Learning the Wrong Lessons

Norman Borlaug, Milk Strikes, and the Green Revolution

The notion that hunger is caused by scarcity and that producing more food commodities will solve hunger are, oddly enough, rooted in our agricultural history of overproduction, of surplus not scarcity. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, got it wrong from the start and his stubborn dedication to his own erroneous interpretation of Depression-era hunger still feeds our persistent myths of scarcity.(Excerpted from Eating Tomorrow, pp. 111–114, New Press, 2019)

1933 Wisconsin milk strike.

Africa was certainly reeling from a wide range of challenges in increasing food production and reducing hunger, and as I’d seen in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia the solutions to those problems were consistently blocked or diverted by agribusiness and big agriculture. The notion that technology would allow them to grow the food they needed, and that all the industrial-scale food would feed the hungry, seemed absurd. They weren’t growing much more food, and the hungry weren’t much better fed. The roots of their problems, it seemed to me, were as multinational as the firms that were pushing their way into the continent. Those tangled roots led back to the United States, where we are repeatedly told our highly productive farmers are feeding a hot, hungry, crowded world.

Within the United States, the roots are deep in Iowa, the heart of the U.S. corn belt and the home of Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and founder of the World Food Prize, the self-proclaimed Nobel Prize for agriculture. Since the inaugural prize in 1987, the World Food Prize has become an ever-more elaborate ceremony, with a carefully staged State Department announcement of that year’s winner and a three-day conference in Des Moines, Iowa, in October around World Food Day. It has also become dominated by agribusiness, not surprising given the technology-obsessed visions of its founder.

By all accounts, Norman Borlaug was remarkable, a dedicated, indefatigable, creative crop breeder whose efforts to develop high-yielding wheat varieties, and his determination to make those seeds available to farmers in India and other countries facing hunger, won him the Nobel Prize in 1970. By all accounts, he was also incredibly stubborn. From what I could tell, his single-mindedness about technology as the key to feeding the world left him quite impaired when it came to understanding how the real world worked.

According to biographers, two formative events profoundly shaped his view of the world, and he clung to the deep impressions they left even though he had misinterpreted them at the time and continued to throughout his long and storied career.[i]

The first was his deep disdain for farming, or more specifically, the “drudgery” of small-scale farming. He came from a poorly endowed area of Iowa. According to biographers, he grew up hating farm work, and part of his motivation in promoting technology in agriculture was to liberate farmers from such drudgery. The problem, of course, is that many farming communities view such labor as dignified, even as they seek to make it more productive and less physically demanding. Borlaug’s vision of capital-intensive farming has certainly come to pass in the U.S. heartland, reducing drudgery but leaving depopulated rural areas with the few remaining farmers earning very little after agribusiness firms have taken their cuts. In developing countries like India, where Borlaug’s Green Revolution took hold, freeing family members from the drudgery of farm labor sent them into the country’s sprawling urban slums because there were no jobs waiting for them. With underemployment so prevalent in every developing country I studied for this book, Borlaug’s commitment to giving farmers, in his words, “relief from endless drudgery” seemed quite obviously to be the wrong prescription based on a flawed diagnosis of the problem.

More damning, though, was Borlaug’s faith in the spurious conclusions he drew from a violent milk strike he witnessed in 1933 at the age of 19 when he was a student in Minneapolis. He happened upon a confrontation between police protecting a milk truck from protesters trying to stop the milk from being delivered and sold. The standoff turned violent, and Borlaug reportedly emerged shaken at seeing so many desperate, hungry people in the Great Depression. He reportedly vowed to dedicate his life to preventing what his biographer summarized as “the terrible fathomless hunger” he saw in the street that day.

What he failed to realize at the time — which is perhaps forgivable in a 19-year-old — was that the problem wasn’t a lack of food, it was too much of it. Dairy farmers were on strike because overproduction had undercut the prices for their milk to the point that farms were going bankrupt and farm families were losing their livelihoods. The organized response of remaining dairy farmers was to withhold their milk from the market and stop its sale in the cities, both to raise the price of milk and to force government action to reduce the oversupply. The “fathomless hunger” Borlaug saw around that milk truck were mostly farmers who were victims of overproduction, and some of them were now penniless with no way to feed their families. It short, he got it completely wrong.

What seemed less forgivable was Borlaug’s deep commitment to such an erroneous interpretation of this searing experience. He seemed incapable of learning that more food does not mean less hunger, that it can actually cause hunger. And policies that simply promote ever-higher levels of farm production fail to address the complex reasons we see hunger in a world of plenty.

His World Food Prize suffers from the same disconnect with reality. I first traveled to Iowa when the 2013 prizes were awarded to three scientists for their pioneering work developing genetically modified seeds. One was from Belgium, the other two were U.S. scientists from Monsanto and Syngenta. The event was surreal. Cardinal Peter Turkson was there from the Vatican to report that after careful theological study the Catholic Church had ruled that genetic modification was not a sin. World Food Prize President Kenneth Quinn had earlier unveiled a spectacular renovation of the Hall of Laureates, the grand World Food Prize building on the banks of the Des Moines River. Unmentioned in the unveiling was that Monsanto had helped underwrite the renovation, an undisclosed conflict of interest all too typical of the biotech industry and downright tone-deaf in a year when the prize was to be awarded to a Monsanto scientist.[ii]

Also unmentioned was the alarming news that nitrate levels in the Des Moines River, from agricultural runoff upstream, had nearly broken through the threshold for safe drinking water. The world’s largest de-nitrification plant had worked overtime to keep the taps running at the Hall of Laureates.

If I wanted to get to the roots of our problems, Iowa was the right place to start. GM corn and soybeans dominated a landscape largely devoid of farmers, let alone thriving rural towns. The corn and soy fed factory hog farms, not the hungry world, and the state’s 40-plus ethanol refineries soaked up most of the rest of the corn, an expansion that had been one of the main triggers for the recent global food price spikes.[iii] Iowa epitomized the industrial agricultural system that seemed so poorly adapted to the needs of farmers and the hungry. I was back the next year, when the World Food Prize theme was, appropriately, “Feeding the World.”

[i] This section draws on the excellent biographical sketch in Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).

[ii] “World Food Prize Receives $5 Million Pledge from Monsanto to Honor Norman Borlaug,” News Releases, Monsanto, February 15, 2008, https://monsanto.com/news-releases/world-food-prize-receives-5-million-pledge-from-monsanto-to-honor-norman-borlaug/.

[iii] “Ethanol Plants,” Iowa Corn, n.d., https://www.iowacorn.org/corn-uses/ethanol/ethanol-plants/.

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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