Norman Borlaug & Sustainable Food

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug

He was credited with saving the lives a billion people and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work. He also set agriculture down its current path of massive monocultures, chemical fertilizers, and continuous cultivation of more and more virgin land.

How can one person have such a massive impact on agriculture both for good and for bad?

Today we’re talking about Norman Borlaug, who died seven years ago last week.


Who again?

Norman Borlaug was born on March 25th, 1914 in Iowa. He studied Biology as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota and spent most of his college days wrestling. He later pursued a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, also from the University of Minnesota, and completed it 1942.

What did he do?

In 1944, Borlaug was invited to take a job with the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program in Mexico. This program was a joint effort between the US government and the Mexican government in combination with the Rockefeller foundation. Its goal was to increase wheat yields in Mexico.

Norman went at it, using crossbreeding techniques to study and alter the wheat for more desirable traits – namely increased yield. Over the next 16 years, Borlaug dramatically changed wheat production in Mexico. He created semi-dwarf strains of wheat that had shorter stems and larger heads of grain. When he fed them with nitrogen fertilizer and other chemicals, the amount of wheat he could grow basically exploded. He increased Mexico’s wheat harvest by 600% by 1963. 600%! This was a really big deal.

The Green Revolution

In the 1960s and 1970s, Borlaug turned his attention to India and Pakistan. By introducing his varieties of wheat there (which included rice and maize strains), he increased the number of calories available to people in those countries, thereby increasing Earth's carrying capacity. (Carrying capacity: the number of people that can be supported without destroying the environment). Borlaug is credited with saving millions and millions of lives. More specifically, his work allowed people to live who otherwise would not have had enough food to do so.

This increase in yield around the world was called the Green Revolution and our hero, Norman, was named the movement’s father. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the world food supply.

Later on...

Borlaug continued to work in the field for decades, later teaching and speaking on agriculture and agribusiness. He believed that high yields via intensive cultivation, fertilizers, and pesticides were the way to feed the people of the world. He was essentially the creator of industrial agriculture.

Organic farming, Borlaug said, just couldn’t cut it, it simply didn’t produce enough. He supported GMO technologies believing that farmers had messed with breeding for thousands of years, and should keep doing so. He believed GMOs were the only solution for when the unused arable land around the world runs out.

He passed away in Texas, at the age of 95, in 2009.


Critics of Borlaug say….

Pause: It doesn’t feel right to say “critics of Borlaug.” How can we criticize someone whose research and work saved so many people’s lives? His work was viewed as miraculous!

Yet seeing the effects of his work, there ARE critics. The world’s agricultural systems and its food supply are extremely complex, and Borlaug’s discoveries set us down our current path, with its environmental problems, large biotech ag companies, and injustices.

We've learned A LOT since Borlaug started working and we now know the damages we've caused. Borlaug didn't intend for that to happen, he was very much a product of his time.

So what?

The Green Revolution stood on the pillars of intensive chemical input, monocultures, and big agricultural corporations. It reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, and increased erosion. It gave us our current (broken) food system. It created some problems along with all the life-saving.

In case you haven’t noticed, the problems it created are the exact opposite of the tenets and goals of the sustainable food movement.

Borlaug's work allowed for more yield than ever before and saved so many people, but at what cost? How can we address those problems now from an environmentally sustainable perspective and keep on feeding everyone? 

The answer is: no one knows for sure...yet.


The sustainable food movement is here to stay and is working on answers. A new and different green revolution for the future. Stay tuned, it's going to be exciting.


Based on reading this, what's your opinion about Norman Borlaug?