This is Norman Borlaug week, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birthday with the unveiling of a statue commissioned by the state of Iowa standing in the Capital’s statuary hall in Washington, D.C.
Norman Borlaug, Martin Luther King Jr., and Elie Wiesel are the only three Americans to receive the Nobel Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional gold medal.
He is by far the most famous Iowan ever to have made such a contribution to the country and the world, but he is also shared by other states.
While born in Cresco, he did his collegiate work at the University of Minnesota where he received his doctorate and was associated later in life with Texas A&M University and then University president, Robert Gates, who later served as defense secretary to presidents Bush and Obama.
He then went on to found the World Food Prize, headquartered in Des Moines honoring others who have made accomplishments to agriculture. I had the opportunity once to see him there and the luck at a luncheon reception to sit at a table with his sister and other family.
For many of us in agriculture, Borlaug came the closet to being able to walk on water of anyone since the first coming. That is how high we hold him in reverence.
In the 1970s, when many were predicting demographic doom and gloom and the demise of the human race as population growth exhausted food resources, Borlaug made the biotechnological crop advances that not only fed the world, accredited with saving 1 billion lives in undeveloped nations, but produced a cheap, bountiful food supply in his own country.
Borlaug was driven by one life mission, “to feed the hungry,” and few people on earth have ever succeeded in their life accomplishments as much as did he.
He is credited with the development of the “green revolution,” which was a system of advanced crop production practices that generated food productivity that exceeded population growth when many didn’t think that was possible.
That system included hybrid seed (pre-GMO technology), commercial fertilizers and chemical pesticides. He was not opposed to organic farming, but he believed that the world needed all the production that it could produce from all the systems available to feed itself.
He did not believe the tenant of organic production that it was somehow superior or a more sustainable system than conventional agriculture.
Organic production lacks the productivity to feed the world, and therefore is the unsustainable system by comparison to conventional agriculture. He also approved of GMO technology as the means to achieve the genetic crop improvement that he focused on during his work in plant crossbreeding.
He supported science, where many who oppose GMO biotechnology do not. He saw GMO biotechnology as a scientific breakthrough that accelerated the ability to produce the genetic crop improvement that he sweat so hard to produce through variety selection.
He focused on science and the goal and didn’t have a lot of time for politicians, ideologues and fools.
Borlaug didn’t mince words. The CME group quoted him saying in 2008, “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists.
“They have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington and Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they would be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”
Elitists shop at Whole Foods paying twice what they have to pay for safe nutritious food because they have bought the perception that organic is better.
I suppose you cannot blame entrepreneurs for producing what this market wants, but it is not of any benefit to the world.
In fact, it is a detriment to it. When in Times Square there was a billboard on the Disney store promoting organic T-shirts, touting them as environmentally friendly. They intend to profit from the idea that organically grown cotton makes some kind of environmental contribution.
What someone like Borlaug knew that Disney obviously doesn’t, is that organic cotton production productively is so low without use of conventional fertilizer and pesticides that it would take five acres to grow the cotton organically that one acre of conventional cotton would produce.
There are only so many arable acres that can produce food in the world and they would take five of them to produce the cotton that could and should be grown on one acre, paying two to three times as much for the T-shirt.
Only elitists can afford that. Organic systems waste finite productivity.
One of the irreconcilable tenants of organic production is their rejection of GMO seed technology. Genes are organic and Borlaug made his opinion clear that however genetic crop improvement was derived, conventionally or through biotechnology, he supported the result.
He failed to understand the basis for opposition to GMO technology. The European Union’s rejection of GMO biotechnology starves people in the world, because of the reduced productivity in their food production system.
The mission of agriculture as I see it, can be summed up in this statement: “It is the mission of agriculture to produce the most bountiful nutritious wholesome food supply through sustainable food production systems requiring the least amount of consumer disposable income to purchase necessary caloric requirements to support human health, so that more wealth can be invested in science, technology, health, capital, and even the arts for the advancement of the human race.”
Borlaug pursued the mission of agriculture like no other, setting the example for all of us.
I am sorry to say that most Americans do not understand and appreciate the contribution that agriculture has made to the success of this nation.
Agriculture is something taken for granted in a cheap food policy.
Consumers are split between those who think food should never go up in price as they are entitled to cheap food and any time that it does increase, that they are somehow being taken advantage of.
They are unaware that the real price of food globally has declined in contrast to the world population increase because of the productivity of food producers. It has also been a surprise to them that biofuel production did not change the major trend of world food prices.
“Foodies” are those willing to pay premium prices for designer food based on misconceptions, created for commercial gain, that a certain food production system is superior for environmental or health reasons.
Foodies attempt to enlarge their market share by denigrating conventional agriculture, when it is the later which has fed the world and will continue to do so.
That is where agriculture fails today. We have to make its relevance known. Borlaug advanced the cause through his work which continues through the World Food Prize.
World population has increased from 2.5 to 5 billion people in the six decades of my lifetime. It is demographically forecast to increase to 7 billons souls by 2030.
Population growth may be the least of the challenge facing food production.
The wealth creation occurring in developing nations that Borlaug saved from starvation, is now reaching middle class proportions which manifests in increased caloric intake based on larger disposal income.
In 1960, most world consumers earned $1 day. Today, they earn $10 day, and they will spend much of this income improving their diets which boosts food demand by multiples of population growth.
The challenge of food production meeting consumer demand has moved away from what once was a life and death struggle faced by Borlaug to become a quality of life issue, as global consumers have more income they wish to spend on food.
No agriculture in the world is more productive than in the U.S.. Foodies have not destroyed our productivity, yet.
Our resources and our system trumps all, leaving any consumers wishing to find fault to do so with a mouth full of cheap food as we export surpluses to the world that will continue to need them.
David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.
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