Norman Borlaug, Nobel-winning father of the Green Revolution, died a few days ago at 95. The Atlantic once estimated that his efforts to raise crop yields saved 1 billion people from starvation. From the 1970s on, he took the politically incorrect view that environmentalists hampered food production by indiscriminately attacking the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In accepting the Nobel, he said adequate food is "the first component of social justice. ... Otherwise there will be no peace." Reason magazine interviewed Borlaug in 2000. Here are excerpts:
What are some problems you see in Africa?
Borlaug: Supplying food to sub-Saharan African countries is made very complex because of a lack of infrastructure. The lack of roads is one of the biggest obstacles to development. Once there's a road and some vehicles moving along it, then you can build schools near a road. The lack of roads in Africa greatly hinders agriculture, education and development.
Environmental activists often oppose road building. They say such roads will lead to the destruction of the rain forests or other wildernesses.
Borlaug: These extremists who are living in great affluence ... are saying that poor people shouldn't have roads. I would like to see them not just go out in the bush backpacking for a week but be forced to spend the rest of their lives out there and have their children raised out there. Let's see whether they'd have the same point of view then.
What is the future of biotechnology in agriculture?
Borlaug: Biotechnology will help us do things that we couldn't do before, and do it in a more precise and safe way. Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods that are being used with genetic engineering. However, I believe that we have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance of biotechnology to the general public.
A lot of activists say it's wrong to cross genetic barriers between species. Agree?
Borlaug: No. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has crossed species barriers, and sometimes nature crosses barriers between genera - that is, between unrelated groups of species. Take the case of wheat. It is the result of a natural cross made by Mother Nature long before there was scientific man.
What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.
Borlaug: That's ridiculous. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have - the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues - and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. Plants can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.
Would you say the Green Revolution was a success?
Borlaug: Yes, but it's a never-ending job. If you look at the data, there are probably 800 million people who are undernourished in the world. So there's still a lot of work to do.