By Harrison Rayment
As the Second World War came to a close, our planet was faced with unprecedented food shortages coupled with massive population growth. The combination of these two phenomena proved to be the breeding ground for famine in countries of the global south. Thomas Malthus’s fear that population would continue to grow exponentially while global resources remained linear started to become an ever-present reality, and countries across the globe began looking for new ways to maximize food output. To solve this looming global catastrophe, scientists from the United States began a large-scale agriculture project to increase yields of crucial crops. This project was largely headed by Norman Borlaug, who received his Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota1. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug took his knowledge in plant pathology to Mexico, where he engaged in a comprehensive research project focused on improving that nation’s wheat production.
Through genetically selecting stronger strains that produced higher yields while utilizing high levels of fertilizers, Borlaug was able to increase Mexico’s wheat production three-fold. Following his successful research project, countries across the world looked to duplicate his program in order to obtain stability within their food supplies. Borlaug’s project proliferated across the world in what is now called the “Green Revolution”, and Borlaug was idolized as its father. Although Borlaug has been seen as a humanitarian hero, his research in wheat production has largely contributed to the human-centric nature of the Anthropocene. Borlaug’s research defied the limits of nature and prioritized technological fixes to enhance human development. However, this research contributed to human-caused environmental degradation. By manipulating the genetic make-up of wheat, Borlaug shows that humans have shredded any notion of the natural world. This elimination of a “human-nature” divide proves to be the backbone of the eco-modernist ideology while adhering to the human-centric nature of the Anthropocene.
The demand for the intensive agricultural research that Borlaug conducted stemmed from the impending famine caused by an imbalance in global population and access to food resources. Evidence of this impending famine could be seen in central Asian countries, like India, who experienced the most serious food shortages the country had ever seen in 19432. In 1944, Borlaug began his research in the central highlands of Mexico, where the nation had the majority of its farming production3. Borlaug became attuned to the climate of Mexico and realized that he could maximize yields and research productivity by growing wheat in two locations. The first city that Borlaug focused his studies was the city of Toluca, which resides in the nation’s central highlands at around 8,500 feet above sea level4. Borlaug’s second location sat in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, which is located on a coastal strip just feet above sea level. Utilizing both of these locations allowed Borlaug to conduct research year-round, and allowed him to discover which strains provided the highest yield as a function of local climate.
Apart from utilizing different locations for wheat production, Borlaug was directly responsible for manipulating the genetic makeup of Mexican wheat species. Through artificially selecting certain genes, Borlaug was able to create strains of wheat that were shorter, yet contained thicker stalks. These shorter plants were able to withstand the weight of larger seed heads. These wheat strains, also known as semi-dwarf wheat, fundamentally changed agricultural practices across the entire planet5, and are now responsible for nearly 99% of global wheat production. These semi-dwarf strains were also genetically selected to be resistant to rust, which is a detrimental fungal infection that leads to losses in wheat productivity6. In addition to changing the genetic makeup of the wheat varieties, Borlaug also promoted the expansion of chemical fertilizers. Through his research, Borlaug realized that continuously planting wheat on the same parcel of land depleted the land of essential nutrients, especially nitrogen. Thus, in order to maximize yields, farmers had no choice but to use artificial fertilizers7. Through genetically altering species of wheat and increasing the fertilization of fields, farmers saw massive spikes in wheat productivity. After 13 years of research in Mexico, the country finally became entirely wheat-independent.
The success of Borlaug’s almost miraculous wheat production was quickly desired by other countries who were looking to advance their agricultural sectors. For example, Pakistan and India desperately sought agricultural innovation and reform in the early 1960s. Both countries imported high-yielding genetically modified seeds from Mexico. As a result, national wheat yields rose dramatically8. Three years after starting their accelerated wheat production program, Pakistan achieved self-sufficiency9. This agricultural milestone allowed the country to achieve new levels of economic stability, which was entirely stimulated by the research of Norman Borlaug in Mexico.
The work of Norman Borlaug changed our perception of the human species and the limits to our existence. Before Borlaug’s research, the consensus among social scientists was that our population size was limited by the resources at our disposal. It was predicted that once our population grew too large, the lack of adequate sources of food would cause famine and population declines. This theory is largely captured in Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principals of Population where he states, “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race”10. Through genetically altering wheat species and expanding fertilizer usage, Borlaug proved Malthus’s theory to be false. Malthus saw famine as a natural limit on population growth, yet the research of Norman Borlaug proved that this limit on population growth could be circumvented by human ingenuity.
Although Norman Borlaug’s research saved the world from massive famine and economic instability, his work in genetically changing the make-up of wheat has contributed to a human-centric narrative of the Anthropocene, where humans are seen as superior to nature. Therefore, humans have the fundamental right to utilize the natural world for our own development. Previously, social scientists argued that there are two inherently different realms; one relating to all that is human and one encapsulating the natural world. However, in our current geological epoch, the fundamental difference between the human world and the natural world no longer exists11, because humans have developed the ability to change the genetic composition of natural organisms. In his research, Borlaug selectively chose certain traits within wheat that would develop rust-resistant offspring with thicker stalks in order to increase yields. Borlaug genetically changed nature for the well-being of the human species, without regard to the sanctity of all that is natural. Borlaug’s research promotes a human-exceptionalist narrative, where humans are seen to be innately different from nature, and therefore humans should be able to manipulate nature to maximize our existence.
This human exceptionalist narrative largely plays into the concept of eco-modernism, which creates a largely positive view of human nature. The basis of the eco-modernist ideology rests on the fact that humans and nature are fundamentally inseparable, and that moving forward humans will manipulate nature as a means of survival12. For those with an eco-modernist mindset, nature is dead and everything is human constructed13. Moving forward, to limit environmental degradation and loss of human life, our species will have to utilize technological strategies. This has already been seen with the work of Norman Borlaug. Human agriculture has been responsible for the depletion of crucial soil nutrients, which has led to reduced plant growth and lower food access. However, Borlaug prioritized the technical fix of fertilizers to limit nitrogen deficiencies14. This technological fix has been powerful in increasing wheat yields, but the over-usage of fertilizers has led to further environmental degradation, such as aggressive algae blooms and groundwater contamination.
In addition to contributing to a human-centric narrative of the “Anthropocene,” Norman Borlaug’s research into wheat production has without question added to our current environmental crisis. For example, after wheat production soared in Pakistan and India, land prices sky-rocketed. As a result, the only people who could afford to utilize this land were the rich and powerful15. Those who had the money to purchase land would become even wealthier, while those who were former tenants became hired laborers. The country’s massive increase in wheat production resulted in a larger gap between the rich and poor. Furthermore, the extensive use of insecticides and fertilizers that Borlaug promoted led to the mass-contamination of waterways and ecosystems16. Borlaug’s research may have saved the lives of millions of undernourished individuals, but it also promoted and contributed to large scale environmental destruction.
Norman Borlaug has been seen as a humanitarian icon since his impressive and meticulous research revolutionized wheat production in Mexico. His persistence for innovation allowed newly industrialized countries to achieve new levels of economic and food security. His semi-dwarf wheat plants thrived under careful monitoring and intense fertilization and now account for nearly 99% of all land dedicated to wheat production. However, his work has also contributed to our contemporary understanding of the Anthropocene. By genetically altering crops for characteristics that benefit human development, Borlaug’s research defied the limits of nature, while prioritizing technological fixes over social changes. His research has been responsible for increasing the gap between rich and poor in newly industrialized countries, while also adding to environmental degradation by promoting the usage of fertilizers. All of this evidence proves that Borlaug prioritized human survival over the sanctity of nature which adheres the human-centric geological epoch known as the Anthropocene.
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