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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Man Who Tried To Feed The World

Norman Borlaug standing in wheat field. 1960s.
Courtesy of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
Norman Borlaug standing in wheat field. 1960s.

Airs Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Friday, April 24 at 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 25 at 11 a.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App

New Documentary About Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize Winner Whose “Green Revolution” Transformed the World

“The Man Who Tried to Feed the World” tells the story of Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in fighting global hunger.

By increasing the world’s food supply, Borlaug made it possible for the planet to support far more people than had been thought possible, saving countless lives in the process.

But in doing so, he unleashed a series of unintended consequences that tarnished his reputation and forever changed the environmental and economic balance of the world.

Born in 1914, Norman Borlaug grew up on an isolated Iowa farm, working from dawn until sunset, using methods that would have been familiar to the ancient Romans.

But farm life was revolutionized in the mid-1920s when Henry Ford’s tractor became widely available, drastically reducing the amount of labor needed to plant and harvest crops. The new technology made it possible for Borlaug to leave the family farm and attend college.

In 1944 Borlaug — now armed with a Ph.D. in plant pathology — was recruited for a Rockefeller Foundation program designed to bring stability and prosperity to rural farmers in Mexico.

The goal was to defeat stem rust, a disease that had plagued humankind for thousands of years and was now decimating Mexico’s wheat crop year after year.

Once in Mexico, Borlaug encountered the horror of real malnutrition for the first time, and he soon recast his mission.

Rather than help peasant farmers in their struggles with nature, he decided to fight hunger directly by developing a radically new kind of wheat: disease-resistant, adaptable, and incredibly productive.

Borlaug meticulously planted, cataloged, and pollinated thousands of wheat varieties, finally developing an all-purpose plant that could revolutionize a country’s food production.

But there was a catch: Borlaug’s new wheat required massive amounts of costly fertilizer and water — an expense far beyond the means of most peasant farmers.

Norman Borlaug (behind steering wheel) with Mexican field technicians who contributed to early seed production of improved wheat varieties, in a field near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, c. 1952.
Courtesy of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
Norman Borlaug (behind steering wheel) with Mexican field technicians who contributed to early seed production of improved wheat varieties, in a field near Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico, c. 1952.

In 1949, the Communist Revolution in China brought new relevance to Borlaug’s research. Driven by the fear that discontented peasants around the world might tilt the Cold War in the Soviets’ favor, American policymakers made global food supply an urgent priority.

The Rockefeller Foundation, working closely with the State Department, understood the potential in Borlaug’s work in Mexico: the Cold War could be won by fighting famine, since “no one becomes a Communist on a full belly.”

Borlaug was given a free hand to continue to develop new, even more productive varieties of wheat. Borlaug’s once-modest Mexico project was now seen as a chance for the salvation of the world.

Norman Borlaug speaks to press at a street-naming ceremony in his honor. Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico.
Courtesy of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
Norman Borlaug speaks to press at a street-naming ceremony in his honor. Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, northern Mexico.

In 1963 Borlaug accepted an invitation from M.S. Swaminathan, an Indian agricultural scientist wrestling with food supply problems in his own country. India’s chronic food shortages and an exploding population seemed to foreshadow a bleak future for the rest of the world.

Borlaug and Swaminathan tried to convince the government to convert the Indian style of agriculture to high-yield wheat. But their program required massive investments and triggered deep-seated apprehensions about the social and ecological consequences.

In the spring of 1966, Borlaug came face-to-face with the enemy he had been fighting all his life: Indian children begged for scraps of bread and trucks circled the streets every morning, picking up corpses.

His patience with the Indian government growing thin, he harshly chastised officials for holding back the funds needed to launch the program.

Norman Borlaug and group of men pose for a portrait. June 1963.
Courtesy of Jeanie Borlaug Laube
Norman Borlaug and group of men pose for a portrait. June 1963.

Borlaug’s tirade coincided with a harsh new policy from President Lyndon Johnson, who cut off shipments of wheat to India at the height of a devastating drought. In these circumstances the Indian government had little choice but to adopt the high-yield wheat program.

In 1968, the harvest was one and a half times larger than the previous record. It marked the beginning of a movement that would change the face of the world: the “Green Revolution” of global industrial agriculture programs.

Two years later, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Norman Borlaug at the podium at a reception in Iowa after receiving the Nobel Prize. 1970.
Courtesy of John Hoines
Norman Borlaug at the podium at a reception in Iowa after receiving the Nobel Prize. 1970.

But by 1970, Borlaug’s “revolution” was becoming a global leviathan: a creature of the World Bank, the State Department, and agribusiness. While the program vastly increased the world’s food supply and reduced global hunger, it turned out to be a Faustian bargain.

Borlaug would spend the final decades of his life watching his methods and achievements come under increasing fire by a wide range of critics, who held him responsible for soil degradation, the reduction of the water table, the spread of toxic chemicals, and the destruction of rural society around the world.

Says historian Tore Olsson: “It’s really impossible to understand the massive growth of the human population, to understand the urbanization of our species, and our tremendous, increasing ecological impact on the world unless we understand Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution.”

Related Interview: ‘No Silver Bullet Solution’: Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution

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CREDITS:

Writer/ Director/ Producer: Rob Rapley. Producer: Jamila Wignot. Editor: Mark Dugas and R.A. Födde. Original music by Tom Phillips. Narrated by Michael Murphy. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston. Executive Producers; Mark Samels and Susan Bellows.