Wheat near Dalby, Western Australia. Photo by Raeallen/flickr
Norman Borlaug improved wheat harvests and kept starvation at bay. As population keeps rising what will the world do for a second act?In the early 1970’s when I was studying agriculture at Oregon State, the name of Norman Borlaug was spoken with great reverence, especially in my cereal grains class, where we learned how Borlaug bred short, stocky wheat plants with big heads that could hold more grain than before. His efforts to improve grain production and stave off starvation in places like Latin America and Asia earned Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize.
Borlaug became known as the father of the “Green Revolution,” a transformation of world grain production that produced better harvests of wheat and rice when irrigation water, nitrogen fertilizers, and weed and insect pesticides were applied to crop fields.
So now Borlaug is gone, but we must continue the hard work of feeding an ever more populous world. World population nears seven billion people, about twice as many as when Borlaug’s Green Revolution began raising grain yields in the 1960s, and it is expected to top nine billion by mid-century.
Rising living standards pressure grain stocks as more people eat meat fed by harvests that otherwise would go to people. We’re also seeing large portions of corn harvests devoted to ethanol as a substitute for gasoline.In late 2008 we saw severe price spikes for cereal grains and food. Supplies and prices of oil and natural gas have become volatile. Many analysts say we have seen the end of cheap oil. The Green Revolution would not have been green had it not been for cheap oil, and inexpensive natural gas used to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Then there are the droughts, floods, and heat waves from climate change beginning to affect farm productivity in food growing regions worldwide. We’re seeing soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and loss of glaciers that feed farm irrigation. Nearly half of the world’s people live in tropical and sub-tropical subsistence agriculture regions, increasingly vulnerable to crop loss as rainfall and temperature patterns are disrupted.
So Borlaug's work must continue with even higher stakes. Just as when Borlaug worked to feed the earth, whether we achieve food security ahead remains a daunting challenge, as National Geographic reported this June in its article Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty.