American Experience


The Man Who Tried to Feed the World

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World recounts the story of the man who would not only solve India’s famine problem but would go on to lead a “Green Revolution” of worldwide agriculture programs estimated to have saved one billion lives.

AIRED: April 21, 2020 | 0:52:27

NARRATOR: It was in the spring of 1966, in northeastern India,

that Norman Borlaugcame face-to-face with the enemy

he had been fighting all his life.

(children crying)

(flies buzzing)

Borlaug was a driven man,

a scientist obsessed by hunger.

And he was tormentedby the thought that all of this

could have been prevented, ifonly people had listened sooner.

For years,Borlaug had traveled the globe,

preaching a radically new approach to agriculture,

one that he had helped develop over the course of 20 years.

Unprecedented population growth was straining

the food supply of countries around the world,

raising the specter of widespread famine

and social chaos.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Next to the pursuit of peace,

the greatest challenge to the human family

is the race between food supply and population increase.

That race tonight is being lost.

WALTER CRONKITE: Dr. Norman Borlaug, an Iowa-born crop expert,

was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday

for his work toward easing the world's hunger problem.


NARRATOR: Within just five years. Borlaug would be hailed

around the world for saving countless lives

through what was called "The Green Revolution."

But Borlaug's stunning successes

had also unleashed vast, turbulent forces.

CHARLES MANN: The number of people who are hungry

declined dramatically.

But there was enormous social upheaval.

There is huge environmental damage.

RAJ PATEL: Norman Borlaug was responsible for the spread of large-scale

industrial agricultural production around the world.

I certainly don't think

that it's any credit to the Nobel Prize

that Norman Borlaug got it.

NARRATOR: Half a century later,

Borlaug's revolution continues to shape our world.

TORE OLSSON: It's really impossible to understand

the massive growth of the human population,

to understand the urbanization of our species,

to understand our tremendous

increasing ecological impact on the world,

unless we understand Norman Borlaug

and the Green Revolution.

MANN: Borlaug grew up on a very small farm

in northeastern Iowa.

And it's isolated in a way that is very hard

for a 21st-century person to imagine.

NOEL VIETMEYER: On very quiet winter nights,

Norm and his sisters would go out;

they could hear

the train whistle, which was 14, 15 miles away.

It was the only connection they had to the rest of humanity.

NARRATOR:Norman Borlaug was born in 1914

into a clan of immigrant farmers.

His great-grandparents had fled Norway in 1847,

driven by the same potato blight that ravaged Ireland.

As children, Norm and his twoyounger sisters rose before dawn

and worked on the family's 100-acre farm

until after sunset, in a manner that would have been familiar

to the ancient Romans.

MANN:Every year he harvested himself

a quarter of a million ears of corn.

He worked very, very hard, but he hated it.

VIETMEYER:Norm had no prospects whatever.

He had to stay on the farm and work.

And then when his father died, he would take over.

(crowd murmuring)

NARRATOR: In the late 1920s, when Norm was finishing grade school,

he saw signs of a technological revolution

that was transforming rural life.

VIETMEYER: Henry Ford produced a little tractor,

and that tractor did for farmers

what his Model T did for the general public.

(engine chugging)

MANN: The Fordson, it's called.

Typically, in those days, about 40% of a farm

was devoted to growing the food for the oxen and horses.

When you had a tractor,

that land became available to grow food,

and the farm's effective size doubled.

Their income doubled.

To have corn harvestedin a couple of days in a tractor

was an incredibly liberating experience for him.

Anybody would draw a lesson from that.

He certainly did,

that this kind of technology equaled freedom from toil.

(tractor rumbling)

NARRATOR:"The fabled future had arrived," Borlaug recalled,

"and was even more fabulous

than anything we'd dared wish for."

VIETMEYER:That's how he got some education

beyond eighth grade.

Because of the tractor and these modern things.

He had confidence in technology for the rest of his days.

(wind howling)

NARRATOR: Within a few years, Borlaug's bright hopes

had been swallowed up by the Great Depression.

In Iowa, the rain stopped,

clouds of locusts blotted out the sun,

dust storms buried farms and towns alike.

Borlaug's high school graduation was an eerie affair;

no one mentioned the future.

In the fall of 1933, with just $61 in his pocket,

he left the farm for Minneapolis.

MANN: He hoped to get an athletic scholarship

at the University of Minnesota.

He didn't think he was very smart.

He didn't think he was welleducated or anything like that.

He hoped that this was his way into a better life.

NARRATOR: Not only was there no sports scholarship,

it took an entire termand three separate applications

before the University of Minnesota opened its doors.

He chose to study forestry,then something of a campus cult,

representing both a rebellion against capitalism

and an escape from its collapse.

Food and shelter were a constant struggle,

but there were consolations:

Borlaug was moonlighting as a waiter

when he met Margaret Gibson.

JEANIE BORLAUG: My mother was waiting tables to pay for her education.

I think she thought he was

very serious.

And my mother was not real serious,

but she had a great personality.

NARRATOR: In the fall of 1937,

with graduation around the corner

and a job waiting at the Forestry Service,

Norm married Margaret in a quietceremony at her brother's home.

But their tidy future vanished just three months later,

when Norm's forestry job fell victim to budget cuts.

Suddenly at loose ends, he went back to school

for graduate studies in plant pathology.

But the most indelible lesson of his college years

took place in the streets of Minneapolis.

VIETMEYER: He walked around a corner

and there was a milk plant.

Norm could see behind a big fence

a bunch of corporate goons with batons.

(engine rumbling)

NARRATOR: Across the Midwest, desperate farmers were trying

to shore up commodity prices by cutting off

the supply of food to the cities.

"We'll eat our wheat and ham and eggs," they chanted,

"and let them eat their gold."

(horn honking, people shouting)

MANN: Dairy farmers were going to dump the milk

because they couldn't sell it for enough to make a living.

Hungry people descended on these trucks and demanded the milk.

And all of a sudden, they, they charged.

And Norm was trapped by the crowd,

and these batons were coming right towards him,

swinging and hitting people over the head.

NARRATOR: "Bodies and blood were scattered and spattered

all over the street," Borlaug wrote.

"I took off running, trembling, frightened.

"I'd seen how fast violence springs to life

"when hunger, misery, and desperation

infect the public mind."

It was terrifying to him, and he saw how hunger

can just turn, as he sort of put it, men into beasts.

NARRATOR: Scenes like the one in Minneapolis

were all too common in the 1930s.

Hunger and deprivation were fueling political instability

around the world,

dragging humanity into abrutish struggle for resources.

(crowd clamoring)

OLSSON: The Second World War in many ways is a struggle about food.

Hitler and the Nazis looked eastward at Poland and Russia

as sort of settling ground for prosperous Aryan farmers

who would then produce for the larger German nation.

Japan, as well,

saw China as a potential feeding ground

for the Japanese nation.

But these big dreams aredependent upon the subjugation,

if not murder, of millions of people.

(ship guns firing)

NARRATOR: By 1940, Japan had invaded Manchuria,

and Germany occupied much of Europe.

As the Roosevelt administration braced

for what was quickly becoming a second world war,

it looked nervously to its southern border.

The Mexican government was working to liberate

the country's citizens from grinding poverty,

but prosperity and stability remained elusive.

NICK CULLATHER: Mexico was coming out of years of revolution, civil war.

Rural Mexicans had

at best a kind of a loose and sometimes hostile relationship

with the central government.

It began to look as if social unrest south of the border

would be a vulnerability for the United States.

NARRATOR: The Roosevelt administration and the Mexican government

both wanted peace in the countryside.

The Rockefeller Foundation,

a wealthy philanthropy with White House connections,

offered to help.

OLSSON: The Rockefeller Foundation

had been involved in teaching

poor black and white cotton farmers in the U.S. South.

And this gave them a sort of proven formula

for how they could attack questions of poverty

and "backwardness," as they saw it.

(cows mooing)

NARRATOR: By 1942, the Rockefeller Foundation

and the Mexican government

had negotiated a carefully targeted plan.

OLSSON: They wanted to raise the economic standard of living

among the impoverished farmers

who tended to live in the densely settled plateau

around Mexico City.

CULLATHER: The United States is anxious to stabilize Mexico,

and the Mexican government was eager for this.

This was a kind of counterinsurgency effort,

to improve the livelihoods of people in the villages

and also to connect those villages more closely

to the national government.

(engine rumbling)

NARRATOR: On the 7th of December, 1941,

Norman and Margaret Borlaug were driving east from Minneapolis

to Wilmington, Delaware,

where Norman was due to start

his first job at DuPont Chemical.

So it wasn't until the following day

that they heard about Pearl Harbor.

MANN:Borlaug graduated from Minnesota into the Second World War.

And he wanted to do something that mattered.

He wanted to make a contribution.

NARRATOR: For two-and-a-half years,

Borlaug put his PhD in plant pathology to use,

waging a quiet war on the microbes

that were ravaging soldiers and materials in the jungles

of the South Pacific.

But he'd never meant to spend his life in a laboratory,

so when the Rockefeller Foundation

contacted him about an exotic job in Mexico,

Borlaug took the plunge.

On the 11th of September, 1944,

he loaded up the family's old Pontiac and headed south,

leaving behind a very pregnant Margaret

and their young daughter Jeanie.

Borlaug had only a vague sense of what lay ahead

when he joined three other American scientists

at a research station near Chapingo,

25 miles east of Mexico City.

Still, he was surprised to be given a side project.

While everyone else worked

on the staples of theMexican diet-- corn and beans--

Borlaug was to focus on wheat.

As the junior member of the team, he had no choice

but to take on a fiendishly difficult challenge.

(insects buzzing, birds chirping)

MANN: He was to look at a kind of fungus called stem rust.

Stem rust is one of the oldest enemies of the human race.

The Romans had a god of stem rust

that they would sacrifice to

to propitiate it, to try to keep it away.

NARRATOR: Stem rust had driven Borlaug's family

out of the wheat business back in 1878.

Now, it was killing half of Mexico's small wheat crop

year after year.

VIETMEYER: Stem rust migrates.

These are trillions and trillions of spores

sailing on the wind.

And when they find wheat plants of the right maturity,

it just destroys them.

CULLATHER: His background was actually in forestry,

so he didn't have a lot of training

in the breeding of wheat.

NARRATOR: Borlaug was already reeling when a telegram arrived

at the end of November 1944--

Margaret had given birth to a boy with spina bifida.

For three agonizing days, Norm waited for a flight

back to Wilmington.

He found Margaret at the hospital

with an awful predicament.

Scotty was in an isolation ward;

they couldn't touch or comfort him.

His affliction was essentially a death sentence.

Norm announced

that he was taking his old job back at DuPont

so they could all be together.

"My husband has a future," Margaret insisted.

"My baby has none.

You go back; I'll come when I can."

A few weeks later,

Margaret and Jeanie followed Norm to Mexico City.

(vehicle rattling)

Back in Mexico, tormented byguilt and unsure how to proceed,

Borlaug drove around in the station's green pickup,

gathering thousands of different varieties of local wheat.

He was joined by Pepe Rodriguez and Jose Guevara,

young Mexican agronomists hired out of college

by the Rockefeller Foundation.

In that spring of 1945,

the three young men planted out 110,000

of the seeds Borlaug had collected.

VIETMEYER:Borlaug's just hoping like hell

that some of the wheats can withstand

the trillions of spores that are going to be landing.

NARRATOR: All summer they trudged through the rows,

weeding out every seedling that showed the telltale pustules.

Of the 110,000 plants,

just four were still alive at harvest time.

Already, Borlaug was haunted

by the malnutrition he'd seen in Mexico,

and now the cause seemed abundantly clear.

"Can you imagine trying to feed a family?" he wrote Margaret.

"We've got to do something."

He had found his life's work.

MANN: When he settled on the goal of trying to feed more people,

he snapped into focus.

And he worked phenomenally hard.

That perseverance, his intense, laser-like focus,

is the thing that I think most distinguished him in his life.

It was like a spotlight.

A spotlight casts certain things in very bright light,

but also casts very deep shadows.

NARRATOR: Driven by a new sense of mission,

Borlaug devised a plan to speed up the breeding process.

After the fall harvest at Chapingo,

he would head north with his most promising seeds

and plant them in Sonora,

where wheat is grown during the winter.

When spring came, he would harvest that generation,

rush back to Chapingo with the new winners,

and start the process over again.

By growing two generations every year,

Borlaug could solve Mexico's wheat problem,

and ease malnutrition in half the time.

"Shuttle breeding," he called it.

MANN: What Borlaug didn't know

was that all the textbooks-- literally the textbooks--

said you can't do this.

VIETMEYER: Wheat breeders believed that you had to breed wheat

for the placewhere it was going to be grown,

and nowhere else.

NARRATOR: Borlaug's boss, George Harrar, hated the idea.

Not only did shuttle breeding ignore conventional wisdom,

but Harrar worried that Borlaug's wheat

would end up benefiting the well-heeled farmers of Sonora,

rather than the campesinos of central Mexico.

OLSSON: Farmers in Sonora were not peasant farmers.

They tended to be largerin terms of their land holdings.

They tended to be commercially oriented,

growing wheat for export.

NARRATOR: Harrar told Borlaug to drop it several times,

but the younger man wouldn't let up.

Borlaug finally got grudging permission to go to Sonora,

but there was to be no budget, no support, no machinery,

accommodations, or vehicle.

No matter: At the beginning of November 1945,

Norman Borlaug packed up the seeds from the four plants

that survived the summer epidemic

and headed north.

VIETMEYER: He went up to Sonora and he squatted

in a derelict old researchstation that had been abandoned,

that had no running water.

The windows had been broken outand there were rats everywhere.

(birds twittering)

MANN: He didn't have a tractor.

He didn't have a horse.

So he was actually

taking a harness, you know,

that normally was attached to a draft animal--

you know, a horse or an oxen or whatever--

strapping it around his chest and arms,

and plowing himself.

(birds twittering)

NARRATOR: There was, in fact, a method to Borlaug's madness.

By cross-breeding his four survivors

with other successful varieties,

he hoped to produce the perfect wheat.

The critical moment arrivedwhen the wheat began to flower.

VIETMEYER: Wheat is self-pollinating,

so to make a cross-pollination,

you have to cut the female floret

when it's just at the right point

and remove all of its pollen

so that it can't pollinate itself;

you got to get every last one.

Then you have to cover it with a paper

to stop any foreign pollen blowing in on the wind.

Four days later, when the male is producing pollen,

then you bring that one over and pour its pollen down

so you've got a cross-pollinated plant.

It's very, very complicated, and Norm had to teach himself.

MANN: This is something that plant breeders have been doing

for a very, very long time.

What they haven't done is to do it on a massive scale.

It's such a phenomenal amount of work,

nobody in their right mind would think of doing it.

(insects chirping)

NARRATOR: At night, as Borlaug lay on the floor

with rats scampering over his bedroll,

the ghosts crowded in.

"I was certain," he wrote, "thatI had made a dreadful mistake."

Over the next years,Borlaug's doubts slowly gave way

to the realizationthat he was on to something big.

By 1948,

he had wheat that resisted stem rust,

grew anywhere, in any season,

and delivered huge quantities of high-quality grain.

(horn honking)

But that remarkable achievement came with one big catch.

In order to deliver those yields,

his wheat needed unprecedented levels of chemical fertilizer

and lots of water.

VIETMEYER: Fertilizer was the key

to getting the absolute greatest productivity

out of, out of these plants--

ten times what the average wheat farmer was getting.

NARRATOR: Borlaug wanted to fight hunger by producing lots of food.

But his wheat relied on a costly recipe;

only farmers who could afford that fertilizer

and had access to irrigation water

stood to benefit.

Poorer farmers-- the ones the Rockefeller Foundation

had come to help--

would be largely left behind.

OLSSON: Borlaug is coming to challenge in many ways

the established direction of the program,

which was trying to help small-scale, poor farmers

in central Mexico.

And George Harrar, who is Borlaug's boss,

basically tells him, "You've got to stop this.

"It is a fundamental distraction

from what we're trying to accomplish with this program."

And Borlaug throws down thetowel and says, "I'm quitting."

JOHN PERKINS: Borlaug had very definite thoughts

about the way that agriculture should develop.

You make it possible for very few people

to raise vast amounts of food.

And the surplus labor--

which is what most people in rural areas became--

they were going to be city people.

(birds twittering)

NARRATOR: Borlaug marched out of Harrar's office

and began making plans to leave the country,

but the next day, he was unexpectedly summoned back.

"Forget what I said," Harrar told an astonished Borlaug.

"Go on working in Sonora."

Borlaug couldn't know it,

but a political earthquake on the other side of the globe

was upending the Rockefeller program.

(crowd clamoring)

CULLATHER: Chinese Communist troops march south

singing about rice and beans.

Americans interpreted the Chinese Civil War

as a conflict

that was based on resources, and particularly on food.

(soldiers singing in Chinese)

NARRATOR: By that summer of 1948,

Mao Zedong's Communists were sweeping across China.

In Washington, alarm bells were ringing.

OLSSON: There's a growing sense that the Cold War

was spiraling out of Americans' control.

The fear especially that what was going to tilt the Cold War

in the Soviets' favor

was discontented peasants around the world.

NARRATOR: This new threat gave Americanpolicymakers an urgent priority.

OLSSON: There was a rather simple idea

that "no one becomes a Communist on a full belly,"

that we can tilt the scales

in favor of the free capitalist democratic world

if we can just produce enough food.

NARRATOR: Borlaug's miracle wheat

might not help peasant farmers in Mexico,

but it could win hearts and minds

in the struggle against Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.

OLSSON: The Rockefeller Foundation bosses in New York,

working quite collaboratively with the State Department,

come to realize that Borlaug is actually doing something

that might be valuable for the global Cold War:

a universal program to feed a hungry world.

NARRATOR:The Rockefeller Foundation began recasting the Mexico program.

Not only was Borlaug given a free hand in Sonora,

but his agenda began to eclipse the original mission.

Over the next few years, a large staff

of Mexican and American scientists and administrators

was assigned to Borlaug's wheat project,

and a bright new facility built.

He would soon need all of those resources and more.

The problem appeared in the early 1950s,

as Borlaug was achieving unprecedented yields.

VIETMEYER: He was getting plants with so much grain up there

that the five-foot-long stem just couldn't hold it up.

Towards the end of the season,

winds would blow whole fields over.

He had to find some way to strengthen the stems.

And the only way he could see to do that

was to shrink the plant.

NARRATOR: Borlaug began crossing his top lines

with what was called a "dwarf" wheat,

descended from varieties developed in Japan

a century before.

This time there were no shortcuts, no lucky breaks,

just thousands and thousands of crosses,

and years of frustration.

Finally, in 1962, after seven years and 8,156 crosses,

the dwarf wheat program came through.

MANN: He has developed what you canthink of as the complete wheat.

Wheat that'll yield like crazy with fertilizer and water,

that's shorter, so all the extra growth will go into grain,

that will grow anywhere,

and is as resistant to stem rust as you can possibly be.

VIETMEYER:It was this amazing development.

And Norm patented nothing-- nothing.

NARRATOR:Borlaug's new wheat transformed the program's potential.

CULLATHER: The Rockefeller Foundationbegan to see places in the world

where the techniques Borlaug developed in Mexico

might be practically used.

They started out in a particular place,

with a particular set of political goals.

But increasingly, they began to see it as a program

for the salvation of the world.

NARRATOR: In January of 1963,

just a few months after Borlaug's masterstroke,

an invitation froman Indian agricultural scientist

landed on his desk.

Within weeks, Borlaug was on his way to New Delhi.

One of the most far-reaching enterprises

of the 20th century

had begun.

(horns honking)

(people talking in background, horns honking)

HOWARD K. SMITH: India's problem is easily stated.

India is one-third the size of the United States,

but it has a population greater than that

of all North America and South America together:

some 400 million people.

In the next 25 years, if nothing happens,

that huge population will double to 800 million.

If India has trouble feeding 400 million now,

how can she feed twice that number

within a generation?

REPORTER: The man whose ambition is to turn India

into a food-exporting country

is Dr. Swaminathan.

CULLATHER: Swaminathan had begun to do his own research on wheat.

He came across some research materials

about the dwarf wheat varieties,

and he conceives of the idea of inviting Norman Borlaug.

NARRATOR: Over the course of a three-week road trip

through India's wheat country,

the bull-headed American and the cultured Brahmin

discovered a bond of common purpose.

We had the same ideas, we had the same goals in life.

And I liked his approach.

GEORGE VARUGHESE: Dr. Swaminathan is an excellent politician.

He is so quiet, slow operator.

Dr. Borlaug is not that way.

He will start very polite,

but, if at one stage he findsthings are not going very well,

you cannot hold him back.

CULLATHER: Borlaug is playing a very different role

than the role he played in Mexico.

In Mexico, Borlaug is working

largely as a scientist.

When he gets to India,

he's working with Swaminathan, reaching out as a salesman

to a skeptical population and government.

NARRATOR: The political challenge was enormous.

The wholesale adoption of high-yield wheat

entailed massive investments.

Fertilizer would have to be imported

until a domestic industry could meet the demand,

and irrigation built up

across thousands of square miles.

The government would also have to guarantee

a minimum price to farmers,

so they could afford the new practices.

PRAKASH KUMAR: There were all kinds of suspicions.

Is this opening the floodgate

to American corporationsto sell their seeds, chemicals,

and other things?

And there was this huge question

whether this model of farming is applicable to India.

NARRATOR: After returning to Mexico,

Borlaug loaded 750 pounds of seed

into the cargo hold of a Pan Am jet

and sent it to Swaminathan for field trials.

(birds chirping)

By harvest time, he was in India again,

in time to savor the result:

Where the plants had been fed and watered as directed,

they had delivered almost incredible yields.

But Borlaug was outraged to discover

that scientists at several sites had used traditional methods.

With no fertilizer, chemicals, or extra water,

the plants fared poorly.

This, they insisted, was how wheat was grown in South Asia.

(birds twittering)

KUMAR: Most of Indian farming was for subsistence.

Gandhian ideology talks in terms of restraint in use.

It talks in terms of less greed, less acquisition.

It was the brute capitalism

of Norman Borlaug's model

which was irreconcilable with Gandhian thought.

NARRATOR:As far as Borlaug was concerned,

India was in danger of widespread famine,

and it was almost criminal to object to a solution.

"This was utter folly," he noted, "and we ignored it."

But folly or not,

Borlaug and Swaminathan couldn't bring the authorities around;

it was going to take more than a few field tests

to shake up the world's largest democracy.

(people talking in background, horn honking)

KUMAR: There was a real fearin the American State Department

that hunger would lead to a Communist takeover.

So they came up with this new kind of a solution:

using food as a tool of foreign policy.

NARRATOR: In the mid-1950s,

the United States began sending its surplus grain

to countries like India

under a program called "Food For Peace."

It was a powerful strategy, but unsustainable.

In 1965, India consumed

one-fifth of America's wheat crop;

by 1970, it was projected to need one-half.

SMITH: Two-thirds of the worldgoes to bed hungry every night.

Most children eat less than two meals a day.

The population problem has clearly graduated to the point

where it has to be faced and discussed openly

and in deadly seriousness.

CULLATHER:The idea that population growth had gone out of control

became a major political concern.

(horn honks)

The United Nations began holding sessions

on the question of population.

The U.S. Congress began wondering

whether the food supply

would keep up with global population growth.

NARRATOR: If present trends continued,

mankind would run out of arable land

and the food supply would fall short.

Famine and social chaos seemed inevitable.

PERKINS: Most of the good acres are already in cultivation.

So you have to get more food

from every acre you harvest.

NARRATOR: American policymakers began pushing strategies

to grow larger yields

in an effort to contain the looming crisis.

For many people, India was the bellwether.

"The future of mankind

is now being ground out there," a witness told Congress.

"If no solution is found,

all the world will live as India does now."

In 1966,that was a terrifying prospect.

(horn honking)

REPORTER: Even in good years,

millions of Indians suffer from malnutrition.

This year, 70 million lives may be in peril

in the worst drought in India's history

as an independent nation.

REPORTER: One-third of Bihar has been declared

as famine area.

Water is a major problem.

The prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

GANDHI: All of us must come together to alleviate the agony

of millions of our stricken people.

KUMAR: I was born in 1966 in the state of Bihar,

when my state was passing through this famine.

That famine was real and it led to death.

NARRATOR: "During those terrible days," Borlaug wrote,

"I saw miserable homeless kids pleading for scraps of bread.

"Each morning, trucks circledthe streets, picking up corpses.

That's when my patience ran out."

Borlaug's frustration boiled over

in a meeting with one oftheir leading Indian opponents.

VARUGHESE: Ashok Mehta, the head of the Planning Commission,

determines the priorities, where to allocate the money,

how the policies are set.

He was the person who was holding back.

MANN: Borlaug barges into the guy's office and explodes.

NARRATOR: "Unless the policy is changed soon," Borlaug shouted,

"farmers will riot, and social and political disorder

"will spread across the countryside,

and you personally will be to blame!"

MANN: He's red-faced, he's slamming the table,

yelling and screaming at ahigh Indian government official

who's never met him before.

NARRATOR: Borlaug's tirade went hand-in-hand

with a harsh new American policy.

By the summer of 1966,

the United States' wheat surplus was dwindling.

President Lyndon Johnson,

anxious to force the paceof agricultural reform in India,

shut down the food pipeline at the height of the drought.

"He was toying withpeople's lives," Borlaug wrote.

"But," he added,

"what he was attempting was just what was needed."

Few Indians saw it that way.

PATEL: That moment of understanding

that the food supply of your country was hostage

to whether you did what the United States

wanted you to or not

was a moment of indelible national shame.

NARRATOR: Indians resolved to throw off this new colonialism.

There were to be no more grain imports,

the government declared,

even if it meant that Indians would starve.

(crowd chanting)

NARRATOR: In these new circumstances,

Borlaug's program took on a different aspect.

It offered a path to Indian self-sufficiency

and independence,

a goal that now outweighed worries of ecology

and social equity.

Not long after Borlaug's showdown with Mehta,

India announced a fundamental change

in its agricultural policy.

Fertilizer imports and factories, irrigation,

price supports-- everything was in place now.

For years, Borlaug had promised that he could save India.

Now it was time to prove it.

(rainfall pattering)

CULLATHER:Fertilizer had been distributed around the country.

The test plots had been stretched out

to almost a million acres.

And the rains cooperated.

(thunder rumbling)

NARRATOR: By the time Borlaug and Swaminathan

headed into the countryside in the spring of 1968,

the atmosphere was electric.

CULLATHER: Reports began to arrive in New Delhi of grain silos

that were being overwhelmed.

Railroad depots were stacking grain on the tracks

because there was no place else to put it.

VIETMEYER: They closed the schools and filled the school rooms

with the sacks of grain.

There was food everywhere.

There was grain everywhere.

NARRATOR: "Punjabi towns were buried in wheat," Borlaug wrote.

"There weren't bags to hold the grain,

"carts to haul away the bags,

"bullocks to pull the carts,

or trucks and trains to haul it all away."

When it was all done and counted,

the 1968 harvest was almost one-and-a-half times larger

than the previous record.

It marked the beginningof a movement that would change

the face of the world.

Soon afterward,

an American diplomat gave that movement a name--

and an ideology.

CULLATHER:The term "Green Revolution" wasmeant to contrast this program,

which was now seenas a tremendous global success,

with the Red Revolution, which was at that time

sweeping the world, and particularly in Asia.

KUMAR: At the end of the day, Green Revolution

was ideological in nature.

Norman Borlaug represented American faith

in agricultural capitalism.

(birds twittering)

NARRATOR: By 1970, the impact of Borlaug's work

was being felt around the world.

Variants of his wheat produced record-breaking harvests

in Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco,

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

With the help of the State Department and the World Bank,

Green Revolution techniqueswere spreading around the world.

Borlaug's research had inspired programs

that developed high-yield rice, maize, and other crops.

Those higher yields

had largely banished the specter of global famine.

After years of apocalyptic forecasts,

it seemed almost miraculous,

and Borlaug had been at the center of it.

Still, he had no idea what to expect

when strangers startedshowing up at work one morning.

MR. WHITE: Doctor, a few hours ago,you were informed that you'd won

the Nobel Peace Prize.

Why do you think you won it?

Well, Mr. White, I suppose it has something to do

with the Green Revolution.

CRONKITE: The 1970 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded today

to Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug.


REPORTER: His efforts are creditedwith saving millions of persons

from malnutrition and starvation.

(people talking in background, camera shutter clicks)

NARRATOR: Overnight, Borlaug's life became a whirlwind.

Everywhere, he was revered

for having saved the world from disaster.

But Borlaug remained deeply apprehensive,

sure that he had only delayed mankind's reckoning.

We are making progress at the best, present time.

We can't relax, we must continue.

The Green Revolution has bought 20 to 25 years.

The world can support so many individuals

at a certain population level.

But I think that we might be able to cope

and buy 20 or 30 years of time.

CULLATHER: He believed thathe had bought time for the world

to deal with the population problem

and to bring it under control.

NARRATOR: Borlaug had warned that the Green Revolution

was just a delaying action,

a fix that bought 20 or 30 years.

But by the turn of the century, those decades had passed,

the population was still growing,

and the Green Revolution was deeply entrenched

around the world.

PERKINS: The revolution happened

and the revolution became

the standard operating procedure.

And it really doesn't matter which country you're in.

It would be very hard

to feed the human population

at seven billion and still growing

without the Green Revolution technology.

NARRATOR: Borlaug was still lionized,

but the legacy of the Green Revolution

was becoming ever more troubled.

MANN: What the Green Revolution did

was increase the global food supply,

by a lot.

But that was accomplished

at tremendous social cost and an environmental cost.

(engine rumbling, horn honking)

KUMAR: There is no doubt that the Green Revolution

resolved the question of food scarcity in India.

But in parts of India, the impact can be seen

in the degradation of soil,

in the reduction of water table,

a broken agrarian community,

a broken society.

PERKINS: After the Green Revolution,

most people ended up living in cities.

People were not needed in the rural areas.

There was nothing for them to do.

OLSSON: Not only does much of Mexico

come to be soaked in toxic chemicals...

We see this massive outmigration of Mexican farmers

out of the countryside and into cities.

Millions of Mexicans who've chosen to emigrate

to the United States in the last 30, 40 years or so

are the former campesino farmers from central Mexico.

(horns honking)

(people talking in background, children shouting)

NARRATOR: Most disturbing of all,

no matter how much food the Green Revolution created,

hunger remained.

NORMAN BORLAUG: It's particularly frustrating to me

is that there are still 700 million people

who are short of food.

We have at least two different aspects of this food problem.

One is to produce enough,

and the second is the problem of poverty

and lack of purchasing power

for a large part of the world's population.

OLSSON: The problem is not a lack of food.

It is about the inequality in class

and poverty.

NARRATOR: Norman Borlaug died in the fall of 2009.

To the end, he remained outspoken, stubborn, selfless,

and obsessed by his war on hunger.

Over the course of his life,

he rarely reflected on his place in history.

(bird calling)

But once, not long after he won the Nobel Prize,

Borlaug visited hisancestral homestead in Norway...

Where he wandered alone,

contemplating his role in what he called

"the great sweep of human events."

"Lurking in the edges ofmy consciousness," he recalled,

"I could see the point at which an over-burgeoning humanity

becomes too much for Mother Earth to bear."

In fact, Borlaug allowed the Earth to bear far more people

than had been thought possible.

But there would be

no final victory in his war on hunger;

it endures as a consequence not of want,

but of human nature.


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