'The Man Who Tried to Feed the World'

Mark Mendlovitz27 Apr, 2020 2 Min Read
Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug was possibly the most significant figure in modern times who remains unknown to the vast majority of people. Unlike others in recent years, he won his Nobel Prize in 1970 for an actual achievement of lasting value, the Green Revolution. He is estimated to have saved on the order of one billion human lives from starvation and malnutrition by massively boosting the crop yields of wheat and other grains through the use of revolutionary scientific agricultural methods.

Even beyond the enormous humanitarian impact of his work, there were important geopolitical implications during the Cold War as well:

The Rockefeller Foundation, working closely with the State Department, understood the potential in Borlaug’s work in Mexico: the Cold War could be won by fighting famine, since ‘no one becomes a Communist on a full belly.’

PBS has released an interesting documentary of his life, The Man Who Tried to Feed the World – subtitled "A Tale of Good Deeds and Unintended Consequences."

In 1966, drought and an exploding population confronted India with the imminent threat of a severe famine that many scientists and intellectuals feared was a harbinger of global catastrophes to come, as the world’s population outstripped its ability to produce food. India turned to Norman Borlaug, an unassuming plant breeder from Iowa whose combination of scientific knowledge and raw determination had made him a legend among a small handful of fellow specialists.

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World recounts the story of the man who would not only solve India’s famine problem, but would go on to lead a “Green Revolution” of worldwide agriculture programs, saving countless lives. He was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work but spent the rest of his life watching his methods and achievements come under increasing fire.

While the film does a very good job of chronicling his magnificent achievements, the minor theme at the end of the film is negative, when it enumerates the “unintended consequences” that Borlaug's revolution created: superfluous peasantry, rapid urbanization, greater demands on resources, and environmental costs. These "costs" are given to be the usage of large quantities of water, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. What it notably fails to recognize is the ecological catastrophe it prevented:

Humans currently use about one third of the Earth’s land surface area for agriculture—about the same amount used in 1960. If farmers didn’t have the modern tools environmentalists so abhor—improved crop varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—we would have had to more than double the world’s cropland over the past six decades to produce the same amount of food we do today. Plowing under another third of the Earth’s surface would have been an ecological catastrophe far worse than anything green activists could imagine.

Finally, the film does a poor job of reminding the viewer of the tremendous suffering Borlaug alleviated. There is also an underlying message that his advancements may have made the world worse by enabling easier population growth. Critic Raj Patel goes so far as to imply Borlaug was unworthy of his Nobel Prize for this reason. The ending is less of a celebration of Borlaug’s life than a foreboding. Still, it does not discolor his Green Revolution, which lives on and thrives.

Mark Mendlovitz is a practicing aerospace engineer and applied mathematician with over thirty years in the industry. His non-professional interests are broad and include a love of politics and history, which germinated in his youth. A Texan by birth and in spirit, he currently resides in Beverly Hills, CA.


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