Too many people. Billions of us – 7.7 billion, as of April, 2019 – many of us clustered in massive metropolises, all teeming masses of concrete and steel. By 2050, there will be somewhere between nine and ten billion human beings living on this planet, and by 2100, more than 11 billion (source). How can we possibly feed everyone? 795 million people are currently undernourished, with the vast majority in developing nations. Are the doomsdayers right? Are we headed for armageddon? The answer to this comes from our past – the countless times we were told we were near destruction, only to persevere, find our way through, and emerge all the wealthier. We will do it again – but only if we are allowed to.
Now, I’ll admit to being a fan of the Marvel comics film series. In the film Avengers: Infinity War, antagonist Thanos has one, simple goal – reduce the load on the environment. His concern is chiefly around what’s known as carrying capacity – the size of a population a given environment can support. His belief? “Too many mouths to feed” results in the catastrophic failure of an ecosystem. While his method of population control seems extreme (randomly wipe out half of them), it is, sadly, better than some of the methods we have used on our own world.
Take China, for example. The disastrous one-child policy, driven by Westerners who believed our only hope was reduced population, and enforced by a brutal communist regime, caused the deaths of untold infants and children. 196 million sterilizations, many of them by force; 336 million abortions, some of them very late term; and many little children killed, especially girls (source). This is the reality of attempting to restrict population growth. While they have recently changed their policy to allow two children, the result of this horrifying policy will haunt China for decades, with a massively imbalanced population that has too many single men and retirees.
Other forms were used in India and Ireland, with Britain refusing aid during devastating crop failures long ago, and continue to be used in countries in Africa. The campaign against genetic engineering has been catastrophic in many African nations. Golden Rice, a variety fortified with Vitamin A, has been offered out for free in many countries, after far too many years sitting on the shelf, rejected out of fear of being a GMO. Organizations like Greenpeace, in their campaign against Golden Rice, sentence 250,000-500,000 children to blindness each and every year in Africa and Asia. Many more die. Many of the goals of the anti-GMO movement can be traced to a goal of population control.
Population control has taken many forms in many countries over the past century, and while many were (sadly) successful, the disturbing reality of such a practice should prevent any rational human being from ever seriously considering them. They are just not an option for any human being with a conscience.
Here’s the reality: we don’t need population control. We can feed everyone.
On the 25th of March, 1914, a man was born that changed everything. Norman Ernest Borlaug was born in Saude, Iowa into a poor, subsistence farming family of Norwegian descent.
You’ve probably never heard of him.
He is, by some accounts, responsible for saving the lives of a billion people.
While folks like William Vogt and Paul Ehrlich were pontificating about how to control the growth of our population to prevent a coming catastrophe, Borlaug, like any farmer, put his head down and went to work. Through donations provided by the tremendous resources of the Rockefeller Foundation ($100 million in a time the US national budget was less than $1 billion), Borlaug was able to breed wheat varieties resistant to rust, the devastating disease that crushed crop after crop in so many countries worldwide. Not only were his varieties rust-resistant, they were also short varieties that didn’t lodge (meaning tip over – heavy wheat heads can tip over if the straw supporting them is too weak). The varieties produced decent flour and had remarkable adaptability to almost any climate.
Paul Ehrlich famously declared in his bestselling book The Population Bomb, published in 1968, that “the battle to feed humanity is over,” and “In the 1970’s and 80’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” After India suffered two consecutive droughts in 1966-67, his prediction seemed astute.
C. Subramaniam, the minister of Food and Agriculture in India at that time, came to hear of Borlaug’s work in Mexico, of the amazing yield increases he had helped bring about. He convinced his government to act urgently and they listened; they chartered several Boeing 707s loaded with 16,000 tonnes of seeds of this “miracle wheat”.
Armed with these new wheat varieties, Borlaug and his team taught their agronomic practices to local farmers, and by 1974 India was self-sufficient in production of all cereal grains. Pakistan quickly followed suit. Borlaug’s colleagues duplicated this remarkable success with rice, and the so-called Green Revolution spread throughout most of Asia.
Later, Borlaug turned his attention to Africa, where he was equally successful – until he was met with a brick wall of resistance. After his success in Mexico and Asia, many environmental groups began to oppose his mission, believing he was only creating a bigger problem down the road – more mouths to feed.
“Borlaug’s mission — to cause the environment to produce significantly more food — has come to be seen, at least by some securely affluent commentators, as perhaps better left undone. More food sustains human population growth, which they see as antithetical to the natural world.” (Greg Easterbrook, source)
The Rockefeller Foundation began to withdraw funding, and support for the International Maize and Wheat Center saw its support dwindle. Since then, environmental groups have vehemently opposed mechanized agriculture, attacking the use of artificial fertilizer, crop protection products, irrigation, and of course, genetic modification. Without access to these tools, Africa will continue to struggle to feed its quickly growing population. Children will continue to go to bed hungry, suffer from stunting and early death, and environmentally destructive farming methods like slash-and-burn and deforestation will continue unabated. One of the biggest drivers of deforestation and loss of habitat is agriculture, which, with increases in yields, was actually nearly stopped in many areas of the world.
What Borlaug showed us is that with technology, drive and vision, you truly can achieve anything. He arrived in Mexico in 1944 with no professional experience in wheat (or plant breeding of any sort), his laboratory was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land, and despite the massive resources of the Rockefeller Foundation, his access to tools and resources barely allowed him a plow. After seeing what true poverty looked like, he was inspired to try to provide a better future for Mexican farmers. Unquestionably, his success is measured in the number of millions of lives he saved.
In 2017, I had the opportunity, through an organization called the Global Farmer Network, to attend the World Food Prize at Des Moines, Iowa. This award, founded in 1986 by Borlaug, honours individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. That year, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina (who I had the pleasure of meeting) was awarded the prize for his leading role in expanding food production in Nigeria. Things are improving there, thanks to the efforts of men and women like Adesina (in the photo at right, along with the rest of the Global Farmer Roundtable). To say this was an eye-opening experience for me would be quite an understatement. The efforts of Borlaug are not forgotten there (I also had the pleasure of meeting Julie Borlaug, Norman’s granddaughter).
“Take it to the farmer.” Borlaug’s words could not be more true; give farmers the tools they need to succeed, and they will. Give them access to strong crop genetics, fertilizers and crop protection products and they will produce. In the despair of the early 1970’s, when it seemed utterly hopeless that we could possibly feed a world of 3.7 billion people, few could have imagined our world today: a population nearly double that, with less than 10% of our population in extreme poverty, an unprecedented number in human history. Life expectancy, infant mortality, undernourishment and food availability all have improved immensely in only the last 20 years. By almost every measurement, the human condition only continues to improve (source).
Some environmental groups want to limit us, to hold back those who live in developing countries. They think we don’t have the intelligence, the wherewithal or the vision to feed, clothe and house a growing population. They think limiting population growth, and the disturbing paths that leads them down, is the answer. Borlaug, and so many others just like him, proved them wrong decades ago. We can do it again.
The Wizard & The Prophet (Charles Mann): While I disagree with some of the themes of this book, it does provide a very good history of Norm Borlaug and William Vogt and their different ideologies.
Food Evolution (film): I rarely recommend films for “further reading”, but this is a brilliant movie on genetic modification and many of the themes I’ve discussed here. Also, Motlasi Musi, one of my fellow Global Farmer Roundtable participants, was featured in the film and brings amazing perspective.
The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager): An excellent read on the history of nitrogen fertilizer – and it’s way more interesting than it sounds!
The Rational Optimist (Matt Ridley): Great read on trade and human progress.
Merchants of Despair (Robert Zubrin): A sobering and disturbing read on the history of population control.