Matthew Naylor: The Borlaug legacy

So what do we all think of Norman Borlaug then? The pioneering plantsman has been widely and, in my opinion, rightly celebrated in most of the media coverage which followed his death.

The varietal developments of the Green Revolution kept food affordable and Boulaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for helping to save an estimated billion people from starvation.

He worked his way around developing countries helping them to improve their agriculture, from Mexico to India (where he helped wheat yields to double in five years from 1965 to 1970) and latterly in Asia and Africa.

He was a capable and eager defender of science and progress in food production and, since he lived to be 95, his views on nutrition might just be worth following.

The phenomenon of Borlaug’s work was down to his unique approach. He grew up on a farm in the depression so rather than being an uber-boffin shaking test tubes in a lab coat – he was a practical man who actually took his technology to farmers.

Part of the problem with most modern scientific research is that a lot of the egg heads in our research institutes concentrate on pure science and find it hard to communicate their ideas widely or simply enough for them to change everyday life. This is the main reason that Borlaug won universal praise.

In fact there is only one group with any just cause to shake their fists in the direction of Borlaug and that’s us farmers.

In creating short-strawed and drought-tolerant varieties of wheat, he was the architect of the cheap food era.

His aim, reasonably enough I guess, was to help the hungry to eat and not the farmer to profit. Do you hear us moaning about him though? Of course you don’t. The only criticism that I read about him was from some of the left-wing columnists.

They should be smacked on their bum with a slipper and sent to bed without their organic nettle soup.

In fairness, most of their criticism was not directed at Borlaug directly as much as at the oil-dependant, input-driven, monoculturous businesses that arose from the Green Revolution.

These are the sort of oil-dependant, input-driven, monoculturous businesses which many of you will have chosen to have all of your money (and, in all probability, a fair bit of someone else’s) invested in.

There are lessons we can draw from the Green Revolution. The monoculture culture is with us because we threw all our effort behind the advances in wheat production.

A more consistent research and development policy across all branches of agriculture would have spread our risks and preserved the balance of traditional husbandry.

Long term food security is about diversity of supply just as much as yields. The dominance of combinable crops has ultimately only led to a more rapid industrialisation of the industry and a quicker rationalisation of the number of farmers.

Borlaug was undoubtedly a hero of agriculture and also of humankind just not necessarily of farmers.

It is our responsibility, as individual businessman, to interpret technology correctly and to employ it responsibly.

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