Book review: ‘The Wizard and the Prophet’

A partial biography of Norman Borlaug grapples with his legacy as the father of the Green Revolution.

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution.
Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution.

It’s a question I hadn’t considered before, but one I haven’t forgotten since: How do you feed 10 billion people?

I had just started a job as a writer for two farming magazines. Like most people in affluent countries these days, I did not grow up on a farm and had no connection to agriculture. I took the abundance of food in restaurants and grocery stores for granted. I had never had to consider that agriculture is the foundation of civilization.

So, when I ran across that question ­– I think I was proofreading an editorial in one of the magazines – it stopped me in my tracks. How could such an obvious question never have occurred to me before? And why wasn’t everybody asking it?

The question looms large over “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World,” a book by Charles C. Mann. The two remarkable scientists are Norman Borlaug (the Wizard) and William Vogt (the Prophet). According to Mann, Borlaug is considered the father of the Green Revolution. Vogt is considered the founder of the modern environmental movement.

I read “The Wizard and the Prophet,” published in January 2018, for multiple reasons: Mann also wrote “1491” and “1493,” two eye-opening books that everybody should read; the program I work for ­– Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) – is named after Norman Borlaug; and finally, the book tackles the big question directly, grappling with its implications for a general audience.

Mann puts it this way: “Today the world has about 7.3 billion inhabitants. Most demographers believe that around 2050 the world’s population will reach 10 billion or a bit less … If present trends continue, most agronomists believe, harvests will have to rise 50 percent or more by 2050.”

So, how will we feed 10 billion people? The world’s current agricultural output has already risen to unprecedented levels in an attempt to feed 7.3 billion. That output will have to rise even more, by at least half, in the next three decades. It’s a mind-boggling – and alarming – prospect.

“The Wizard and the Prophet” can’t say for sure if that kind of growth is possible, but goes into great detail about the people who are trying to achieve it. The book separates them into two general camps: Wizards and Prophets.

Unfortunately, their answers to the all-important question are incompatible. Wizards, following Norman Borlaug, believe that science and technology, properly applied, can help humans produce enough food to save them from their predicament. To Wizards, rising affluence is good, because it allows for more resources to create new solutions. To Prophets, rising affluence is the problem. Following William Vogt, they believe that unless humankind drastically reduces its consumption habits, its growing numbers will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems, Mann wrote.

The book tackles other questions, too: Can a growing human race provide itself with enough water and energy? Can it prevent the worst effects of climate change? But because writing about agriculture is my job, I’m concentrating on the part of the book that addresses food. And because BHEARD is trying to mold agricultural scientists in his image, I’m concentrating on Borlaug’s life and work.

Born on a poor Iowa farm in 1914, by the time he died in 2009, Borlaug was considered the “primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the ‘Green Revolution,’ the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger,” according to the book.

Mann illustrated the Green Revolution’s impact: In the 1970s, about one out of every four people in the world was hungry. Today, the figure is one out of 10 ­– and the human population is still growing exponentially.

“In those four decades, the global average life span has risen by more than 11 years, with most of the increase occurring in poor places. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. In the annals of humankind, nothing like this surge of well-being has occurred before,” Mann wrote.

No single person should get all the credit for this miracle, but Borlaug is usually recognized as the prime mover. Reading his story, it’s clear that his success wasn’t due to genius, but to sheer, stubborn determination, an appetite for hard work and a few lucky breaks.

Borlaug’s Green Revolution started in Mexico. The Rockefeller Foundation, a charitable organization, sent him there in 1944, with the goal of breeding disease-resistant wheat to aid the country’s poor farmers and stabilize its political situation. Borlaug, who earned his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota, realized early on that he was unsuited for the task. He had never been outside of the United States. He couldn’t speak Spanish. “He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research,” Mann wrote.

Equipment and facilities also were limited. Due to World War II shortages, the Rockefeller Foundation couldn’t provide him with modern tools or machinery.

“Borlaug’s ‘laboratory’ was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land,” Mann wrote. “During the day the heat was unrelenting; at night, cold damp winds came from the hills … Borlaug slept on the shack’s dirt floor. Dinner was a can of stew heated over a fire made from corncobs. Flies were a constant irritant; mice ran over his sleeping bag in the dark. Water came from a bucket … With little equipment, Borlaug and his Mexican co-workers had to borrow a cultivator and do the plowing by hand. Tying straps around their waists, the three men took turns pulling the plow, one man walking behind to steer.”

Despite the obstacles, Borlaug plowed through – literally. After years of backbreaking labor and bureaucratic entanglements, years spent cross-breeding thousands of wheat varieties – often with nothing to show for it – Borlaug and his team finally managed to pinpoint a few varieties that had all the traits Mexican farmers needed: higher productivity; faster growth; shorter, stronger stalks to hold up larger heads of grain; good milling quality, taste and color. Most importantly, the varieties were resistant to stem rust, a wheat-attacking fungus. Little known outside of agriculture, stem rust is “one of humankind’s worst afflictions, responsible for millennia of famine,” Mann wrote.

Borlaug and his team had “created something new to the world: an all-purpose wheat. Short, fecund, and disease-resistant, it could be sown in soil rich or poor anywhere in Mexico and produce well. As long as farmers provided water and fertilizer, the plant would thrive and the harvest would be large.”

The harvests were indeed large. In the late 1940s, Mexican farmers had reaped about 760 pounds of wheat per acre. By 1968, using the new varieties, the figure had risen to almost 2,500 pounds – triple the harvest from the same land, according to Mann.

The rising harvests spread to other parts of the world. Working with M.S. Swaminathan, an Indian scientist, Borlaug spread Green Revolution wheat through southern Asia. Near the end of his long life, he was working in Africa. By that time, he’d been well rewarded for his efforts. Often called “the man who saved a billion lives,” he earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug couldn’t have predicted the world-shaking impact his work would have when he first arrived in Mexico. So, what drove him to overcome all of the challenges? According to the book, it was a simple, powerful vision – a vision that had gathered slowly since the Iowa farm boy’s adolescence: “He wanted through his work to help feed the hungry.”

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