lunes, abril 05, 2004

My March 25 posting on Nobel laureate and Green Revolution patriarch Norman Borlaug, a man lauded by some and reviled by others, drew a thoughtful response from a reader. He agreed to let me forward his words, but asked not to be identified.


Thank you for the message about Norman Borlaug, and the articles on his connections to biotechnology companies. Nonetheless, I have to take issue with some of the generalizations about Borlaug and his work.

First, like all scientists, Borlaug is a creature of his time. A native Midwesterner, he grew up in the depths of the Great Depression, attended a land-grant school for college, and took from that experience a faith in science and technology as engines for social progress. It was this faith that motivated him to develop his fast-growing strains of wheat, corn, and other cereals. To ignore the historical circumstances that propelled Borlaug's faith, however misplaced, is to turn the man into a simple caricature instead of a complicated historical actor. Moreover, given (George) McGovern and (Jimmy) Carter's commitment to international peace and development, an outgrowth of the era in which they both held political power, it should come as no surprise that they honored Borlaug; his ideology, at least in terms of famine relief and a particular perspective on development, is consistent with theirs.

Second, the evidence is incontrovertible that when Borlaug first introduced his super wheat and other grains to developing nations, such as India and Pakistan, crop yields did increase. Certain strains of his cereal crops are more drought resistant, and are better suited for marginal lands, such as those in western India and Mexico's central highlands. Even critics of Borlaug admit this. And for the short run, Borlaug's crops did help to stem, albeit temporarily, famine and malnutrition in such places as the Indian subcontinent and Latin America.

The question in the long run, of course, is whether the power that Borlaug unleashed is appropriate for developing countries, since his "green revolution" is predicated not on genetically-modified crops alone but ever increasing inputs of water, chemicals, and capital--things that come with significant costs to human communities and the ecosystems they depend upon. On this point, I agree with you, Carmelo.

I grew up with stories about how Borlaug saved lives and saved farms. Since then, I've come to see agronomists like Wes Jackson as my true heroes, but childhood attachments die a hard death.

For another perspective on Borlaug's work, look at Gregg Easterbook "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity," _Atlantic Monthly_ Volume 279, No. 1
(January 1997): 75-82.
I have problems with Easterbook's Pollyanna take
on nature and science, but he does provide a different view on Borlaug's

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