Sunday, September 20, 2009

Norman Borlaug's Death

Lou Proyect did a nice piece on Borlaug’s legacy.

In January 1975, I was invited to debate Norman Borlaug at Santa Barbara Community College. Because of his fame, it was scheduled for a very large auditorium. For some reason, he did not or could not show up, but participated via some video hookup on a movie screen.

I attacked the Green Revolution on several points: Water equity, pesticides, credit dependency, the Rockefeller interests in seeing greater consumption of petrochemicals, displacement of small farmers, etc.

He was condescending, but because it was California in the 1970s, I think that the majority was with me. But then, as we aging basketball players say, “the older get, the better I was.”


Shag from Brookline said...

But aging basketball players do continue to dribble.

Brenda Rosser said...

On the Cuban 'success'. Agriculture is purported to contribute less than 10 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP) whilst employing about one fifth of the working population. 30% of the nation’s land is used for crop cultivation. One article states that 60% of the food used in Cuba is imported. The government there appears to be attempting to expand the land under cultivation.

On the other hand, India (pursuing industrial agriculture) can't feed itself with 40% of the children underweight and FAO estimating that 61% of the children are malnourished. India ranks 94th in the fight against famine whilst Cuba is among those at the top.

Something doesn't add up. Why would Cuba be ranked so high in its ability to feed its people when it is importing so much of the food it consumes?

Eleanor said...

I was impressed by articles on Cuba's organic and sustainable agriculture, most of which I read several years back, before the island was hit with a series of big hurricanes and worldwide economic collapse. I just did some checking, and Cuba does seem to import a lot of food. Maybe sustainable and organic agriculture is not as the same as agricultural self-sufficiency.

Eleanor said...

On the other hand, National Geographic did a cover article on the Green Revolution in the last year, and it was not especially favorable.

Peter Dorman said...

A massive, complex intervention into human and natural systems like the Green Revolution can't be understood even within a 40-year time frame. It should still be seen as an experiment. It has had some undeniable benefits, but the jury is out on its long run net effect. This is especially true for its reliance on pesticides and irrigation. said...

I do not like Borlaug's political views or connections, but some of his work has and will prove to be useful for humanity over time.


Harry Truman did many things people dislike, and he was very unpopular by the end of his presidency. But nobody accused him of taking orders from anybody. There were people he listened to seriously, but he was the man who said, "if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen," and kept a sign on his desk that said, "the buck stops here," and by all accounts he meant it. He was the modest son of a modest haberdasher, and the only clean politician in the very corrupt Prendergast machine of Independence, Missouri. After he left the White House he returned to his simple house there and did not enrich himself by joining boards of this or that, a house his wife, Bess, occupied until she died at 98 years of age. Harry S Truman may have been one SOB who did some very unwise things, but while he was president, he took orders from nobody and was "clean" to the end of his days.

michael perelman said...

I first wrote about the Green Revolution in Perelman, Michael. 1971. "Second Thoughts on the Green Revolution." The New Republic, v. 165 (17 July): pp. 21-22.

The face of the Green Revolution at the time was Lester Brown, who was at the US Department of Agriculture.

Peter says that we should take the long view. I agree, but almost 40 years ago, I was able to see the problems with the project.

Rockefeller interests were crucial in developing the technology. Borlaug did not need to take orders from them. I suspect that he would not, but they were already on the same page.

The Green Revolution was, in many ways, similar to Primitive Accumulation, throwing people off the land, making them dependent on wages, commodifying the Indian countryside, at a time when India was seen as sympathetic to the USSR.

Lots of ideals coalesced here with very different levels of sincerity -- Cold War Ideology, modernization, elimination of poverty .... There was little evidence of any questioning of the environmental effects. said...


I know you know more about this than I do. However, a quick googling turned up that the GR increased yields per acre by on the order of 50-100% depending on the area and crop. I recognize that these crops require more inputs of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and that in areas they have been introduced, there has been land consolidation and forcing of small peasants off the land. This is not good, but are the organic or other alternatives able to produce the same yields? We have faced rising population in the world. Is your response that we should depopulate along the lines urged by some deep ecologists, or is there a middle way here?

Michael Perelman said...

I wrote that yields were falling, but they certainly have not wiped out all of the gains from the GR.

Shortly after the GR took hold, Westerners first went to look at Chinese ag. They were astounded by the yields, which the Chinese got from multicropping; that is, the yields from one plant might not be that great, but the people growing several different crops at once. At the same time, the tight environmental system with crops and animals tightly packed was ideally suited for the development of new flu viruses.

The people were still poor & certainly could benefit from modern science, but not necessarily the GR science.

There were fantastic failures in the GR, like when the advisers told people in Bangladesh to plant a short stemmed rise that died once the monsoon floods came.

Brenda Rosser said...

I've made a terrible blunder in the statement that I made above: "After all, it's director ordered Truman to drop the atomic bomb."

It's the type of mistake I hoped I would never make, especially on a public forum. A reply too quickly dashed out and a 'cut and paste' that went terribly wrong.

Barkley, thanks for pointing this error out.

I've spent some time this afternoon researching the context of the 1945 decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. 'Jimmy Byrnes' (formal adviser to Truman and an unofficial adviser to Nixon) stands out in great relief.

The impression left on me is that Truman opted out of much of the decision-making process and left too much sway with Byrnes.

Unfortunately the 'The Committee' [The secret high-level group created to examine the problems that could result from the creation of the atomic bomb. ] was marred by the usual 'culprits'. Appointments of at least one member of 'skull and bones', Stimson. A General Electric adviser (Karl Compton Taylor). Other conflicts of interest with other appointees.

How long will people accept the dominance large corporate players in key decision making processes of government? When will it be possible to establish real democratic procedures. I suspect that this won't ever happen in large centralised governmental instituions.

Brenda Rosser said...

"first wrote about the Green Revolution in Perelman, Michael. 1971. "Second Thoughts on the Green Revolution." The New Republic, v. 165 (17 July): pp. 21-22."

Sounds very interesting. Will try to find it.

Barkley Rosser said...

I will at this moment reveal partly why I am such a strange person. I was born in Ithaca. NY, where my father was a math prof. I attended the Cornell nursery school, which my father signed me up for when I was still in my mother's womb, as it was reputdely harder to get into than Cornell itself.

I will only say this at this point. The father of my very oldest friend, who I met at the Cornell nursery school, was the man who oversaw the building of the Los Alamos facility, and who also has been widely reported as having been at the Trinity test at Alamagordo in July 1945, when everyone else was breaking out champagne, said "we have not done a good thing."
So, it happened to be the case that Cornell had the biggest number of people involved seriously in the Manhattan Project in the world living there when I was a small child. Duh, so all the kids I knew when attended the
Cornell nursery school were children of alumni of the Manhatten Project, and some of these are my very oldest friends in my whole life of whom I shall not speak other than to say I maintain personal contact.