Increased fertiliser use, high literacy levels key to Africa's food security

Kenya was privileged to play host to Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug, a 1970 Nobel Laureate during the second general meeting of Africa’s biotechnology and seed conference organised by Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, KARI and sponsored by the Rockfeller foundation recently.

Dr. Borlaug had a short chat with Henry Neondo, editor, African Science News Service.

Normal Borlaug is the most important person you’ve probably never heard of before.

Only one of three living Americans to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Elie Wiesel and Henry Kissinger being the others.

He devoted his energies to improvement of wheat for more than 30 years and contributed more than any other person to the so-called "Green Revolution.

The Green revolution made it possible to improve living conditions for hundreds of millions of people living in the developing countries and turning heavily populated Asian countries from food insecure to food secure.
This he achieved against a background when people in the West predicted there was no way developing nations could increase their crop yields.

While such debates were taking place in conference halls in the West, Borlaug was in the fields showing them how to do just that; preaching a form of agriculture that has prevented a billion deaths.

This eminent researcher is a man of ideals, and man of action. His writings reflect not only a fight against rust and weeds, but a strong outcry against bureaucracy and paperwork which interfere with rapid action.

By his own admission, he is an impatient man and he does not readily accept the slow changes in the developing world.

"Yields of crops must increase rapidly", are words that he keeps repeating, and he realizes that there is no time to waste, considering the magnitude of the problem of feeding the world’s population.

Ironically it is Borlaug’s success in his field which has led to his toiling away in obscurity, often unable to get serious funding for what he perceives to be critical.

In 1963, the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation set up the International Maize and Wheat Centre (CIMMYT) and sent Borlaug to India where he and others planted the first crop of dwarf wheat, a specially bred hybrid, which increased crop yields 70 percent and helped avert a wartime starvation (India and Pakistan were then at war).

The results speak for themselves. By 1968, Pakistan was growing enough food to feed itself.
When Borlaug first went to India, the country produced about 11 million tons of wheat, while today it grows over 60 million tons. In 1950 the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people.

By 1992 production was 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people — 2.8 times the grain for 2.2 times the population.

While the world’s 1950 output came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output came from 1.73 billion acres — a 170 percent increase using only one percent more land.

This allowed the globe’s daily per capita food intake to grow from 2,063 calories in 1965 to 2,495 in 1990, with a greater proportion from protein.

By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production, and by 1974 India met all its cereal needs — sparing an estimated 100 million acres of virgin land and almost halting deforestation in the past five years.
Privatization and dwarf rice have doubled yields per acre in China since about 1970.

In Brazil, new strains of wheat that can grow on pastures with a high aluminum content has slowed the cutting of the rainforest.

Achieving higher yields from fewer acres is the most environmentally favourable development of the modern age, say experts, and has saved many millions from starvation and malnutrition.

On the principle that no good deed should go unpunished, Borlaug’s very success has been his downfall.
In the 1970s and 1980s, strong environmentalists emerged who argued the Green Revolution shouldn’t have happened.

They argued that fertilizer-intensive agriculture harmed the environment, "extremist environmentalists" (to use Borlaug’s term) convinced non-profit like the Rockefeller Foundation to stop funding work like Borlaug’s.

The expansion of agricultural production in famine-prone areas such as Africa was no longer seen as a cornucopian fantasy but as an all-too-real threat.

Being candid is what Dr Borlaug is known for. Never known of mincing words, Dr Borlaug told his audience including Kenya’s Minister for Agriculture, Kipruto Kirwa in Nairobi that "realistic soil fertility restoration and maintenance, increased use of fertiliser and land under irrigation ... in Africa, coupled with common sense from governments that would increase literacy rates and provide infrastructure to open up markets for farmers, will be key to achieving needed high yeilds.

Over the protests of environmentalists, Borluag is working to bring high-yield agriculture to Africa, which still depends on slash-and-burn subsistence farming.

Due to his efforts, Ethiopia recorded the greatest harvest of major crops in its history during the 1995-96 season with a 32 percent increase in production and a 15 percent increase in average yield over the previous season.

He has been honoured by numerous institutions in the United States, Pakistan, India, Norway, Canada and many other countries. He serves on many boards and advises governments in the developing world on food production.

Born in 1914 in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, near Cresco in Iowa, Norman grew up on his father’s small grain and livestock farm, and attended a one-teacher one-room schoolhouse for eight grades.

After graduating from Cresco High School he studied at the University of Minnesota where he earned B.S. in forestry 1937, M.S. in forest pathology 1941 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics 1942.

After three years of research work at E.I. du Pont de Nemours in Delaware, Dr. Borlaug joined the Rockefeller Foundation cooperative project with the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture as head of the wheat research and improvement program.

In 1966 his "Quiet Revolution in Wheat Improvement" created world around interest and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, in cooperation with the Government of Mexico, established the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) at El Batan near Mexico City.

In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his "Green Revolution" which helped Pakistan, India and a number of other countries improve their food production.

Since then he has continued working tirelessly in saving millions from starvation and suffering.
He has been honoured with about forty honorary doctorate degrees and numerous awards by governments, academic institutions and citizens’ groups around the world.


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