One pundit had it exactly right. It's no wonder, he sneered, that many environmentalists ignore Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution: Borlaug "actually thinks man can do something useful by altering nature through science."
Nevertheless, on July 17, in his 93rd year, Borlaug was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to 1960s agricultural "reforms' that drove fast-paced increases in grain yields throughout the world - at a cost global farmers are still digging out from under.
Borlaug was politic in accepting the award. "We need better and more technology, for hunger and poverty and misery are very fertile soils into which to plant all kinds of 'isms,' including terrorism," he said.
Many are the anti-isms linked to Borlaug's work. But the ism he failed to fight was Modernism, with its conceited, technocratic hostility to the very ism he ought to have embraced: indigenism.
In his day, he was perceived as a progressive, which shows how much social change assumptions have shifted. As a youth in the 1930s Depression, Borlaug had jobs on public works projects for the unemployed. Like most who embraced the ideals of the New Deal and the war against Nazism, those years taught him to link peace and bread. "You can't build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery," he often said.
His innovations in the colonial world from the 40s to the 70s boosted cereal yields, thereby bringing subsistence farmers into the cash economy for both supplies and sales of their surplus. These efforts were politically well timed, to say the least.
In Mexico, he did his first work for the Rockefeller Foundation, and during the 1960s he worked with the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to extend his successes to clients and Cold War neutrals like India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Like most Modernist inventions, from nuclear power plants to toxic household cleaners, Borlaug's seeds and farming package had an over-powering arrogance. Ignorant peasants and indifferent nature, he thought, tolerated wheat with tall stems that consumed plant energy while providing insufficient strength to hold heavy heads of grain.
Form should follow function, as the Modernists insisted. The stem should be shorter so it could carry the weight of more seeds. Getting more work out of an old plant, instead of relying on nature to do our work for us, takes chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and lots of water from irrigation.
That's why the little seed came with a big package of inputs, all supplied with Rockefeller funding until the peasants could pay the U.S. corporations (many owned by Rockefeller) themselves.
Production jumped immediately, almost doubling Pakistan's and India's wheat harvests from 1965 to 1970. By 1985, the yields from rice and maize crops across most of Asia also doubled.
And the long run? Alas, the negative results are still coming in: soils waterlogged, salinated and degraded (it turns out the old-fashioned stems made good animal fodder and compost); rural women marginalized by the disappearance of seasonal jobs; farmers in debt from the cost of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and left vulnerable by relying on one do-or-die crop, and so on.
The first to notice the downside of the Green Revolution were not on the left or right, since both sides were equally smitten with the glorious possibilities of technology and industrialism. Back then it was thought that fewer backward peasants and petit bourgeois in agriculture and more proletarians in factories and offices meant we were getting closer to heaven on earth.
Indeed, critiquing the technology and goals of the Green Revolution is where the food movement of the 1970s began. Frances Moore Lappé's Food First: Beyond The Myth Of Scarcity denounced the Green Rev for displacing mixed and diverse farms and downgrading healthy rounded diets with a monoculture of carbs.
Susan George's bestselling How The Other Half Dies, does a slash-and-burn on the Green Rev for excluding the great majority of peasants on small patches of inhospitable land and disrupting once stable communities with land and water grabs.
Ironically, a chief villain in George's book is Lester Brown, then a leading promoter of the Rockefellers and the Green Revolution, now an enviro icon. George liked his bluntness because it made the real goals of the Green Rev visible: "a complex system for agribusiness domination of how, where and what Third World farms will produce and at what cost."