The Borlaug legacy: The common link between farmers’ protests in Punjab and stubble burning


What hyperlinks farmers’ protests in Punjab, air pollution from stubble burning and, a lot much less severely, unjust GST charges on Malabar parottas? The hyperlink is Norman Borlaug who gained the Nobel Prize for Peace 50 years in the past for his work on wheat that began the Inexperienced Revolution.

This yr’s award to the UN’s World Meals Programme (WFP) made no point out of Borlaug’s prize in 1970, however appears apparently timed to recall his lengthy battle in opposition to world starvation. However the place the WFP is usually admired — even critics of the UN admit it really works effectively and has tried to appropriate earlier issues, for instance, doing extra native sourcing — the identical can’t be mentioned in regards to the Inexperienced Revolution.

The Punjab protests, for instance, stem from farmers’ emotions that grain surpluses will result in falling returns if they’re left to the mercy of the markets. However these surpluses wouldn’t exist with out the high-yield wheat developed by Borlaug. One of many key traits of those varieties is brief, thicker stems that may maintain up the heavier heads. MS Swaminathan developed rice varieties on the traces of Borlaug’s wheat varieties. However the stubs of those too are more durable to clear after harvesting. So farmers merely burn them.

Norman Borlaug has been praised for serving to feed hundreds of thousands and likewise criticised for making farmers depending on irrigation and fertilisers, resulting in different issues.

Borlaug’s varieties had been developed from Mexican wheat strains meant for leavened bread, which wants excessive gluten. However this isn’t appropriate for unleavened chapatis and folks nonetheless have dangerous reminiscences of the powerful rotis it made. Appropriate wheat was later developed by Swaminathan, however loads nonetheless had to enter making leavened bread, which was promoted to new customers in rice-eating areas like South India. Malabar parottas, whose excessive fats content material compensates for the exhausting wheat, had been one other product made extensively fashionable on this period, therefore the GST Council’s competition that they aren’t important or conventional merchandise which want a decrease tax price.

And this isn’t even relating the primary criticisms of the Inexperienced Revolution, corresponding to the way it wanted excessive ranges of fertiliser and irrigation, locking farmers into dependence on such inputs and inflicting lasting environmental injury. The drumbeat of damnation has been saved going steadily by antagonists like Vandana Shiva who accuse it of every part from poisoning our meals to overcrowding cities on account of poorer peasants pushed from their land by richer farmers who benefitted unfairly from Borlaug’s seeds. Left-wing journalist Alexander Cockburn even referred to as him “apart from Kissinger, the most important killer of all to have gotten the peace prize…”


That is extravagantly unfair to Borlaug, who had extra expertise of the fact of peasant lives than most of his critics. He was born right into a poor Midwestern American farming household, and solely managed faculty by way of scholarships for sports activities (he was a wrestler) and disadvantaged youths. However his fieldwork in central Mexico meant years with individuals far poorer than that which was why, whereas he usually prevented countering critics, he requested author Charles C Mann if he had “ever been to a spot the place most people weren’t getting sufficient to eat. Not simply poor, however truly hungry on a regular basis.” Mann informed him he hadn’t been to such a spot. “That’s the purpose,” he mentioned. “Once I was getting began, you couldn’t keep away from them.”

Mann recounts this dialog, from a number of years earlier than Borlaug died in 2009, in his ebook The Wizard and the Prophet, which most likely offers the fairest method to the Inexperienced Revolution debate. As an alternative of focussing solely on Borlaug, as each hagiographical supporters and damning critics have performed, he pairs him with a polar reverse — William Vogt, a pioneering American environmentalist, who warned vehemently in regards to the risks of people overloading the sustainable capability of the world. He’s the apocalyptic prophet of the title, whereas Borlaug is the wizard, believing within the energy of science to search out superb options.

Mann reveals how these opposing positions have deep roots, corresponding to “Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether or not pure legislation actually is a information for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the perfect character of residents. Robert Malthus scoffing on the claims of the unconventional philosophers William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet…” And the arguments proceed ahead too into Covid occasions. Mann’s ebook got here out in 2018, however the identical debates will be seen over whether or not to belief in science to search out vaccines, after which return to our lives as they had been earlier, or whether or not to just accept the exhausting processes of herd immunity, with the ensuing deaths and, additionally a extra constrained world residing alongside the virus, and all different such pure limits to our life.


As scientists wrestle to discover a vaccine, the argument appears to be shifting in the direction of the prophets, who’ve lengthy predicted a world-altering occasion like Covid. However the sacrifices they demand aren’t straightforward to just accept, which is why hopes stay excessive for what the wizards can obtain — and as Borlaug demonstrated along with his growth of high-yield wheat from unpromising present varieties, human ingenuity is formidable. He acknowledged that his strategies had issues, however famous that his opponents by no means overtly admitted that the choice would have been leaving hundreds of thousands to starve. Was that an appropriate value to avoiding the Inexperienced Revolution?

But as Mann notes, Borlaug’s method had prices as effectively. Relying on the ingenuity of wizards means having to cope with their hard-to-understand strategies, the truth that they will fail and their disdain for the human sides to their options. Borlaug merely ignored the unsuitability of his wheat for chapattis. The success of the Inexperienced Revolution got here in hindsight, however on the time gave the impression to be as exhausting to realize as vaccines are actually. And the failure, or incapacity, of scientists to clarify what they might or couldn’t do leads each to unrealistic hopes and lasting mistrust. This may be seen in a widespread readiness to imagine conspiracy theories and unscientific options, which is occurring once more with Covid. Borlaug deserved his Nobel Prize, but additionally maybe among the opposition that got here with it.


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