The paradox of Norman Borlaug

The father of the Green Revolution is dead. Can his heirs continue to pull off feed-the-world science magic tricks?

Published September 14, 2009 2:28PM (EDT)

An amazing observation from the New York Times obituary of Dr. Norman Borlaug, father of "the green revolution."

By Mr. Toenniessen's calculation, about half the world's population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.

There can be no doubt: Dr. Borlaug's signal contribution: breeding varieties of wheat and rice that could absorb the extra nitrogen provided by chemical fertilizer vastly expanded grain production in Latin America and Asia, saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. It is an astonishing accomplishment, one of the great achievements of science in the twentieth century.

But as we plunge into the 21st century, we must ask ourselves, again and again: Is the Green Revolution sustainable? Borlaug himself noted that "If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species." It is one of modern science's great paradoxes that the population growth that made his breakthroughs such life-savers, also ensured even more population growth. And even putting aside the question of how many human life forms the planet can support, there's also the problem that the production of key components of synthetic fertilizer requires significant fossil fuel consumption. How long can that go on?

Borlaug was scornfully dismissive of any thought that organic agriculture could feed the world's teeming masses. Although his own work involved painstaking breeding of new plant strains the hard old-fashioned way, he was a supporter of genetically modified organisms as the next great step in improving crop yields to keep up with human hunger. Through the miracles of modern science, we can now redesign plants to include capabilities that no amount of back-breaking work crossing strains under the hot Mexican sun could achieve.

But we still don't know the answer to the ultimate question. Will scientists who follow in Borlaug's footsteps continue to innovate our way out of the Malthusian bottleneck, finding ways to increase yields in a world where all the key resources: land, water, fertilizer, are in ever shorter supply? Or will we run into the wall, and learn the really hard way that sustainability is the only long-term answer?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Environment How The World Works