Norman Borlaug on the Food Crisis

Here is Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution, from about a decade ago but highly relevant today:

Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent,
Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of
sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies
that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers
and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to
work at the farm level….

I now say that the world has the technology – either available or
well-advanced in the research pipeline – to feed a population of 10 billion
people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will
be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental
movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop
scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective
and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application
of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more
conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those
who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World -and especially those in
sub-Saharan Africa – access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop
protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of
plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their
economic development.

And here is an awesome graph showing how much land has been saved by improved agricultural productivity in the United States. 


i'm suspicious of the way "area used" has decreased so little compared to the increase in "area spared". do we really believe that the "area spared" would have been converted to farming? most of it is likely marginal land that was uneconomical to farm anyway.

dk...did you read the asterisked line at the bottom? He's not talking about specific acres of land (as in, section/township/range..the northern 1/4 of the western quarter of section 23), but rather the amount of land that WOULD have been needed had we stuck with 1938-1940 yields/acre.

So, it's "you're going to have to find this land SOMEWHERE if we keep doing things like this and you want to feed 1988-1990 people"

Just so. If environmentalists really want to make the argument that the novel practices (fossil-fuel based fertilizer, GMO, chemical pesticides, etc.) are incompatible with treating the planet well, their argument becomes one of population control very quickly. (These methods are the only way we have to feed such a huge population).

And rich nations aren't exploding in population anymore, but the developing world still is. Put these facts together and enviro's are beginning to place themselves in a very uncomfortable position.

That is one deceptive graph in that, while speaking of "area spared," it shows colored-in areas under the curves, confusing the two "areas." Since the vertical scale is measured in hectares, there should be no deceptive coloring in of the areas under the two lines that have dimensions of area-years, somewhat meaningless.

Not many people realize: increases in agricultural production were the greatest achievement of the last 50 years.



You are missing the point that "spared" land is a bio-diverse natural habitat. Forests have an essential part in regulating our climate, preserving the water table, purifying the air, providing habitats for animals/birds, preventing soil erosion, preserving biodiversity, etc.

Most people do not have any idea how much the yields have increased over the course of the 20th century. Corn yields in Nebraska now top 210 bushels per acre. Even the best organic is only able to produce about 70 bushels per acre. To produce the same amount with organic farming therefore requires more land.

If you consider that only 2% of the population is engaged in ag, the yields are phenominal. It isn't called the GREEN REVOLUTION for nothing. Norman Borlaug worked for decades transforming conventional methods of cross breeding to create lower growing, disease resistant, high yield wheat. He reasoned that a shorter plant would put more energy into the grain than in leaves and stems. The same approach was applied to rice resulting in high yield rice varieties. Another innovation in corn production was to increase nutrients to improve the dietary nutrition of the world's poorest people. Few of us are aware of any of these innovations in crop breeding.

30% of the world's food supply depends on just 3 crops: wheat, rice and maize (corn). Failure in any of these crops would result in mass starvation of millions(like the potato famine in Ireland during the 19th century). Crop breeding must continually fight the evolution of diseases such as the wheat rust.

A great read is "The Man Who Fed Millions", the biography of Norman Borlaug who was awarded a Nobel prize in 1976 for his tireless efforts to feed the world. It is quite a story of one of the most remarkable men of our time. Mr. Borlaug is now in his 90s and continues to work to try to help people in sub-Saharan Africa.

You are missing the point that "spared" land is a bio-diverse natural habitat.

But you are missing the point that there really is no "spared land."

As is implicit is the book title "The Man Who Fed Millions," with Borlaug's work there were millions who were being fed who were not previously being fed (NOT the same amount being fed on less land).

Also, by growing cheap grain, we make meat more cost effective, and sacrifice our "bio-diverse natural habitat" for factory-farmed chickens and cows.

The advantage of Borlaug's work (and it is a real advantage) is that there is more food and more people can afford to eat. This is a victory for humanity. Trying to retrofit it into a victory for environmentalism, though, is just silly.

The point that Rich and I are making is that the relevant marginal tradeoff is not Bio-diverse habitat vs. Farmed Land. The real tradeoff is of smaller vs. larger populations, less vs more meat eating, or possibly greater diffusion of less advanced technologies to rural developing countries rather than increased perfection of technology in the US. I for one love eating hamburgers and having a larger number of happier, better fed people in the world, so I love Borlaug as much as Cassandra, but I am not suprised that organic vegan environmentalists don't celebrate with me.

And IMHO, this is a problem for almost all technological solutions to environmental problems. Most of the "energy saved" via better MPG and "materials saved" via recycling and more efficient inventory management in the last 30 years are going to better lifestyles and higher GNP, not to lowering the planet's total use of resources.

Why so much discussion of land? Except in a very small number of countries, land is not the limiting factor for agricultural production. In most of the places that desperately need productivity improvements, the limiting factor is cheap-enough access to fresh water for irrigation. Improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides (plus experimental design) are great, but are not doing anything about the water problem.

Peter beat me to it, but I'll say it anyway - there isn't enough water. Also, increasing amounts of fertilizers are required to keep lousy land as productive as it was even when it was first farmed - it loses nutrients and resilience very fast even with modern inputs. Then, of course, there are issues of runoff and other agricultural pollutants. But mostly it's water. There is maybe enough of it, but not in the right places or at the right times, and it will never be economical to get it where it's needed.

If everybody can suppress the environmentalist-bashing reflex for a few minutes, I think there are two important points or questions to cover:

1. There is the possibility that the agricultural techniques of the green revolution will eventually destroy the land it is used on, or at least vastly reduce its output. This, along with such questions as the wisdom of irrigation from fossil water supplies, deserves serious consideration.

2. The entrepreneurial spirit cannot possibly be suppressed more vigorously than the argi-business giants (Monsanto et al) are doing right now, with their pursuit of world-wide enforcement of such patent (forgive the pun) absurdities as the claim that they can patent genes found in pre-existing organisms, the claim that a farmer is liable for patent infringement should some of Monsanto's GM seeds "accidentally" blow off the back of a seed truck and germinate in his field, and so on. Once their patented genes have crossed over into every native variety of a crop, the farmers can no longer save their own seed without violating Monsanto's intellectual property rights; instead they are forced to pay monopoly rents to Monsanto for seed every year. Any libertarian ought to be able to appreciate the absurdity of the intellectual property regime that has taken root in the last few decades.

Does Borlaug discuss water use?

The main issue with crop expansion isn't land use, it's water. We're already using more water than the watertable replenishes in China, India, the US, Pakistan, Africa, and (of course) the Middle East. All the green revolution crops use greater amounts of water than prior versions.

Anything on this collision of irresistable forces and immovable objects?

Norman Borlaug is my hero. I'm sorry I don't have anything more insightful to say, but I wanted to get that out there.

Improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides (plus experimental design) are great, but are not doing anything about the water problem.

Of course they do. They make plants more drout tolarant and increase yeild per water input, they breed plants that are salt tolerant etc.

Perhaps, one of you could name a life form on this planet which does not require water. Of course, a volunteer from the audience would be a treat :)


Anyone familiar with fertilizer understands that N is N and K is K. There is no difference between natural and chemically created fertilizer. The difference is the chemical compound form of Nitrogen or Potassium ie. Ammonium nitrate. Nitrogen comes in various different forms which release nitrogen at different rates. You can get slow release or fast release depending on the molecular source from either chemical or natural source chemical compounds. More fertilizer is used by golf courses and residential consumers in the quest for the perfect lawn than farmers. Grass is afterall the largest of crop grown in North America.

GMO is pretty much limited to soy, canola, corn & wheat. The vast majority of foods we consume are the result of traditional crop breeding. GMO can only breed for 1 characteristic whereas conventional crop breeding can breed for several characteristics at a time. With the use of gene marker testing, genes associated with specific characteristics can be identified in seedlings reducing the time it takes to develop new varieties using traditional cross breeding (ie. you don't have to wait till the plant matures to see if it gets stem rot) lowering costs. The reason for developing new varieties breeding is that diseases such as wheat rust evolve like all life on earth. Biologically, one is trying to provide a biological moving target much like nature does with the process of natural selection.

In tropical climates, there is no winter to kill disease pathogens. It is routine for crops to be wiped out in many countries by disease. The choice between using a GMO and the risk of massive crop failure and starvation should be left to those who are faced with this choice. This argument was raised by the Ministry of Agriculture from Zaire in an interview on BBC World. She mentioned the difficulty of obtaining such technology even when it was proven to be safe due to western environmental activists. Her assertions are consistent with Borlaug's characterization. Dr. Patrick Moore says the same thing.

With all due respect, why should someone have to hand till a field with an adze because you don't like the combustion engine. Seems to be ok for us to use a gas lawnmower, gas weedwacker, electric hedge clipper, leaf blowers, gas barbie, power washer, 3 cars in every driveway, Roundup instead of handweeding, etc. Hey, let me know if you need a hand tracking down a wetstone to sharpen your scythe dull from all that grass cutting.

It's time I went out to my pesticide free garden to hand weed and cut my grass with a push mower, the only one in the neighbourhood.

Cassandra, I'm not really sure what you're on about.

o The investment needed for internal combustion agriculture is akin to the entire income of a sub-Saharan village. That's the reality. No one said they didn't like mechanical advantage. No one asked you to forego mechanical advantage. Tiny investments in irrigation technology are cheap and increase yields remarkably, but where's the investment capital? That's the starting point. The fert is already there with oxen and mouldboard.

o Applying petrochemical N requires an enormous amount of caloric expenditure: to make (Haber process, using NG to create pressure), to deliver (bonding, mixing and encapsulating), shipping, application. This EROEI alone makes industrial ag inefficient wrt inputs - but not wrt economics that ignores inputs and instead privileges only yield. What also happens - esp in corn (hi N req'mt) - is that many farmers overapply and thus dead zones.

o Thank you for explaining expression and selection via sex or genetic engineering; my senior paper as an undergrad was on the ploidy of Rhododendron spp., so I'm familiar. Anyway, clarifying that GMOs do not select for yield increases is important and focuses thought on Monsanto distributing its product, and where, and to whom. I'm also familiar with the pro-argumentation, and in theory I'm all for it, but in reality the lack of testing and gene flow into the environment (Starlink, Chapela's demonization on maize) should give anyone pause. Should there be decent evidence of absence of gene flow (Perry Schmeiser, Andura Smetacek) then I'll be all for it [you forgot the testing issues with hi-altitude potatoes in S America].

o I also am the only one with a push mower, and my garden is a hi-intensity test bed of hi-production in small spaces (~330 sf), chemical-free, so we are close to being kindred spirits. ;o)


D [a long list of letters with hort and ag and env and ecol in there can follow]


Last post was in reference to LZ's post.

I respect that we have reached very different conclusions and that we probably share many interests. I have talked to folks who seem to think that heritage tomatoes are ok despite the fact that they are quite obviously the product of extensive cross breeding but any continued cross breeding is not ok. The explanation was intended for those who do not have your experience in cross breeding.

Can certainly agree that movement of GMO to the environment definitely gives one pause. Like any other decision, it becomes a question of risk and reward. I don't think that the environmental pre-cautionary principle is very realistic. The reality is that we make trade-offs choosing the best outcome based upon the available information. For example, any patient who takes Lipitor balances the risk of muscular problems and the remote possibility of liver damage against the very high risk of arterial schlorosis and heart disease associated with high chlosterol.

I believe we must agree to disagree on this subject. Salut.

I don't really think it's fair to blame environmentalists for the incidentally-extremely-lucrative practice of terminator seeds. Why would Monsanto want farmers to save seed when they can get farmers to buy it from them every year instead? The other side is non-terminator-seed which runs into the problem mentioned above: Monsanto suing everybody in a neighbourhood for patent infringement when seed blows off the back of a truck and gets mixed into the local seed banks.

The Green Revolution was a revolution solely in yield, not in environmental quality, and it came about in a time when "the solution to pollution is dilution." Unfortunately for Borlaug, we know a lot more now than we did then. His 70 years experience in agriculture is only relevant when we're talking about open or unlimited systems, which, until the '70s, everybody thought the world was. Nowadays we are actually running up against some hard environmental limits - we are finding that we can't just boost poor-quality soil because we pollute aquifers when we try; we can't just add mechanical tilling because we cause soil compaction and runoff problems (not to manufacturing mention cost and materials); we can't just plant monocultures, because we get rampant disease; GMOs have problems as discussed above, etc.

On the other hand, environmentally responsible agriculture is likely possible with higher yields, it just takes a lot of site-specific management, lots of local knowledge, and a bunch of time and attention to inputs and soil science. None of these are things that traditional factory farming (a la Borlaug) brings to the mix.

Also, Cassandra, just because we eat more meat doesn't necessarily mean we're healthier. More protein makes us more physically dynamic, but only to a limited degree compared to our increased consumption of meat - and not appreciably compared to other nutritional sources that are available when you take environmental degradation into consideration.

'Back to the 1970s. Jimmy Carter helped to make the people of El Salvador even poorer by insisting on the breakup all the large farms.'

Boy, were the El Salvadorans lucky when Reagan was elected - as the Reagan administration was an excellent source of funds for those attempting to regain the efficiency (well, at least the wealth and accompanying power) of those large farms.

Of course, some of those people were at work even before Reagan became president, though -
'Romero was killed by a shot to the heart by a shotgun on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass at a small chapel near his cathedral following a sermon where he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights.'

And the man working so diligently to restore large land holdings?
'Major Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta (August 23, 1944 – February 20, 1992), a Salvadoran political figure known as Chele (light-skinned man) was a Salvadoran politician and military leader who founded the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which he led from 1980 to 1985, and the leader and main organizer of the infamous “Death Squads† of El Salvador, one of the most dreadful terrorist organizations in the recent history of Latin America, responsible for the torture and killing of thousands of civilians in El Salvador, previous to and during the Salvadoran Civil War (1980 - 1992).'

Pretty interesting choice of examples there - but then, death squads have always been a major part of making sure a nation is not impoverished by redistributing land into small, inefficient farms, like in El Salvador.

Your concern is truly touching - maybe you were in attendance at this event? 'In December 1984 D'Aubuisson visited Washington to attend a dinner held in his honour by a group of US conservative organizations, and to receive an award recognising his "continuing efforts for freedom in the face of communist aggression which is an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere."' Nothing like being involved in the gunning down of a bishop to open doors in DC, and show your compassion for the common folk.

Great discussion, all your comments are incredibly insightful and knoweledgeable. I will write a blog entry on this discussion.

Last week in Brussels, Belgium, Dr. Harald von Witzke of Humboldt University presented a Working Paper entitled † Global agricultural market trends and their impacts on European Union agriculture†. His complete presentation was videod and is available on, under the blog entry: Presentation of report on agricultural trends by Humboldt University.

Thought it might interest you. Cheers.

I also point out Helen's link supports my last two links above, and my unaddressed assertions further upthread. These are the things we are not talking about.

I suggest that continuing the Borlaug approach - 'if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail' - won't help us much more and watching Helen's links will help get us out of our box for some creative thinking on how to address these looming issues.



Not everyone seems to share your views. Gee...I wonder why?

Vague, unfocused assertions and unaddressed points tend to make people suspicious that they are reading Andura Smetacek or anti-Chapela comments on AgBioWorld all over again.

Please clearly state who are you addressing, what is your implication in the italicized, and why you think Moore is a co-founder of Greenpeace.




Comments trashing Borlaug’s life work from all sides just make me angry. Anger does nothing to improve one’s quality of argumentation or logic. My apologies for losing it.

You make many good points. How can anyone argue against small scale irrigation, and micro loans, for example? How can one fail to consider source water protection or the safeguarding of biodiversity from GMO contamination? Who can fail to acknowledge the many small scale solar and wind projects offering promising results despite the challenges posed in accessing many remote communities? How can one not be familiar with the effects of excessive nitrogen in degrading soil structure and contaminating source water? With regard to EROEI, it is certainly a valid consideration but not the only consideration. With regard to capital investment, how can one help but notice the lack of investment. Food independence and disease resistance were Dr. Borlaug’s primary concerns which are no less valid concerns today.

There are many challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa not the least of which are political instability, totalitarianism, government corruption, war, tropical disease, crumbling infracture, and inadequate access to markets.

Perhaps, we can agree that humanity is diminished by the vast scale of misery in sub-Saharan Africa.

Just let the old 'green revolution' go on it's way into the third world and the rest will follow. Nobody seems to notice the correlation between first-world birth-rates and standard of living and compare with the third world. These places are not crappy places to live because they're overpopulated, they're over-populated because they're crappy places to live. Make them less-crappy and maybe the teaming hordes of brown-people will stop having so many of those brown babies Planned Parenthood is so scared of.

But I digress. Most of the examples I've seen here of how 'un-sustainable' modern agriculture is have been of U.S. agriculture. Could it be that perhaps it's not Borlaug's 'Green Revolution' that is at fault, but the massive amounts of coercive and collusive regulation by the U.S. Government and often sponsered by big agribuisness that is to blame? Agriculture does have high capital costs, but the massive funds and subsidies intended to offset that create perverse incentives. Why bother with crop-rotation when you can get 'Guv-ment Muneh' for planting the same thing every year? So what if the top-soil all dries-up and blows away, you can get 'Guv-ment Muneh' for that to.

You wanna know how insane U.S. Federal agriculture policy is? Sugar!

Sugar grows very poorly in North America, but it grows exceptionaly well in central and south America and in the Carribean, all places that could benefit from the economic gains of being able to export their sugar to one of the biggest markets in the world. But they can't, because Federal Agriculture policy in the U.S. has placed prohibitive tarrifs on forign sugar.. to protect Local sugar-farmers... in a place where sugar dosn't grow well. The result? Local sugar costs too much because sugar dosn't grow well here... foreign sugar costs too much because of tariffs to help local sugar growers, who can't sell their sugar here anyway because it costs too much because sugar doesn't grow well here... so, we're stuck with crappy corn-sweeteners in everything. Thank you U.S. Agriculture policy.

Changed nutrition habits can change the food crisis as well.
According to various studies (e.g. check out , 100 million tons of grain are being diverted to make biofuel this year, but over seven times as much (760 million tons) will be used to feed animals to produce meat. Depending on the type of animal, it takes up to, and sometimes more than, 10 plant calories to deliver 1 meat calorie. Meat consumption is therefore by far the biggest waste of grain globally.

Possible ways of future nutrition without livestock are presented at

If yields can be improved, as Norman Borlaug states, well ok, but as you see there are alternative ways, too.

Cassandra wrote "hand till a field with an adze"? That looks a bit like a hoe, so he or she may have confused them, but they aren't the same thing at all.

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Shoudn't we be starting another "Green Revolution" i.e. one that is both environmentally friendly and has substantially better yields than the one started by Norman Borlaug. I think this environmentally-friendly Green Revolution ver 2.0 can easily meet both the demands of rising food needs and biofuels. Environmentally safe GMO s and planned parenthood are both instrumental in easing and even ending our current suffering. We only lack both creativity and political will. And believe me, no one will ever consider the Viktor Bout option as a viable solution.

There are many challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa not the least of which are political instability, totalitarianism, government corruption, war, tropical disease, crumbling infracture, and inadequate access to markets.

IOW: the human condition.

Perhaps, we can agree that humanity is diminished by the vast scale of misery in sub-Saharan Africa.

We can.

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If yields can be improved, as Norman Borlaug states, well ok, but as you see there are alternative ways, too.

It's because the Global Warming hoax is being used to make profits for the Genetic Engineering companies. So now idiots wanna use millions of acres to produce ethanol based fuel?

But we have to also keep in mind our people are going out shopping scared, and buying flour and rice in large amounts, even if they normally don't buy any at all, just because the information of a shortage is known. Doing so only worsens the problem even more.
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