Learning the Wrong Lessons

Timothy A. Wise
6 min readApr 15, 2020

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…

Timothy A. Wise

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