GE) and traditional research, “the Earth can provide sufficient food for 10 billion people.”

Producing 7 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007 required corn grown on an area the size of Indiana — plus vast amounts of water, insecticides, fertilizers and petroleum. It’s a primary reason World Food Program operating costs rose 40 percent since June 2007, forcing the WFP to ration food aid, and millions to go to bed hungry. That is unsustainable — morally, economically and ecologically.

Biotech crops have higher yields; provide enhanced nutrition; are more resistant to insects, fungi and disease; and require less water and insecticide. New varieties are being developed that grow better in drought and flood conditions, and even supply vaccines. They are more stringently regulated and tested than any other crops — unnecessarily so, say many scientists.

Americans have eaten well more than a trillion servings of food containing genetically engineered ingredients, without a single instance of harm to people or habitats, notes former FDA biotech director Henry Miller — whereas organic spinach sickened and killed a number of people in 2007.

Biotechnology actually frees poor farmers from the shackles of nature’s destructive forces. They pay more for seeds, but less for insecticides and water, get higher yields and make more money.

“The old plants would be destroyed by insects, but not the new biotech plants,” says South Africa’s Elizabeth Ajele. “With the profits I get from the new Bt maize [corn], I can grow onions, spinach and tomatoes, and sell them for extra money to buy fertilizer.” Adds Richard Sithole: “With the old maize, I got 100 bags from my 15 hectares. With Bt maize I get 1,000.”

“The new Bt cotton means I only spray two times, instead of six,” Thandi Myeni comments. “At the end of the day, we know the crop won’t be destroyed and we will have a harvest and money.”

His accomplishments have made Norman Borlaug a household name in parts of Africa, though not in America, partly because he did most of his work overseas. But it also reflects the fact his favorable views on chemical fertilizers and biotechnology put him at odds with environmentalists and journalists who don’t share his perspectives on these issues.

Leon Hesser’s fascinating and inspiring account of Mr. Borlaug’s life and successes may finally bring him the fame he deserves. “The Man Who Fed the World” shows how one person can change the world. Now out in paperback, the book will ensure that Norman Borlaug’s incredible legacy will live on — as will the billion-plus people whose lives he saved.

Paul Driessen is senior policy adviser for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and author of “Eco-Imperialism — Green Power / Black Death.”

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