03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Learning From Norman, and Feeding the World

As plant scientists, politicians, Big Ag execs, and hunger experts gather in Des Moines this week for the annual World Food Prize Symposium, the official topic of discussion will be "Food, Agriculture & National Security in a Globalized World." But the conversation will mostly center around Norm. Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born agronomist and Nobel Laureate who founded the prize in 1986 and died a month ago at the age of 95, was always the central presence at the weeklong event, and even in his absence that won't likely change.

Known as the "father of the Green Revolution," Borlaug developed high-yield strains of wheat and rice that, together with the increased use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, helped feed the skyrocketing populations of a post-war world. Borlaug did most of his work in Mexico, but the fruits of his efforts were adopted widely throughout Latin America and South Asia. (He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contribution to ending the India-Pakistan food shortage of the mid-1960s.) In its front-page obituary on September 13th, the New York Times called Borlaug "the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself."

Borlaug's critics -- and there are plenty of them -- would call that the ultimate irony. And you do have to wonder: If the world learned to feed itself half a century ago, why are there now more hungry people than ever before? Far from being self-sufficient, farmers in places like India and Mexico are today more dependent on outsiders -- namely the companies that sell the hybrid seeds and inputs they now rely upon -- than they were before Borlaug came along. Yes, production rose decisively in the second half of the 20th century, but the gains came at a cost. Funding for agricultural research in the developing world plummeted, for example, and as bulging grain stocks led to falling prices, farmers unable to compete on the global market were forced off their land.

The increased use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers has polluted our rivers and continues to threaten our health; while in places like India, indiscriminate irrigation has resulted in dangerously low levels of groundwater. Meanwhile, the widespread planting of proprietary seeds means not only that biodiversity has shrunk but that power over the world's food supply has been concentrated in the hands of a few. And I'm not the first to make a connection between our nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics and the fact that we grow more corn than we can possibly figure out what to do with. Indeed, when you look out at the corporate nature of today's agricultural landscape, it's hard not draw a line back to Norman Borlaug.

But to blame the guy doesn't seem quite fair. He was a scientist, after all, working with his hands in the dirt -- often for 12 hours at a stretch -- to solve the problem put before him. If he didn't anticipate the social and environmental ills that resulted decades later, neither did he have any control over the international trade policies, domestic crop subsidies, bad leadership, gender discrimination and manifold other factors that contribute to today's hunger scourge. Nor did he consider the problem solved. "We still have a large number of miserable, hungry people," Borlaug told an audience in Asia in 2006, "and this contributes to world instability. Human misery is explosive, and you better not forget that."

To simply blame Borlaug would also be to miss an opportunity. Among the speakers at this week's Symposium will be Bill Gates, who three years ago launched his own Green Revolution, this one in Africa. A report published on September 25 by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says that by 2050 the world will need to feed an additional 2.3 billion people, most of them in Africa, so a revolution doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Critics of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), however, are already warning that in its reliance on technology and market-based solutions, the initiative threatens to prove as flawed as the original. Like Borlaug, who remained an outspoken supporter of genetic modification up until the end, Bill Gates is a believer in the power of science to tackle the ever-evolving problems that confront humanity. There's something wonderfully hopeful about such an outlook, but in an age of climate change and environmental degradation wrought of past shortsightedness, to neglect the time-proven approaches long practiced by farmers in the developing world would be folly.

As Norman Borlaug well knew -- and as the theme of this year's Symposium will drive home again -- hunger is an issue whose consequences reverberate across the globe. I don't mean to throw cold water on the Norm-fest poised to sweep Des Moines this week. I just hope that amid all the adoration the very legitimate echoes of his critics aren't drowned out.