Thoughts About Norm Borlaug for his 100th Birthday

Written by Steve Savage. Graphs by Steve, based on FAO and Geohive data.

Norman Borlaug would have been 100 years old last week.  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.

graph2

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.  Let us 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 it is up to us to continue to make that case.

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.

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