April 19, 2004

OTHER THAN SAVING A BILLION PEOPLE?:

Nobel Prize Winner Speaks with Q-C Leaders (Thomas Geyer, April 16, 2004, Quad City Times)

Seeing people rioting over jobs and food and begging for nickels on the streets of Minneapolis to buy bread during The Great Depression deeply affected Cresco, Iowa, native Norman Borlaug. That was in 1933 when he was heading to college at the University of Minnesota. "Being from a rural area, I'd never seen anything like that before," he said Friday night in the Quad-Cities. "People were going hungry. That left a big impression on
me."

It also directed his life in ways he could not have imagined. Instead, for the past 60 years, Borlaug has either been conducting cutting-edge research to produce hardier and more prolific strains of food plants or has led or promoted other researchers and scientists in the production of
those plants. Just as important has been his work in convincing political leaders to bring such agricultural advances to fruition and get them in the field.

His work has taken him from Mexico and Latin America to the Asian and African continents. It was Borlaug who almost single handedly started what is known today as the "Green Revolution," and in the process taught much of the world how to feed itself, beginning with strains of hardy wheat he developed while working in Mexico for the Rockefeller Foundation.

Through his research, he is credited with saving the lives of 1 billion people. For that, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. On top of saving lives, his work has improved the lives of another billion or so people around the world.

His travels to the poorest countries of the world have taught him a very valuable lesson. "Where there is hunger and misery, the seeds of terrorism take root," Borlaug said during a presentation at Deere & Co. headquarters in Moline.

Speaking to about 75 Quad-City business and community leaders, he explained how better agricultural techniques and the prosperity it engendered in places like Vietnam and Cambodia left insurgents in those countries with no recruits. "In Cambodia, we did what the Vietnamese could
not," he said. "We wiped out the Khmer Rouge, a terrorist faction."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 7:03 AM
Comments

As late as the mid-nineties the "green revolution"
and people like Borlaug were still scoffed at
by social scientists who still bought into all
that Population Bomb stuff.

That said, it is likely that water and open
space are probably more important limiting factors
to sustainable population growth. The market
may be able to take care of the water issue, but
it's not going to take care of the land issue.

Posted by: J.H. at April 19, 2004 10:06 AM

The two most affluent places on Earth are Tokyo and Manhattan--space is no limit.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 11:49 AM

Tokyo & Manhattan consume lots of food.

I very much doubt they grow it within their city limits.

Cities require a support system of rural areas and agricultural land to grow their food, and a transporation system to get it to them. The Green Revolution allows the land to grow more food with less labor, but there would still be an upper limit to the size of the cities.

Another factor is that in cities, usually family size is smaller; they won't grow as fast and the food production in rural areas can keep up. Sometimes (as in the West), the birth rate drops below replacement with prosperity and if not for immigration from other (mostly rural and poor) lands, the population would actually shrink over time. (This presents its own long-term changes.)

Posted by: Ken at April 19, 2004 12:58 PM

Ken:

We keep hearing about those limits on food production and keep making more than we can all eat, even without consuming ourselves.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 2:06 PM

First of all, I am NOT a sock puppet for Paul "Population Bomb" Ehrlich. A city cannot grow its own food in isolation, and requires a support system of agricultural land to supply it with such.

Here in the US, I very much doubt we'll ever reach a carrying-capacity limit, since prosperity and industrialization tend to reduce family size and slow population growth (and in some cases -- Europe -- actually reverse it). The main danger is disruption in transportation from the food-growing to the food-consuming areas -- farms-to-cities, First World to Third World. This could be because of nation-wide disaster, war, politics, etc.

(I heard a lot of Survivalist rants back in the Eighties; one that sticks in my mind was that if transportation was completely blocked, within three weeks the most plentiful food source in LA would be human flesh. A lot of these capital-S Survivalists were fantasy role-players who wouldn't admit to it, but still...)

Posted by: Ken at April 19, 2004 6:55 PM

People are biomass--ever seen Soylent Green?

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 7:15 PM

It is not a given that the kinds of increases in yield that Borlaug is associated with can be reproduced.

With rice, most of the gain was from increasing the number of plants per acre. That's maxed out, you cannot increase that number any more.

Another big gain (for wheat and rice) was reducing lodging by shortening the stalks. Again, maxed out.

L. Evans, "Feeding the 10 Billion," is an excellent summary of the difficulties of growing food, very useful for people who think Tokyo is self-sufficient in food.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 19, 2004 10:16 PM

The house Malthusian, praying for it to come true lest Darwin go up in smoke..

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 11:01 PM

Tokyo may not be self-sufficient, but the nation of Japan certainly is. Same here. In fact, the countries that are not are almost exclusively Arab.

Posted by: ratbert at April 19, 2004 11:50 PM

Where did you get the idea that Japan is self-sufficient in food?

Among those that aren't is Britain, which although it has a lot of Arabs, is not an Arab country.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 20, 2004 7:20 PM

Not because they couldn't be but because there's no need to be and particularly no point in a modern society having a lot of food producers.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 7:29 PM

That's nonsense. Japan is only about 2% arable.

And the people need to live where the arable is.

Therefore, if, as you think, they are doomed unless their population grows, they inevitably will eventually pave over all their cropland.

I understand you do not know how food gets produced.

The ultimate crisis of Malthusianism may be pretty far distant, just as the ultimate crisis of petroleum is.

The yield of wheat per hectare is 15 tons in Europe, 6 tons in Kansas, 1 ton in western Asia.

Just getting the Arab world up to the level of Kansas would revolutionize their economies, but getting Kansas up to the level of Europe would revolutionize our economy, too.

There ain't no free lunch.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2004 3:39 PM

They were as much as 80+% self-sufficient even in the 60s then got to rich to farm.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 3:45 PM

Are you just making this up as you go along? Instead of "getting too rich to farm," they skewed their economy to exclude imports (remember the oranges?) and to make it ridiculously profitable to farm.

Among the things that economists like to berate the Japanese for is their inefficient agriculture, too many too small farms, way too much hand labor.

From the standpoint of pure production, the economists may be right, but from the standpoint of being Japanese, they're wrong. There's a little book, "Rice As Self," which gives a good description of how they feel about it.

There are more important things in life than cheap grain. Even you and I probably agree about that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2004 6:04 PM

Harry:

That's boutique farming.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 6:20 PM

You're right about that.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 22, 2004 3:23 PM
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