The Borlaug legacy: The frequent hyperlink between farmers’ protests in Punjab and stubble burning

What hyperlinks farmers’ protests in Punjab, air pollution from stubble burning and, a lot much less critically, unjust GST charges on Malabar parottas? The hyperlink is Norman Borlaug who received the Nobel Prize for Peace 50 years in the past for his work on wheat that began the Green Revolution.

This yr’s award to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) made no point out of Borlaug’s prize in 1970, however appears apparently timed to recall his lengthy battle towards world starvation. But the place the WFP is usually admired — even critics of the UN admit it really works properly and has tried to right earlier issues, for instance, doing extra native sourcing — the identical can’t be stated concerning the Green Revolution.

The Punjab protests, for instance, stem from farmers’ emotions that grain surpluses will result in falling returns if they’re left to the mercy of the markets. But these surpluses wouldn’t exist with out the high-yield wheat developed by Borlaug. One of the important thing traits of those varieties is brief, thicker stems that may maintain up the heavier heads. MS Swaminathan developed rice varieties on the strains of Borlaug’s wheat varieties. But the stubs of those too are tougher to clear after harvesting. So farmers merely burn them.

Norman Borlaug has been praised for serving to feed tens of millions and in addition criticised for making farmers depending on irrigation and fertilisers, resulting in different issues.

Borlaug’s varieties have been developed from Mexican wheat strains meant for leavened bread, which wants excessive gluten. But this isn’t appropriate for unleavened chapatis and other people nonetheless have unhealthy recollections of the powerful rotis it made. Suitable wheat was later developed by Swaminathan, however quite a bit nonetheless had to enter making leavened bread, which was promoted to new shoppers in rice-eating areas like South India. Malabar parottas, whose excessive fats content material compensates for the exhausting wheat, have been one other product made broadly fashionable on this period, therefore the GST Council’s competition that they don’t seem to be important or conventional merchandise which want a decrease tax price.

And this isn’t even relating the primary criticisms of the Green Revolution, corresponding to the way it wanted excessive ranges of fertiliser and irrigation, locking farmers into dependence on such inputs and inflicting lasting environmental harm. The drumbeat of damnation has been saved going steadily by antagonists like Vandana Shiva who accuse it of the whole lot from poisoning our meals to overcrowding cities attributable to poorer peasants pushed from their land by richer farmers who benefitted unfairly from Borlaug’s seeds. Left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn even referred to as him “aside from Kissinger, the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize…”


This is extravagantly unfair to Borlaug, who had extra expertise of the truth of peasant lives than most of his critics. He was born right into a poor Midwestern American farming household, and solely managed faculty by way of scholarships for sports activities (he was a wrestler) and disadvantaged youths. But his fieldwork in central Mexico meant years with folks far poorer than that which was why, whereas he typically averted countering critics, he requested author Charles C Mann if he had “ever been to a place where most of the people weren’t getting enough to eat. Not just poor, but actually hungry all the time.” Mann instructed him he hadn’t been to such a spot. “That’s the point,” he stated. “When I was getting started, you couldn’t avoid them.”

Mann recounts this dialog, from a number of years earlier than Borlaug died in 2009, in his ebook The Wizard and the Prophet, which in all probability offers the fairest method to the Green Revolution debate. Instead of focussing solely on Borlaug, as each hagiographical supporters and damning critics have accomplished, he pairs him with a polar reverse — William Vogt, a pioneering American environmentalist, who warned vehemently concerning the risks of people overloading the sustainable capability of the world. He is the apocalyptic prophet of the title, whereas Borlaug is the wizard, believing within the energy of science to seek out wonderful options.

Mann exhibits how these opposing positions have deep roots, corresponding to “Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether natural law truly is a guide for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the ideal character of citizens. Robert Malthus scoffing at the claims of the radical philosophers William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet…” And the arguments proceed ahead too into Covid instances. Mann’s ebook got here out in 2018, however the identical debates may be seen over whether or not to belief in science to seek out vaccines, after which return to our lives as they have been earlier, or whether or not to just accept the exhausting processes of herd immunity, with the ensuing deaths and, additionally a extra constrained world dwelling alongside the virus, and all different such pure limits to our existence.


As scientists wrestle to discover a vaccine, the argument appears to be shifting in direction of the prophets, who’ve lengthy predicted a world-altering occasion like Covid. But the sacrifices they demand will not be straightforward to just accept, which is why hopes stay excessive for what the wizards can obtain — and as Borlaug demonstrated together with his growth of high-yield wheat from unpromising current varieties, human ingenuity is formidable. He acknowledged that his strategies had issues, however famous that his opponents by no means overtly admitted that the choice would have been leaving tens of millions to starve. Was that an appropriate value to avoiding the Green Revolution?

Yet as Mann notes, Borlaug’s method had prices as properly. Depending on the ingenuity of wizards means having to take care of their hard-to-understand strategies, the truth that they will fail and their disdain for the human sides to their options. Borlaug merely ignored the unsuitability of his wheat for chapattis. The success of the Green Revolution got here in hindsight, however on the time gave the impression to be as exhausting to realize as vaccines are actually. And the failure, or incapability, of scientists to elucidate what they may or couldn’t do leads each to unrealistic hopes and lasting mistrust. This may be seen in a widespread readiness to consider conspiracy theories and unscientific options, which is going on once more with Covid. Borlaug deserved his Nobel Prize, but additionally maybe a number of the opposition that got here with it.

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