When Norman Borlaug died last month at the age of ninety-five, the Economist called the Norwegian-American plant pathologist the “feeder of the world.”

Borlaug's work dramatically improved wheat production, first in Mexico and then in Asia. It led to the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. In India alone, wheat production rose from 12 million tons in 1965 to 20 million tons in 1970, the year Borlaug won the prize. Unfortunately, his legacy may scarcely outlive him.

Since 1990, worldwide food production has not kept pace with population growth, and even farmers implementing Borlaug's methods (planting single crops reliant on the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides) have seen their yields plateau and diminish. The UN now reports that there will be more starving people this year (individuals who will suffer acute hunger all year long) than ever before: 1.02 billion—one out of six human beings.

What happened? For one thing, population continued to grow. Add to that a lack of political will, logistical and structural failures, and the worldwide economic downturn. As a result, food prices rose significantly compared to people's income. According to the UN, food prices are, on average, 25 percent higher than they were two years ago. Demand and energy costs will keep them there. The situation is aggravated by political instability in parts of the developing world, climate change, greater reliance on food imports, and stagnating wages. It is little wonder there have been food riots in Egypt, India, Haiti, and Latin America.

It is also apparent that the long-term effects of the vaunted neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s have come back to haunt us. The so-called structural adjustments foisted onto developing countries by both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund put a premium on free trade and unfettered markets. But they failed to apply similar restrictions on government-subsidized agriculture in the West. This led to bountiful agribusiness profits but made the developing nations more reliant on imports and subject to sudden price fluctuations. Whereas Africa exported food in the 1960s, today it imports nearly 25 percent of what it consumes.

Perhaps the most succinct diagnosis of the situation was issued by Pope Benedict XVI last summer prior to the G-8 meeting in Aquila, Italy. The problem of food scarcity, wrote Benedict in Caritas in veritate (no. 27), requires long-term solutions that eliminate “the structural causes that give rise to it.” Promoting agricultural development can best be achieved “by investing in rural infrastructure, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development...of the human, natural, and socio-economic resources...available at the local level.” According to Benedict, that is the surest course for guaranteeing sustainability over the long haul. At the G-8 meeting that followed, President Barack Obama convinced other leaders to pledge $20 billion over the next three years for sustainable agriculture in poor countries. The key, both he and the pope argued, is sustainability.

The great leap forward represented by Borlaug's Green Revolution was fleeting. It relied on large-scale farming methods more suitable to Kansas than to Kenya: huge tracts of arable land for single-crop cultivation; intensive fertilizer application; ever increasing use of pesticides; and vast quantities of available water. This approach met with initial success, but the price proved high. In areas like the Punjab (India's bread basket), outlays for seed, fertilizer, and transport soared, and the water table dropped alarmingly—more than two feet per year over the past five years alone. Such “development” was and will remain unsustainable. International aid groups and some governments have come to the same realization. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has spent $1.3 billion on third-world agricultural development, a good portion of it for biotechnology and the production of genetically modified seed. But increasingly the Gates Foundation has sought to provide support for local, sustainable agriculture. It is now encouraging indigenous farmers in Africa and funding a local crop-improvement center at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

The U.S. government, in response to lobbying efforts by groups like Bread for the World, has gotten the message. The George W. Bush administration agreed to spend a portion of U.S. aid on buying local crops and improving in-country infrastructure—a policy the Obama administration has continued. The aim is to promote local agriculture, save vast sums spent on long-distance shipping, maintain and improve biodiversity, conserve land, and slow population displacement.

Norman Borlaug's great project of helping poor nations feed themselves now requires methods different from those Borlaug himself introduced. And it requires good politics as much as it requires good agriculture.

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Published in the 2009-10-09 issue: View Contents
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