The 25th March is a significant day in Bangladesh. It was this day, in 1971, when the Pakistani army began its genocide, causing the death of millions, but eventually also leading to the birth of the nation. The Pakistani army had been supported by the United States, who had sent the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal in a show of strength, pitting its might against India and its ally of that time, the Soviet Union. The United States also influenced Bangladesh in a very different way. Exactly 57 years earlier to the day, a man born in Iowa was to affect the destiny of Bangladeshis in a profound manner.
Considering that he was one of only few US citizens to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, he was little known, even in his own nation. Amongst Nobel Prize winners, only Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel have also won the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Medal. Norman Borlaug, the man who prevented a billion people from starving seems to have been easily forgotten. His death on the 12th September 2009, went largely unnoticed in Bangladesh.
Interestingly, the man who is said to be the father of the ‘Green Revolution’ is also blamed by some for having encouraged intensive farming, which some environmentalists feel have led to soil depletion and dependency of farmers. Certainly, a side effect of intensive cultivation is the dependence on both fertilizers and pesticides, effectively a dependence on petrochemical products. While the high yields produced by Borlaug’s techniques are undeniable and revolutionary, the increase in costs of fertilizers and pesticides has resulted in dependence on imports from foreign companies. The rate of increase in rice production in India, for instance, has been far outstripped by the rate of fertilizer intake per ton of rice. Borlaug himself had a simple response to this analysis. There was a need for food, and he provided a way to produce more. He has always said, the real answer was to curb population, but while there were mouths to feed, he made sure there was food to feed them. As a result nations that had been facing a potential famine, Bangladesh, India, Mexico and Pakistan became self sufficient in food. Mexico even became an exporter of wheat. Consequently, Borlaug is credited with having prevented over billion people from starvation.
India honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan, its second highest civilian honour. In Bangladesh he received the first honorary membership of the Bangladesh Association for the Advancement of Science. His success in Pakistan, might have been halted by the all to familiar bureaucratic systems we regularly encounter. When seeds destined for Karachi, reached Los Angeles en-route, a Mexican bank refused to honour Pakistan treasury’s payment of US$100,000, because the check contained three misspelled words. But the seeds did eventually arrive, and eventually led to a doubling of wheat production for both India and Pakistan.
While the new technology has undoubtedly also led to increased profits for corporate agribusiness, Borlaug never patented any of his ‘inventions’ and neither became wealthy nor famous despite the phenomenal transformation he had engineered. Rather, he encouraged its free use, himself working in the fields, training farmers how to maximize their yields.
As the initiator of the Nobel Prize had discovered, what technology eventually got used for, depended largely upon who got to use them. Unlike Alfred Nobel, Borlaug, also of Norwegian descent, never accumulated the wealth to find ways to offset the negative effects of his discoveries, but he remained a dreamer till the end.
“When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.”