Famine is once again stalking the land in many parts of the world. In an age of advanced agronomy, this is a grim and heartbreaking irony to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, 60. He is the onetime Iowa farm boy and plant geneticist whose achievement in creating new strains of wheat, corn and rice have increased harvests fourfold—and earned him the title “father of the Green Revolution” as well as the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Though he operates out of a Mexico City research center, where he has lived for the last 30 years, Borlaug is still a U.S. citizen, but, more important, a citizen of the world. Just back from a four-and-a-half-month tour of Africa and the Far East, and on the eve of his departure for China where he is visiting now, Borlaug talked of the world’s food shortage and the population explosion with Curt Davis of PEOPLE.
Two years ago, you said that the world could hold the line in food production for the next 30 years, while hopefully the world population growth could be slowed. Is that still true today?
No, I am no longer that optimistic. From 1947 until mid-1972, the world’s consumption of food seemed to be amazingly stable, and the wheat reserves had a cushioning effect on food prices. But then came the disastrous harvest of 1972, with a drought that swept across the Soviet Union, China and Australia. That precipitated the big purchases of grain by Russia and triggered this horrible inflation. The same summer there were also poor monsoon rains across all south Asia, and the rice crop was bad. Food reserves, which we thought were adequate to meet any situation, simply disappeared overnight.
What other factors indicate famine for many areas of the world this year?
The most important factor is the petroleum crisis that began last October. Petroleum is the principal source of most fertilizers, and the increase in crude oil prices is a disaster for an economy like India’s. If India imports the same amount of crude oil as it did in 1972, it will cost them four-and-a-half times as much—and they simply don’t have that amount of foreign exchange.
What effect, then, will the shortage of fertilizer have this year on India’s wheat crop?
I have just come from there, and it was obvious, although they were reluctant to believe me, that because of the shortage of fertilizer there will be 200 million bushels less than last year, or some 20% less—assuming everything else is favorable.
You have just returned from Africa and Southeast Asia. How bad did you find crop conditions there?
A severe drought has pervaded six or seven countries south of the Sahara for the last three years. The situation there is very serious. But if we have a drought in Southeast Asia, the suffering could be infinitely greater, because of the density of population. With no reserves and fertilizer scarce, if something should now go wrong in Southeast Asia, God help us all!
Won’t the wheat crops from the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world help?
Not necessarily. The whole world is fearful of shortages, and there is a reluctance among individual countries to help out. For instance, I have received reports that the harvest this year in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was not very good. There was winterkill. In the U.S., it has been extremely dry in the Midwest, and we are having a great reduction in the crop estimates.
Then the world will face famine this year? How serious will this be?
I stand by my statement, made at the beginning of this year, that tens of millions of people could die this year from climatic changes and the shortage of fertilizer. The areas most in danger are India, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and the lands south of the Sahara. I am very, very discouraged.
Is it possible to produce high-yielding crop varieties that do not require fertilizer?
No, because 99.9% of the land we use for growing crops has been in use for decades, much of it for centuries and some of it for thousands of years. So, inevitably, we have depleted some of the nutrients. With nature, we do not get something for nothing. We have to replenish the soil.
Can anything be done about the weather?
There’s no question but that weather in a given geographical area is cyclical. There are some now who think that they can predict how these cycles are going to go. I have a feeling that this is an oversimplification. I don’t think that there is a great deal we can do now to modify weather patterns to improve agricultural production.
In view of all this, do you consider the Green Revolution a failure?
The so-called Green Revolution is not a failure. In India, for instance, production of grain increased from 400 million bushels to 1 billion bushels, once the new seed and the new way of cultivating and fertilizing the land was introduced, together with just prices as incentive. India became, after the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A., the third largest producer of wheat in the world. Even Mexico is now exporting 466,000 bushels of wheat to China. That is no small accomplishment.
Then why famine?
You must realize that these improvements in crop production were only a way of buying time until we could face up to the many-headed population monster. Each year there are 76 million more people on this earth. Just to feed the present world would require a highway—built entirely of grain—that goes round the earth at the equator, about 55 feet wide and 6 inches deep. Each year we have to rebuild that highway, plus construct another highway of grain of the same dimensions, at the rate of 625 miles a year just to maintain the status quo in food production, which even now is admitted to be inadequate. The added gram we must have requires bringing under cultivation another 20 million acres each year—but many countries have no more land to put under the plow.
How can we improve harvests?
Our only route is better technology, high-yielding seed, better control of pests, proper fertilizer—and then do a little hoping and praying.
What steps must be taken?
Fertilizer costs money—and it is absolutely necessary. Governments are now willing to spend $220 billion yearly for destructive armaments. It would take only $7 billion to $8 billion to meet the increased needs for fertilizer in the world, and governments should be willing to make that investment.
Experts say that at present the world has only a 27-day reserve of food. What must be done to build up reserves?
I have been hollering about building reserves for two years. I have said that it is not just the responsibility of the food-exporting countries, but the responsibility of all nations. Some would put in pennies; others, like the U.S., would put in dollars. You see, the fear, especially in the U.S. at the present time, is that soon there will be a surplus production, which will depress prices. But it seems to me that if all nations come together we can find some way to finance such a reserve, to take these horrendous gyrations out of supply and prices.
Just what is the role of food in the outlook for world peace and stability?
It is my fundamental belief that it’s the moral right of everyone born into this world to have the basic ingredients for a decent life—adequate food, basic education, medical care, opportunity for employment, housing and clothing. You can’t have peace on an empty belly. And you can’t have tranquility with hunger and poverty. You can’t apply new technology to improve the standard of living if there is unrest and political instability. It should be obvious that the first step toward providing a decent standard of living to all who are born into this world is to slow the increase in human numbers to manageable levels and to stabilize population as soon as feasible. To do nothing and to rely upon the Malthusian principle to stabilize numbers through starvation is immoral.
In 1970 you said, “Beware! It is a quarter to midnight.” Have we gone back to Standard Time and gained an hour, or is it still about to strike 12?
Before we got tangled in this fertilizer/energy crisis, I thought we might even set the clock back a bit. But since so much hinges on what happens to the weather in the next few months, we’re more vulnerable than ever before. By now it’s just about two minutes to midnight.