By David L. Brown
Norman Borlaug died yesterday in Dallas, Texas at 95. He was never a celebrity except among the environmentally conscious few, but to us he was a super star. Dr. Borlaug was credited with saving at least a billion and perhaps two billion lives during his lifelong efforts to improve food production through plant breeding and genetics.
Virtually single-handed he created the applied science behind the burst of food production called “The Green Revolution.” During his career he worked on wheat in Mexico and India, rice in China, and other crops in Africa, creating new hybrid varieties to produce significantly more food from the same acres. His work won the Nobel Prize in 1970.
No one can fault Dr. Borlaug, and yet…
Well, not to be a Grinch, but the Green Revolution is like a lot of things — it has its dark side. Yes, millions and even billions of lives were “saved” from famine through its effects. But the world now has more than 6.6 billion people, more than three times as many as when Dr. Borlaug began his work in the 1940s. And the trouble is that the “Green Revolution” was never a solution to the food requirements of a growing population — it was merely a band-aid, a jury-rigged response that has allowed the world population to continue to climb until today our food production system is once again straining to keep up.
Over the last half century or so, thanks in large part to efforts such as those of Dr. Borlaug, modern industrial agriculture has done a wonderful job of keeping up with population growth. But that highly productive system is based on cheap and plentiful resources, and those very resources are beginning to become less plentiful and more costly. We saw what happened last year when oil prices soared to well over $100 per barrel. Food prices followed, doubling in some cases.
Food and oil are joined at the hip. Without cheap and abundant oil, there will be no cheap and abundant food. According to many reliable sources, we have reached the peak of oil production, and thus, we have reached the peak of food production. There may be a few years of ups and downs before this fact settles in, but there seems little doubt that the world has exceeded its capacity to feed its people, and the problem will continue to become worse.
There are many ways in which oil plays such a key role in industrial agriculture. Not only does it power the machines, but it is also the means of mining, extracting, pumping, manufacturing, and transporting materials and equipment to the farm, then carrying food to markets around the world. Oil is the feed stock for chemical processes that produce herbicides, insecticides, and other substances critical for top yields. Higher oil prices create more demand for natural gas, which is the source of nitrogen fertilizer.
Here in the U.S. we cannot easily see how serious this problem really is. To the average American, food costs are a relatively small part of our budgets, around 10-15 percent. But consider the situation in the poorest parts of the world, where many survive on one dollar per day or less. For these unfortunates, the “beneficiaries” of the Green Revolution, most of their scant incomes goes in one way or another to provide them with something to eat. Nearly a billion are undernourished, eating no more than one meal a day if they’re lucky. They’re living on the desperate edge of famine.
And what does it mean for those billion or two billion people at the bottom of this different kind of “food pyramid” when prices go up? Their incomes certainly do not rise accordingly, and if food that once could be obtained on one dollar a day rises to a dollar-fifty, what will become of those who still earn only one dollar? The answer is not an easy one, for their main choices are to sink further into malnutrition, become criminals and steal from others, attempt to immigrate to a place where conditions are better — or to succumb to famine.
There is a well-known principle called the Law of Unintended Consequences, and while some foresaw the bitter end game now beginning to be played out in the world as a result of the burst of agricultural production and resulting explosion of population that it made possible, few actions were taken to prevent the final calamity that was to follow, the calamity that is even now beginning to occur.
For more about this subject, use the search field at upper right to find other essays on food security. You might particularly wish to read “Money Won’t Solve Looming Famine,” posted on June 2, in which I examined the harsh fact that the world simply can no longer afford to feed its billions.
So let us pause for a moment in respect for the memory of Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was a good man, he did great things. One might say that he kept a candle burning against the approaching night. But darkness still gathers, and the candle is sputtering out.