The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug R.I.P.

As you may have heard, Norman Borlaug died over the weekend. He was a seminal figure in the history of the 20th century, and arguably one of the greatest figures in the history of agriculture. His work led to food being available to millions who would have starved to death otherwise.

He was also essentially unknown by the general public. Those few people who knoew of him and espouse allegedly "green" agriculture tended to dispise him because he was an advocate of a wide range of technologies that are controversial amongst the general public including the development of high-yield crops (by both selective breeding and geneitc engineering) and artifical fertilizers.

Now, certainly, the man was not right about everything, and some of the things that he espoused have turned out to arguably not be worth the price or else not really work. However, he also turned out to be right about a good many things - chief among them the fact that favoring low-yielding crops or techniques because of their perceived environmentally-friendly nature will result in starvation amongst the poorest nations. He also understood that the development of high-yield agriculture comes with a price, the loss of biodiversity, and that this loss has potentially severe implications - but so does the resistance to these methods, which will certainly result in starvation amongst the poor of the world.

Endearing him to my anthropologist's heart, Borlaug seemed to understand something very important that is ignored by most people: humans evolved as mobile hunter-gatherers with high rates of infant mortality, regular periods of starvation, low life-expectancies, and high rates of childbirth deaths among women - but when we became farmers, things began to change. Agriculture is no less a technological innovation than is mass transit or electronic communications, and by it's very nature is not necessarilly any more "green" than these other technologies. As with all human technology, we can make agriculture more environmentally friendly, but this comes with a cost in terms of the amount of food available, and we are faced with a dilemma - do we allow people to starve (knowing that, contrary to our social justice impulses, it will be the poorest who do), or do we produce sufficient food knowing that we are likely to do environmental harm in the process? I can respect people going either way, they both address very valid concerns, but we have developed agriculture, the genie has been out of the bottle for 10,000 years, and there is no going "back to nature"...the rhetoric that would have you believe otherwise is either flat-out lies or delusionally optimistic (whether that rhetoric comes from Monsanto or the organic farm down the road).

Borlaug understood this, faced it, and sided with more food for more people. But he was honest about the costs that his position entailed and didn't paint a rose-colored image, and for that reason alone, while I am not sure that I would have taken the same side as him (I'm also not sure that I wouldn't), he is the only major figure in the green vs. industrial agriculture debate for whom I have any respect.

Here's hoping that we see others with his intelligence and integrity. We need them.

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