Norman Borlaug passed away some 10 days back. Ever since he passed away, a number of newspapers globally have published obituries and explained his contribution to agriculture. I too was flooded with requests to write about him or to talk about his role in Indian agriculture. Although I happen to be on the 'other side' (as some would say) as far as farming and agriculture is concerned, I still thought it would be helpful if I could share with readers my reminiscences with him. It will atleast help to put a lot many things in right perspective.
After getting Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug stature had grown and he used it deftly to influence governments. I sometimes wonder what a great difference he would have made to the future of world agriculture if he would have been receptive to ideas of long-term sustainability, and actually seen the difference that sustainable farming practices made to Earth's climate. Much of the problem of climate change can be easily ascribed to the chemical farming practices that were pushed all over. Agricultural scientists should be held accountable for adding on significantly to greenhouse emissions. In fact, they haven't learnt any lesson from the debacle of Green Revolution. In addition to the 'chemical treadmill', they are now promoting 'biological treadmill' with impunity, again in the garb of producing more food for humanity.
Whether farm scientists accept it or not, the fact remains that farmer suicides and the terrible agrarian crisis that prevails in India is the result of the failure of Green Revolution.
Anyway, here is the article
It was the discovery of a stocky Japanese wheat variety Norin-10 that the US military advisor, Dr DC Salmon, sent back home in the early 1960s that changed the face of global agriculture. This was the only known semi-dwarf traditional wheat strain that Dr Norman Borlaug had been keenly looking for. Crossed with the rust-resistant varieties that Borlaug had developed in Mexico, the world got the miracle improved varieties that made history.
These plants responded to the application of chemical fertilisers and produced a bountiful grain harvest. The yields multiplied under favourable conditions and Borlaug knew that the best place to apply the new technology was India, with the largest population of hungry in the world. "I tried my best to convince Indian politicians about the utility of these semi-dwarf varieties in fighting hunger, but they were not interested," he told me.
Agricultural scientists, by and large, were convinced. "When I didn't see much headway being made, I played the political card knowing the political rivalry between India and Pakistan. I told India that if you don't want these varieties, I will give them instead to Pakistan." Whether because of Borlaug's political astuteness or domestic necessity, India imported 18,000 tonnes of seed of the semi-dwarf wheat in 1966. The rest is history. India emerged out of 'ship-to-mouth' existence.
[The next year, Pakistan imported 47,000 tonnes of wheat seed from Mexico]
For several years after the Green Revolution was launched, I had the pleasure of accompanying this simple, dedicated scientist on his annual visits to Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. He was always keen to visit farmers. One, a farmer-host pointed out: "The three major inputs for raising wheat yields are: farmers, improved seed and Borlaug."
I asked him once: "What is your biggest achievement? What you would like to be remembered for?" I thought he would say his contribution to plant sciences and fighting global hunger. But he replied: "As someone who introduced baseball in Mexico." When I burst out laughing, he gave me a detailed account of the hours he spent playing and promoting baseball.
The Green Revolution subsequently spread to parts of Asia and Latin America and enabled a number of developing countries to emerge out of the hunger trap. Agricultural scientists globally promoted the technology -- cultivating water-guzzling high-yielding varieties of wheat (the same technology was subsequently applied in rice), application of chemical fertilisers, and pesticides -- and were never able to understand the opposition from environmentalists.
Such was their blind faith in Borlaug's technology that agricultural scientists refused to see the flipside which was clearly evident through the deterioration of plant ecology and the destruction to the environment. Several years after Rachel Carlson published her historic work The Silent Spring, I asked Borlaug whether he had read it: "She is an evil force," he reacted angrily, adding: "These are the people who do not want to eradicate hunger." I didn't agree with him, and asked him why agricultural scientists can't accept that chemical pesticides kill. "You too, Sharma," he quipped, and then replied: "Remember, pesticides are like medicines. They have to be applied carefully and safely."
Borlaug remained steadfast all through on the role of chemical fertiliser and pesticides. When the Third World Academy in Italy presented a paper on how Brazil had achieved remarkable crop yields in soybean and sugarcane without applying chemical nitrogen, he didn't agree. It was only after he travelled to Brazil and saw for himself the crop yields that he at least acknowledged the reality. Initially he even rejected biotechnology as a "waste of time".
He would often tell me that if India had not followed the Green Revolution technology, the country would have had to bring an additional 58 million hectares under cultivation to produce the same quantity of food that was being produced by the high-yielding wheat. My argument to this was that although the country saved 58 million hectares, 40 years after Green Revolution close to 120 million hectares face varying degrees of degradation. Borlaug never pardoned me for espousing the cause of long-term sustainability in agriculture. In fact, knowingly or unknowingly he did support the cause of corporate control of agriculture.
Although the Green Revolution bypassed small farmers, Borlaug knew and appreciated the role farmers played. "Be warned, Sharma," he told me during a visit to Pantnagar University in Uttarakhand: "When people stop talking about farmers, when people fail to recognise their role in feeding the country, be sure there is something terribly wrong happening in agriculture." These prophetic words hold true today. In India, it no longer hurts when farmers commit suicide or quit agriculture. Farmers have disappeared from the economic radar screen of the country. This is a clear pointer to the terrible agrarian crisis that prevails.