Norman Borlaug is my hero—and he’s a hero to a billion of my countrymen here in India as well.
This week, we honor Borlaug’s centenary: He was born on March 25, 1914 in Cresco, Iowa. Before he died 95 years later, in 2009, he became the father of the “Green Revolution,” which transformed agriculture, especially in developing nations. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
I’m old enough to remember what life was like in the 1960s, before India benefitted from the Green Revolution. We had plenty of farmland, and yet we still needed to import a huge amount of food. Sadly, we couldn’t grow enough to feed our own people. A few experts predicted mass starvation.
Then came Borlaug, teaching us how to make the most of modern technology. Our farmers gained access to high-yielding grains and hybridized seeds. We adopted synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, improved our irrigation, and updated our management practices. In a single generation, we moved from primitive to modern.
I am of the strong opinion that the Green Revolution not only drove away hunger but also helped increase the literate population, increased the proportion of healthy people, increased the average life span of Indians, helped us to develop in other sectors too because of higher literacy rates.
Today, in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, our population has more than doubled in size. It now tops 1 billion people. Rapid urbanization has led to the loss of huge amounts of farmland.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster: More mouths to feed and less land for crops. Yet today we’re better at feeding ourselves than ever before.
We haven’t solved all of our problems. Malnutrition remains a deadly scourge. But it’s less of a scourge than it once was.
We owe it all to the Green Revolution. And that means we owe it all to Borlaug. According to one estimate, more than a quarter of the world’s wheat calories derive from Borlaug’s innovations. Some demographers claim that a billion people are alive today because of him.
I always wanted to meet Borlaug but never did. I came close in 2005: He was giving a speech in Chennai, a city not too far from my farm. Unfortunately, I was unwell at the time and missed my chance. Last fall, however, I traveled to the World Food Prize in Des Moines and participated in a panel discussion moderated by Julie Borlaug, his granddaughter. At long last, I was able to pay my respects to the Borlaug family.
This week, we’re discussing Borlaug’s legacy at village meetings and on radio programs across India. Younger Indians must learn how much they owe to this remarkable biologist.
Sometimes I wonder what Borlaug would say today, if he were still with us. Here’s what I think he would tell the farmers of India:
“The Green Revolution helped you achieve self sufficiency. Now you face even bigger tests. Your arable land continues to shrink. Your water resources are depleting. Your population keeps growing. Climate change looms as a threat. Many of your children have abandoned the farm for the city.”
Those are the problems. Then he would describe a solution:
“You must be ready and willing to accept new technologies, striving to grow more food on less land. You have the potential to achieve. I have seen your strength during the Green Revolution.”
He might also have a message for the government of India:
“You cannot rest on your laurels. In agriculture, conditions always change—and you must be ready to change with them. That means you must make wise decisions guided by sound science rather than raw emotion. For the sake of your population, which continues to grow, you must make pragmatic choices that allow farmers to do more.”
The father of the Green Revolution was an early supporter of the Gene Revolution—the movement in agriculture to use the powers of biotechnology to help us grow more food. We’ve already seen the initial benefits of genetic modification, especially in the areas of pest and weed resistance. Soon we’ll see more, as Borlaug’s successors learn how to develop plants that can survive droughts and floods. They’ll also apply what they know to different varieties of food, such as brinjal.
The world may never see another Norman Borlaug, but we can choose to learn the lesson of his heroic life: If farmers and governments are open to new ideas, we will meet the agricultural challenges of our time.
Mr. V Ravichandran owns a 60 acre farm at Poongulam Village in Tamil Nadu, India where he grows rice, sugar cane, cotton and pulses (small grains). Mr. Ravichandran is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network and is the 2013 recipient of the Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award (www.truthabouttrade.org).