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    Thoughts About Norm Borlaug On : The 100th Birthday Of "The Man Who Fed The World"
    By Steve Savage | March 25th 2014 12:35 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Norman Borlaug would have been 100 years old today. He has been called "The Man Who Fed The World," and "The Father of The Green Revolution."

    Norm Borlaug was the first plant pathologist to be awarded a Nobel Prize (1970) - for contributions to world peace. For all of use who are fellow plant pathologists, his work has been particularly inspiring.

    It is a good time to look back at how the challenge of feeding the world population was met during Borlaug's career, because we have a similar challenge ahead of us.

    The chart below shows global population from 1950 with a projection to 2100. 

    I've been looking at food production data available from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOSTAT). If we look at the half century since FAO started tracking it in 1960, global population increased by 3.89 billion. Between 2010 and 2060, global population is projected to rise by another 3.04 billion.

    Between 1960 and 2010, production of most crops did manage to keep up with population growth and for many crops there was actually more available per person in 2010 than in 1960.

     Living standards also improved in many parts of the world, which meant that people were able to enjoy that per capita increase. Fertility rates have declined with the education of women combined with improvements in living standards and food security. It is projected that global human population will level off by around 2100 due to these factors.  

    The increase in food production during Borlaug's era was mostly achieved through increased yield on each acre or hectare grown, not from farming more land. That was made possible by agronomic improvements, including the breeding advances that came from the work of Borlaug and many others. In the graph above, the two bottom, green bars show the global crop area in the window 1960-65 (1.09 billion hectares) and 2005-10 (1.45 billion hectares). The increase, shown in the red bar, is 362 million hectares.

    That is an enormous amount of land, but without increased yield, it would have taken nearly 3.1 billion hectares (blue bar) to have provided the amount of food that was available to the world by 2010. That effectively means that the global farming community, and those that aided it with technologies, advice and expertise, "saved" more than 1.6 billion hectares of land from being converted from a natural state into farmland. Realistically, there is not that much land which could ever be farmed. 

    Many of Borlaug's contributions were to the staple food crop - wheat. Wheat is not a single crop, but a collection of many different types of wheat grown for different kinds of food ranging from hearty breads, to pasta, to crackers, to flat breads to soft noodles. By the end of this 50 year window, the world's wheat farmers were producing 2.69 times as much wheat as in 1960.

    However, 97% of that increase (green part of the bar) was enabled by higher yields. Only 10 million more hectares were being grown. That meant that the world could continue to have enough wheat without the need for adding 346 million more wheat hectares.

    That is the legacy of Borlaug and the other participants in the Green Revolution. 

    The story with rice is almost as positive. In 2005-10, humanity had access to 2.9 times as much rice as in 1960-65, and 83% of the increase was attributable to yield with 39 million new hectares added. That meant that there were 187 million hectares which did not need to be added to the rice production base.

    The story behind these higher yields is complex and varies across geographies. 

    The details of how we might continue this sort of progress through 2060 are also complex and will involve new challenges such as climate change. Even so, on this important anniversary it is fitting to look back at the remarkable accomplishments of the past to find inspiration for the challenges of the future. Lets hope that at the 150th anniversary of Norm Borlaug's birth people will once again be able to look back and tell this kind of story.

    A story about humanity continuing to be fed, but without having had to add much if any new farmed land. Even into his 90s, Borlaug continued to be an articulate proponent for letting farmers use the full toolbox of technologies, including biotechnology, to pursue such goals. Now its up to us to continue to make that case. Image of the Norman Borlaug Congressional Medal from Wikimedia Commons. 

    Graphs mine based on FAO and Geohive data. 
    You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com 


    Dr. Borlaug, a founding trustee of The American Council on Science and Health in 1978, remained an active contributor intellectually and spiritually to ACSH until his passing in late 2009, six months after our president and co-founder, Dr. Beth Whelan, and I travelled to Dallas to celebrate his 95th birthday,surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and admirers (all). When he would call us--as he did periodically to inspire and encourage us in the face of pervasive know-nothingism and political "science," it truly made us more resolved to spread the Truth about science-based policy. He is reliably credited with saving the lives of One Billion humans. He can never be replaced, but will never be forgotten, and will remain an inspiration for us and for everyone truly devoted to public health.

    Thanks for the article with the illustrations, lately have been thinking about carrying capacity of lots of infrastructures systems.

    Terence Dodge

    Terence,That sounds interesting.  Arable land is definitely something with a carrying capacity issue.  We really don't want to add much if any more farmed land.  There is some farmed land that would be better converted back to some less intensive use or no use.  There is a lot of farmed land, particularly in the developing world that has been seriously degraded, but which could be restored to productivity and lower environmental risk.  There is a lot of farmed land in places like Sub-Saharan Africa which is under utilized for lack of even basic inputs.  There is a lot of land in places like Europe that is less productive than it might be because of over-regulation or politically-driven limits on what farmers can do.

    Steve Savage