AMERICA has three living winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, two universally renowned and the other so little celebrated that not one person in a hundred would be likely to pick his face out of a police lineup, or even recognize his name. The universally known recipients are Elie Wiesel, who for leading an exemplary life has been justly rewarded with honor and acclaim, and Henry Kissinger, who in the aftermath of his Nobel has realized wealth and prestige. America’s third peace-prize winner, in contrast, has been the subject of little public notice, and has passed up every opportunity to parley his award into riches or personal distinction. And the third winner’s accomplishments, unlike Kissinger’s, are morally unambiguous. Though barely known in the country of his birth, elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age.
Borlaug is an eighty-two-year-old plant breeder who for most of the past five decades has lived in developing nations, teaching the techniques of high-yield agriculture. He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted — for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine — 1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.
The libertarian Reason in an interview with Borlang, uses Borlang to bash Paul Ehrlich and his predictions about world population and hunger in his book The Population Bomb (1968). Ehrlich as doomsayer makes a great target for being wrong on a certain level ( he was actually right, but advances in science and technology – thankfully – got a head of his predictions) and coincidentally for many of the same people who claim global warming is either not occurring or there is nothing that can be done about it so carry on as usual. Yea see a PhD can look at the data and come up with erroneous predictions. There are a few obvious problems with using a publication from 1968 to defend dubious science in 2000 or 2009. We have more specialized knowledge now about plant science and have better minds, software and satellites for modeling predictions.
Ehrlich was wrong about the advancements that could be made in technology. Specifically what hybridizing wheat would be achieved, that the hybridized seed would be distributed so successfully and the teaching of the agricultural methods used to plant and cultivate it would be taken up as a cause and adapted so quickly in countries on the other side of the world. The subject of agricultural science and its world wide applications is not exactly common knowledge or something that occupies many dinner table conversations in the western world where there are grocery stores selling corporate processed foods every few blocks. Acting as though Ehrlich had some super human political powers or influence is an absurd and irreverent distraction.
Then there is what Reason leaves out. Borlaug’s work was subsidized by government and foundation grants. Borlaug was a humanitarian motivated by altruism, not dreams of riches. He was educated at the University of Minnesota. A feat made possible by one of FDR’s New Deal programs called the National Youth Administration. Borlaug also earned money by working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, another New Deal Program. The interviewer seemed to admire Borlaug, but that did not stop him from using Borlaug to try and prove some very tenuous point. Reason often uses the environmentalist say or activists say as a way of discrediting a movement that frequently has disagreements within its ranks. Questions about introducing a hybridized genome into the environment are not just legitimate, they’re a ethical imperative. That is where scientific review comes it. Regardless of what Reason might feel or Borlaug, its reasonable to ask about the wider consequences of putting new plants into the world. Some people have over reacted in both directions – one camp claiming without proof there are no consequences and the other claiming untold calamities ahead, also without adequate proof. Reason’s thing, as it were is to always claim the politicization of science when scientists do not come up with the results they would like. That attitude is at the very heart of the politicization of science. We can also expect our yearly pleas and protestations from libertarians about the dangers of idolatry. Sentiments that I share. Yet just as regularly we can count on libertarians to find some scientists to tell them what they want to hear – there is no global warming, use all the herbicides and pesticides you want. Said scientists will quickly find themselves, various inconvenient details left out, venerated, a libertarian god.
Despite great advances in agricultural sciences much of the world still lives in poverty and hunger. Our fisheries are in danger of collapse because of pollution, over fishing and global warming – hybrid seeds can help feed the people who can no longer get their protein from seafood, but it is not the answer to recovery of the fisheries. The Pacific Ocean contains a massive amount of plastics – pesticides, herbicides, non-organic food and global warming denial will not make the plastic go away.