How unintended consequences unraveled a legendary agricultural achievement


By Erin Blakemore – April 18, 2020 –

In the 1960s and 1970s, a single farm scientist became a public hero, credited with ending famine in much of the developing world. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution, an agricultural method born of the high-yield crops he pioneered, was almost universally lauded.

But were his well-intentioned methods a good deed — or a dangerous trap? “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World,” on PBS’s American Experience series on Tuesday, tells the story of how unintended consequences unraveled a legendary achievement.

It’s easy to understand why Borlaug’s ideas held so much promise: The variety of wheat the scientist created resisted rust, a fungal disease that was responsible for devastating crop epidemics in the developing world. With the help of Borlaug’s hybrid wheat and plentiful water, pesticides and chemical fertilizer, farmers could produce enormous yields in places where crops were once considered untenable.

As starvation in India, Mexico and elsewhere was avoided by plentiful grain, Borlaug’s vision shaped the modern food system. But his achievements left a bitter aftertaste. Borlaug’s methods took a toll on the environment, contributing to groundwater depletion, desertification and soil erosion. Critics blame debt, displacement and ongoing malnutrition in India and elsewhere on a revolution they say was anything but green.

It’s one thing to read about the hunger and desperation that so moved Borlaug, but actually seeing the images of starving people helps you understand why his brand of agricultural capitalism once seem so sensible. But the documentary, directed by Rob Rapley, questions Borlaug’s achievement even as it explains it.

Should governments have bought into Borlaug? Why does hunger persist in a world that produces more than it can consume?

“The Man Who Tried to Feed the World” was in PBS’s lineup long before the coronavirus pushed the American food system into crisis, forcing farmers to get rid of foods they usually sell to the now-struggling restaurant industry and sparking unsettlingly empty shelves in a nation that produces more than it can consume. But the questions it provokes couldn’t have come at a more fitting — or uneasy — moment.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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