Population Matters

Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution, and Population

September 15th, 2009

This weekend Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, passed away. Unfortunately, most people in the United States do not recognize his name or realize the enormous contribution Dr. Borlaug made to the world; he may have saved more lives than any other person in the world with the agricultural revolution he began.

Dr. Borlaug understood Malthusian principals. Malthus saw that food production for most of human history has increased linearly while human population grew exponentially, and if those trends continue you would see a human population no longer able to feed itself. In the face of famine around the world Dr. Borlaug conducted agricultural research to try to increase crop yield. The results were remarkable; the first strain of wheat he worked on produced 10 times as much grain as the original wheat.

This discovery and those that followed, averted global famine and saved millions of lives. But Dr. Borlaug understood that this wasn’t enough to prevent future troubles and explained the problem best in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1970:

It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.

…There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.

We are now approaching what he would describe as an ebb in the tide against global hunger. Dwindling global grain reserves, rising energy prices, increasing water scarcity, climate change, and ever growing population are creating the threat of another global famine, but there is no new Green Revolution in sight.  Yes, we can increase yields in Africa (via a green revolution) and rely more heavily on genetically engineered crops, but demand for food grains is expected to increase by 50% over the next two decades.  Meeting that demand will require another breakthrough equivalent to the Green Revolution, but with little prospect at the moment of such a breakthrough materializing.  Without a new Green Revolution in sight, providing universal access to international family planning is still critically needed.

Kristina Stefanova, USAID

Kristina Stefanova, USAID

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

One Response to “Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution, and Population”

  1. G. D. Kaplan, MD Says:

    It is with great sadness that I learned Noble Laureate Dr. Borlaug has passed away.
    When we presented him our oirginal paper that is now posted in our web site, we criticized the “green revolution” ( he was the torch bearer of this revolution) explaining how increasing food production encouraged population growth at the exense of decimating our planet’s resource, thus precipitating far worse dire consequences.
    In spite of our criticism, he agreed with us, and commented:” I compliment you in this fine article. It is the most comprehensive down to earth article that I have on this complex series of interrelated issues that will affect the future of civilization.”
    I salute him for his greatness.
    G.D. Kaplan, MD, President
    Lifewatch Group

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