Tag Archives: Norman Borlaug

Grist Responds to The Economist

About a month ago, The Economist published an article that essentially read “People who believe in Organic Foods, Fair trade Practices and the Local Food Movements are stupidheads“. In their article, they take several swipes at the ideas of ‘Ethical Shopping’, including citing Norman Bourlaug -

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolutionˮ, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculousˮ because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

Tom Philpott responds to the piece (and Mr. Bourlaug) in his most recent post over at Grist.

Borlaug’s efforts have incited bitter controversy in agricultural and social-policy circles, but you’d never know that from The Economist, which cites him without question to support the notion that conventional farming delivers higher yields than organic. “The more intensively you farm, Mr. Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest,” The Economist states, with an air of “case closed.”

But is chemical-dependent farming really more productive than organic? Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic Inc., debunked that claim in a recent comment on Gristmill. Fromartz points out that chemical farming may churn out more food per acre under ideal conditions, but over the long term — including drought periods — the yield difference dwindles. Moreover, pummeling the soil with chemicals may eventually sap land of any productivity at all. As Fromartz points out, India — which bought Borlaug’s Green Revolution package wholesale, and is often cited as one of the effort’s great successes — is now experiencing a severe soil- and water-depletion crisis.

When the initial Economist article came out, I ignored it for a variety of reasons , but primarily because it was the Christmas Season and I did not wish to engage in a topic which would knock over my Holiday Spirit (a nice rummed egg nog). But now that Mr. Philpott has returned to the discussion, I’d like to add my two pesos.

To me, The Economist’s basic argument is that food choices are an “either/or” proposition. Either traditional “industrial” food is better for society or “organic/fair trade/local” is. And since they’ve shown in the article that those who opt for the latter are spitting in the wind, that leaves “industrial” food as the better option.

Which, as many folks have shown over the past four decades, is a crock. All three of the movements cited in the Economist article seek to right the wrongs inflicted by the industrial food complex. Whether these movements are effective or not isn’t really the point, because if it is found that a process is not working as planned, new options will be tried and implemented. What won’t happen is someone saying “Oh well, Fair Trade doesn’t seem to be working, so let’s go back to the old model”.

What we’re seeing played out in these movements is the idea of food distribution evolution, not that of corporate competition. But it seems that the capitalists in the audience don’t see it that way. What they have either forgotten or chosen to ignore is that there’s a notable percentage of consumers who no longer trust the industrial model. And trust that is lost is almost impossible to regain.

Regardless of what I think, go read Mr. Philpott’s response, as he has better statistics and information to refute some of the specifics of The Economist piece.

tags technorati : Food Politics Organic Food Fair Trade

Who is Norman Borlaug and why you should know his name

We talk a lot about food at this here site. We talk about recipes, politics, corporatism, good taste and not always in the same conversation. But rarely do I touch upon people who’ve actually made a difference in the food world. Emphasis on the word ‘world’.

Let me briefly mention Norman Borlaug. “Who is he?”, you may be asking yourself at the moment. As Penn Jillete (of Penn and Teller) once noted,”When (Norman) won the Nobel Prize in 1970, they said he had saved a billion people. That’s BILLION. ‘BUH!’ That’s Carl Sagan’s billion with a ‘B’. And most of them were of different race from him. Norman is the greatest human being.”

What did he do? He developed a type of genetically engineered scientifically crossbred wheat. Borlaug then introduced this grain, as well as modern agricultural production techniques, to Pakistan, India and Mexico,. The end result of this? He increased their food production from 500-1000 kilograms per Hectacre to 2000, 2500 and 5000 kilograms to each respective country. The Nobel committee was correct — the man has saved billions of lives.

I bring his name up for two reasons -

1. The dude should be a household name. Along the lines of Einstein and Newton.
2. His work is the best example of what science and food can do. When people dismiss Genetically Modified and other scientifically developed food outright, he’s the man I point to in order to refute their charges.

That’s not to say that there are not issues surrounding Genetically Modified food , as there are many. But like anything else, with moderation and proper diligence, these foods add the the benefit of our society. They should not be dismissed for what they can accomplish.

I wanted to put this out into the ether this morning. Thanks!

UPDATE: Touched up a line to better make a point.

Technorati Tags: Food, Genetically Modified food, Norman Borlaug