Documentary Looks Back at Norman Borlaug’s Career

Normal Borlaug

A recent documentary available from the Public Broadcast System (PBS) and WGBH “The Man Who Tried to Feed the World (2020) briefly surveys the motivations and achievements of food researcher, Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his important innovations of better-producing types of crops.  Part of “The American Experience” series it can be viewed online.  Dr. Borlaug’s life serves as a demonstration of what one person can accomplish through their own initiative, combined with creativity and persistence.

The documentary recounts Borlaug’s struggles to focus on genetic variations in wheat crops, from his Rockefeller-foundation funded station in Mexico.  Borlaug, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 95, demonstrated important initiative, following his own passion and insights to try to win the war between growing population sizes and food production, the war over hunger.  His critical success in demonstrating higher-yield crops was achieved around the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

The Green Revolution included tripling of crop yields in Asia where new crop varieties were planted on 82% of land.  These crop varieties leveraged irrigation and fertilizer inputs which have been less available in Africa, where fewer benefits were seen from the new crop varieties.  Overall, between 1960 and 200 developing countries benefited from a general increase of 208% in yields.  In Indonesia, for instance, rice yields, measured as tons per hectare, increased from 1 ton in 1961 to 4 tons in 2018.  In Brazil, average maize (corn) yield increased during that same period from 1.3 to 5.6.

The second half of documentary in a short period attempts to convey some of the environmental criticism of the 1968 “Green Revolution” credited to Borlaug’s initiatives.  What the critics who were quoted do not talk about is what the alternative would have been, nor do they answer whether their implicit message is that it might have been better if Borlaug had done nothing and let tens of millions of people starve.  It is also ironic that Borlaug, a forester by training, believed that increased yields could actually decrease deforestation.  The documentary inaccurately attributes higher yields on rural-to-urban migration trends.  Rural to urban migration had been occurring throughout history and increased when farms became mechanized, but not because yields increased.  The documentary also criticizes Borlaug for the persistence of malnutrition, missing the fact that malnutrition would have been greater in the absence of Borlaug’s efforts.

In Borlaug’s honor, an annual symposium in Iowa about world hunger is held, bringing together experts to discuss world hunger.  The related World Food Prize attempts to further Borlaug’s vision by acknowledging other leaders.

Borlaug’s important work to help stave off famine in the world, while population was doubling, makes for a good topic for classroom discussion.

Many readings (some online) are available that go into greater depth about Borlaug, including Leon Hesser’s biography “The Man Who Fed the World”, 2006 (Durban House Publisher).  Borlaug interviews appear on Youtube, such as a series about the International Rice Research Institute.

A popular best-seller by Charles C Mann  “The Wizard and the Prophet:  Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World” 2018 (Knopf, Penguin) also goes into considerable depth about Borlaug’s research (including fungus-infected flax) and later work with the India Agricultural Research Institute).

Much of the debates today about the challenges of resilience and hunger keep coming back to issues that framed Borlaug’s career and advocacy.


by Steven Hansch, WHES Director & Editor