Norman Borlaug: humanitarian or climate-change denier?

Posted on December 20, 2017

Many of us our moderates at heart, but let’s face it, media gives extremists a louder voice, and brings out the extremist in any moderate. Two philosophies of agriculture have been battling for over a century: industrial agriculture and agroecological agriculture. From Twitter one might think that one is unambiguously good and one is unambiguously evil.

We are seeing these two philosophies become ideologies on college campuses. At most Land Grant Universities we teach the science of industrial agriculture, where students learn how to operate enormous machines, employ sophisticated chemical pesticides (and simpler simple chemical fertilizers), and raise genetically edited plants to produce food. Students using these methods will indeed get their hands dirty, but their hands will rarely tough the soil. Instead, their hands receive small amounts of chemicals and engine grease.

At smaller, more liberal, and more urban universities students are learning agroecological agriculture, which is a broad category for various organic, sustainable, and regenerative methods. At these schools, though, it mostly refers to organic gardening. The recent edition of Modern Farmer has an article dedicated to these schools. One example is Paul Quinn College, where they converted a football field to a garden, and the students raise food both to eat and as a fund raiser for the school. For a book I am writing I interviewed a former student at Middlebury College, where she managed their school’s organic garden and lived in an eco-village that only allowed non-GMO food. When these students get their hands dirty, it is actual dirt.

The contrasts between these two types of agricultural education is interesting. Our Land Grant students learn how to feed the world on large specialized farms, but if they had to rely on their own gardening for food they would probably starve. Conversely, that Middlebury student would be the ideal friend during a Zombie apocalypse, as she could easily feed a small group of survivors based on her gardening skills. However, she probably has no idea how to drive a tractor.

There is some overlap, but not much. Land Grant Universities like Iowa State University and North Carolina State University are starting to offer sustainable agriculture degrees. However, many schools still embrace one form of agriculture and disparage the other. At many Land Grant Universities there is an anti-organic bias. I know of one agronomy instructor who used to have his students plant and manage a crop, to give them practical farming experience. When students wanted to raise a crop organically, he allowed them, but without the students knowing he would cover the ground with weed seed so that the students could see the difficulty of managing weeds without herbicides. I understand what he was trying to achieve, but he was being dishonest, and openly hostile to organic agriculture. He deliberately made organic agriculture seem less productive than it is. Likewise, the small / liberal / agroecology schools seem to have a similar antagonism industrial agriculture.

They also hold different perceptions of Norman Borlaug. Proponents of industrial agriculture see him as the world’s greatest plant breeder, who led the Green Revolution and ultimately saved over a billion people from starving. I know a microbiology PhD student who wants to breed plants using gene editing because he saw a documentary in high school about Norman Borlaug and it inspired him.

However, proponents of agroecology describe him (I’m quoting the Modern Farmer magazine) as a, “DDT proponent and climate-change skeptic.”[1]

Both views about Borlaug, it seems to me, are true. An extremist acknowledges one view and ignores the other. However, you and I are reasonable. We can praise Borlaug for developing crop varieties that saved masses from starvation, while also acknowledging that he might be wrong about climate change. We can disagree with Borlaug’s view on pesticides while also acknowledging that, given how pesticides are regulated, a reasonable person could conclude that the benefits of DDT are worth the costs.

You and I can praise both industrial and agroecology for their advantages, acknowledge their weaknesses, and do what we can to blend them together for a better agriculture.

Fortunately, I do believe most Land Grant Universities are becoming increasingly ‘reasonable’. We are increasingly willing to mix cover crops with pesticides, as an example of blending the industrial and agroecological farming. I once attended a Pecan Management class, and when the pesticide person came to discuss how to manage insect infestations, the first thing he said was to explore other agroecological ways of managing insects before applying insecticides.

So don’t let Twitter deceive you. There are many reasonable people in the world, including the scientists at Land Grant Universities.

[1] Barth, Brian. Winter 2017-18. “The Current State of Agricultural Education.” Modern Farmer. Issue 18. Pages 70-79.

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