What’s more important to a hungry child? Food now, or future environmental worries? I know I’m on sticky ground here, but it would be hypocritical not to ask the question when the world is mourning the death of one person who, literally, helped save millions in the developing world — in our part of it, especially — from hunger.
In his lifetime, Norman Borlaug was hailed as the father of what has come to be known as the Green Revolution that helped nations achieve self-sufficiency in food with bountiful harvests of wheat and rice. But Borlaug was also condemned in equal measure by environmentalists and others for advocating the use of costly chemical fertilisers that affect long-term land fertility and aggravate farmer indebtedness, tampering with nature to develop hybrids, and destroying crop diversity.
I am not saying the critics don’t have a point. But in the early 1960s, their criticisms would have sounded cynical. Borlaug came into the picture when hunger was stalking the world, famines were a constant fear, and India and Pakistan lived on the mercy of PL 480 shipments from the US. People had doubts if India could ever do without food aid. It was Borlaug’s semi-dwarf wheat seeds, developed in Mexico and imported in bulk, that held out the hope that, given proper inputs, those miracle seeds could indeed double, even treble, harvests and people need no longer die of starvation.
As India raced toward self-sufficiency, with valuable contribution from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute under M S Swaminathan, Borlaug’s work led to the development of high-yielding, semi-dwarf rice varieties by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines thus changing the food scene across Asia. Down the years, research has made it possible for farmers to harvest rice earlier than expected, allowing them to grow a second crop. Rice is now less thirsty than it used to be. It’s also more nutritious than before.
One cannot underrate the value of Borlaug’s contribution in promoting peace and stability in the world through food self-sufficiency. If there are problems still, like high input costs, marginalisation and indebtedness of small farmers, land infertility and water shortages, the fault is not his. He found a particular solution to meet a particular situation that fundamentally remains the best solution in regions where arable land hasn’t increased but the population keeps increasing. It is for latter-day scientists, governments and policy-makers to find other complementary solutions to combat or minimise the acknowledged ill-effects of Borlaugian agriculture.
We haven’t done enough for this. An alternative revolution is now brewing the world over in favour of organic farming methods, as opposed to Borlaug’s chemical fertiliser-based approach, but little of practical value has been done to make nature-based farming high-yielding too. Unless this scientific and technological barriers are broken, organic farming will remain only a closet fad. There are simply too many mouths to feed than organic farming can ever hope to handle.
There have been administrative lapses as well. After decades of self-sufficiency, perhaps it’s time to reassess our food needs and the acreage that should be under high-yield cultivation. Perhaps we could free up some of our chemically fertilised land for other more environment-friendly purposes. Perhaps governments now need to adopt policies that would seek to build a bridge between organic and inorganic agriculture.
At the same time, service and subsidy systems should be such as would take care of farmers’ needs and indebtedness in a more positive and humane way and encourage them to think twice before they take their own lives. Every farmer needn’t produce the same thing year after year and loan wavers cannot be a permanent answer.
Borlaug did his job. Let’s do ours. The task is more urgent now that the demand for agricultural land is increasing. We need to add to our towns and cities to accommodate our growing urban population. We need to build new roads, railways and power stations to serve the economy better. We need greater number of big industries to create more jobs. At the same time, we need to grow different kinds of food to suit our changing lifestyles. As fruit and flower exports flourish, we need to devote more land to grow them. All this means we’ll have less land for wheat and rice and will need more land for other burgeoning activities, and without a creative rethink of our agricultural priorities, policies and approaches, we won’t be able to cope.
Thus, Borlaug we can’t do without. In fact, with one-sixth of the world’s population still facing some form or other of hunger, the challenge of the future will be to get even higher yields from shrinking farm acreages. But Borlaug, we certainly can improve upon, through a radical re-planning of agriculture and its management, to make the unintended side effects of his brand of medicine more acceptable.