The Man Who Tried to Feed the World

By Jeremy Cherfas

Photo credit: WGBH Educational Foundation

A new documentary on PBS tells the story of Norman Borlaug whose work became the foundation for the Green Revolution.  Here Jeremy Cherfas tells us about Borlaug, his life and work, and offers a podcast in which he interviews the film’s director, Rob Rapley. 

One of the things almost everyone says about Norman Borlaug is that nobody knows his name. A new documentary on PBS in the United States may go some way to change that. I do know about Borlaug and the work he did, and I was pleased to be invited to take a look at the film and talk about it with Rob Rapley, the writer and producer, for an episode of my podcast. Spoiler alert: I thought it was a pretty good film and I really enjoyed talking to Rob about it.

The film is called The Man Who Tried To Feed the World, which is a riff on his official biography, The Man Who Fed The World. That distinction – fed vs tried to feed – has riled lots of the people who do know Borlaug’s name. Set that aside for now.

Borlaug was raised on a small farm in Iowa in the early years of the 20th century. It was hard work, essentially subsistence farming in which children pulled far more than their own weight from a very early age. One of the pivotal experiences in Borlaug’s life, as the film makes clear, was when his family got their first tractor. It changed their lives forever. For one thing, it effectively doubled the size of the farm, as they no longer had to grow feed for the horses. And that meant that they could produce a surplus for sale and actually get a little income from their farm. Freed from daylong chores, Borlaug could attend school and, eventually, the University of Minnesota.

After studying biochemistry and forestry he worked briefly for the DuPont corporation and in the early 1940s was tapped to take part in a research programme in Mexico. The United States had a strategic interest in improving the livelihoods of Mexican peasant farmers, so that they wouldn’t cause unrest in the country. The Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation started research to improve maize, the staple crop. But there was also a programme for wheat, and particularly to try and breed varieties that would be resistant to stem rust, a fungal disease that had been laying waste to wheat crops since the time of the Roman Empire.

Wheat was not an important crop for Mexican peasant farmers on the high plateau around Mexico City, but it was important to the President, whose own farm was in the north of the country, where it benefited from a large government-backed irrigation scheme.

Borlaug set to, collecting as many different varieties of wheat as he could from around Mexico and from genebanks in the United States. He was searching for any that were to some extent resistant to stem rust. The film makes it clear what a long shot this was, and how much sheer, dogged persistence the job required. Out of about a hundred thousand plants, a few survived an attack of stem rust, and they were to become the parents of Borlaug’s breeding programme.

The huge innovation that Borlaug introduced was to grow two crops of wheat a year. Normally one gets a single harvest a year. Borlaug rushed the first seeds that he selected at the research station near Mexico City north to Sonora, where they grew through the winter. The seeds from the crosses he made in Sonora went back south to Mexico City in the spring. And so it went, back and forth, in a process called shuttle breeding that offered two distinct advantages. First, it doubles the speed of plant breeding. More importantly, though this was not appreciated at the time, it accidentally selects for plants that will grow almost anywhere.

Many crops are sensitive to daylength, triggered to produce flowers at specific times of the year, and different varieties flower at different times. Borlaug’s shuttle breeding resulted in varieties that more or less ignored the seasons. A few years later Borlaug crossed his rust-resistant wheats with dwarf varieties from Japan, resulting in plants with a shorter, stiffer stalk that was better able to support the hugely heavier ear of wheat produced by irrigation, rust-resistance and fertiliser.

It is worth noting that Borlaug’s boss, George Harrar, was dead against shuttle breeding. It went completely contrary to one of the fundamental tenets of plant breeding at the time, which was that the breeder should carry out selection in an environment as similar as possible to where the crop would eventually be planted. The film suggests that Borlaug didn’t realise that this was simply not the way one did things.

Harrar also objected because improving wheat would not improve the life of Mexican peasant farmers, the original goal of the programme. In fact, cheaper wheat, brought about by Borlaug’s high-yielding varieties, would probably undermine the sustainability of their tiny farms and drive urbanisation.

Borlaug, however, wanted to increase food production, and small-scale farmers were not the way to do that. It required investments in technology – mechanisation, irrigation and fertilisers – to get the tenfold increase in yields that his varieties promised. Rather than adapting the wheat to the environment in which it would be growing, Borlaug’s varieties required farms to provide an environment adapted to their needs.

The high-yielding, dwarf varieties that Borlaug, and later others, selected were the foundation of the Green Revolution, which was seen very much as a direct challenge to the Red Revolution. The US State Department firmly believed that nobody with a full belly would become a communist. The Green Revolution was launched in India and Pakistan, a similar breeding programme for rice created equal productivity grains in that crop, and without doubt, millions of people who might otherwise have perished in famines, survived.

That’s why Borlaug was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, because there was a very real sense that he had defused the population bomb. Borlaug himself, in his Nobel Speech, made it very plain that he had done no such thing. All he had done was to buy the bomb disposal team perhaps 30 years.

“The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only.”

The people who don’t like this new film say that any criticism of Borlaug or the Green Revolution has to come up with alternatives that would have kept those people alive. As the film makes clear, however, Borlaug simply wasn’t interested in the consequences of his work beyond producing more food. He set out to fight hunger, and he won a respite. Meanwhile, all the people who think that that was enough have done little to make use of the time their hero bought them.

My own feeling is that this new film about Borlaug does a very good job of putting his work into the context of geo-political reality. Borlaug himself never saw the way in which his work was embedded in the real world and would have consequences beyond the farmers’ fields. The film does not detract from his achievements one bit. It does, however, make clear that in the longer term it is possible to see beyond the seemingly unalloyed good of millions saved from starvation.

The PBS documentary, The Man Who Tried to Feed the World, is available here.

Jeremy’s interview with director, Rob Rapley, is available here.