Borlaug’s Vision and Impact

Norman Borlaug

Note:  Each week on The Borlaug Blog, the World Food Prize organization posts a blog featuring stories, research, and expert opinions about Norman Borlaug, the amazing agriculturalist who worked to alleviate world hunger. In the entry below, Dr. Marty Matlock looks at Dr. Borlaug’s vision and accomplishments—and he starts with a basic premise. 

 Borlaug’s Vision and Impact by Marty Matlock

Marty Matlock

 In order to know where we are going, we must know where we came from and how we got where we are.

Dr. Norman Borlaug said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” Less than three generations ago there were 2.5 billion people on Earth. Today we have nearly three times that population, at 7.4 billion.

In 1950, an estimated 30 percent of humanity was chronically malnourished, and half of us were food insecure. Today, only 11 percent of humanity is chronically malnourished. Today’s farmers are meeting the nutritional needs of almost 6.6 billion people – two and a half times the total population when Norm started his work. In 1950, global child mortality, death before 5 years of life, was greater than 22 percent. Today it is less than 4 percent.
Norm told me in 1984 that he had “watched the population monster devour his life’s work.” He lived to see that assessment demonstrated to be incorrect. The global average fertility rate, or number of children a woman has in her lifetime, was just over five in 1950. Today it is less than half that rate at 2.45, and is expected to fall to 2.2 by 2050. This generation may be the first in human history to see ZERO POPULATION GROWTH! Freeing humanity from the tyranny of hunger has almost slain the population monster!
To Norm and his colleagues, ending hunger was just the first step in providing humanity with better choices. Prosperity from the land created opportunities for people to improve their lives, and the lives of their children. In 1950, more than 44 percent of the world was illiterate. Today more than 86 percent of us can read and write!
In the United States in 1950, food costs were 20 percent of disposable income; today it is less than 10 percent. A mere 70 years ago less than 10 percent of food was produced with synthetic nitrogen. Today more than 3.5 billion people are fed by synthetic nitrogen – almost half the population.
How did we get here?

Norman Borlaug

Norm, together with M.S. Swaminathan, Jerry Grant, Orville Vogel, and an army of dedicated scientists, educators, and political leaders, advanced the science of modern agricultural production. They worked with local farmers to integrate local knowledge with modern production practices and with local leaders to create finance and market policies that supported local growers. We are continuing that process today. Using science-based indicators, we have advanced sustainable agriculture in the United States with a continuous improvement process across all agricultural sectors.
Field to Market: the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, reports that since 1980 US farmers have made dramatic improvements in yields while reducing inputs and impacts on the environment. Corn and soybean production has more than doubled since 1980, and yield (tons per acre) have increased by more than 60 percent, with only a 33 and 20 percent increase in planted acres, respectively. Cotton production increased by 35 percent with a yield increase of 42 percent, on essentially the same footprint of farmland. We have increased by more than 50 percent the yields of peanuts, potatoes, and rice in the US as well. Our farmers, in partnership with our statewide extension services, Land Grant University and USDA-ARS researchers, are showing the world how to produce safe, nutritious, and sustainable food. They are producing more crops with fewer inputs and less environmental impacts than ever before.

So where are we going?

In spite of these incredible improvements in human conditions, we still have much work to do. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a clear path forward. These 17 goals are our generation’s collective challenges. Ending poverty and hunger and ensuring clean water and sanitation are critical for ensuring good health and well-being. The remaining goals are central to ensuring civil society’s progression towards just, peaceful, and vibrant communities.

Hunger and malnutrition still stalks us, but as Paul Collier reminds us, they are trapped in the bottom billion on the prosperity path. Global poverty is largely responsible for the chronic malnutrition experienced by over 890 million of our brothers and sisters around the world. In the US, more than one in 10 of us are food insecure. Most are children. We must expand opportunities for our poorest, and support the nutritional needs of our children if we are to realize our common potential.
In just three generations we have reduced the number of people who die from waterborne diseases due to poor sanitation by 75 percent. Yet today, 29 percent of us lack safe drinking water supplies, and 61 percent live without sanitation services. More than 2.3 million people will die this year due to preventable waterborne disease. Most of them will be children. 6,000 children die every day from preventable diseases.
   Marty Matlock
Norm taught us that the first freedom is freedom from hunger. The tyranny of hunger creates desperation that feeds despotism. Only 31 percent of humanity lived under democratic rule when Norm and his colleagues began their work. Today, more than half of humanity, 4.1 billion of us, live under some form of democratic rule. Food, water, security, and education are predicates to civil society. These advances in human well-being have not come without costs. Land use transformation, climate change, and environmental pollution threaten Earth with the Sixth Great Extinction. Loss of biodiversity is a global indicator of ecosystem failure, which is an existential threat to humanity. Aldo Leopold, the father of the modern conservation movement, said in the introduction of A Sand County Almanac “These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. “
The Land Grant Universities across the US deserve a great deal of credit in both driving changes to improve the human condition and expanding our understanding of the costs of those changes. These institutions produced the scientists, knowledge, and technologies that have lifted humanity to today’s level of prosperity. The Sustainable Development Goals highlight the importance of our Land Grant Institutions and their partners across the academy, industry, government, and civil society, in bringing to life this vision for the future.
We are on the threshold of the greatest advancements in agricultural and life sciences in human history! The combined advances in biotechnology, sub-field-scale monitoring, big data science, automation across the food supply chain, plant-scale robotics, and integrated systems communications will transform global food systems within this generation. If we learn the lessons of the successes and failures from the Green Revolution, we can reach the aspirational heights of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Everything is connected, everything is changing, and we are all in this together.
By Dr. Marty Matlock–Executive Director, University of Arkansas Resiliency Center  


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