The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 3) The Wizard

#168: Dec. - Mar. 2020 (Non-Fiction)
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Chris OConnor
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The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 3) The Wizard

Please use this thread to discuss the above chapter.
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DWill
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Norman Borlaug is someone I knew about, but as I found while reading the chapter, I didn't know anything about what he actually did to bring about the Green Revolution. My image was of a scientist in a lab and trial fields experimenting with wheat plants. But his labors took him to countries where hardship was the norm, and the scientific tools he had to work with were nowhere near as sophisticated as scientists have today. He, like William Vogt, wasn't even well-versed in his field when starting out. Like Vogt, his perseverance and dedication to a mission were heroic. While I didn't follow closely all the twists and turns of Vogt's battle to defeat rust disease in wheat plants, I did get that without Borlaug on the job, it could well be that millions more would have died from starvation. This was due not just to Borlaug's brilliance as a plant developer, but his incredible tenacity in battling bureaucrats and trying to educate recalcitrant farmers.

Yet, for many of today's environmentalists Borlaug's Green Revolution isn't even green. They view it as "environmentally, culturally, and socially destructive," Mann tells us. It wasn't by improved strains of wheat and rice alone that the millions were fed; synthetic fertilizers and irrigation were also needed, and these led to salt-laden soils and depleted aquifers and rivers. The whole Green Revolution "package" led also, of course, to a couple of billion additional people, whom the planet would not have been able to support without advances in agricultural science. Environmentalists have always disliked people--in the aggregate, that is.

The similarity between Vogt and Borlaug, Mann tells us, is that each believed in the primacy of science to ensure our well-being. Vogt's great difference from Borlaug was that the latter "was possessed by a hope of more, rather than a call for less."
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Robert Tulip
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Chapter Three: Be smart, share freely, scale up. The Borlaug Manifesto. Logic, knowledge and work.

From Norwegian Iowa subsistence corn farming, a one room school sent Borlaug on the path of education as the only protection, a full head for a full belly. The Ford Tractor more than quadrupled the farm productivity, freeing the Borlaug clan from drudgery and funding Norman’s high school years. As Ford said, man plus machine is free.

From Saude to Cresco to Minneapolis, Borlaug moved up in the world, following his ambition of playing second base for the Cubs, until an explosion of terrible fathomless hunger in a milk street protest set him on the path to wizardry, first via forestry without ecology, but also without a job. Then to Mexico after working with Elvin Stakman, the botany professor who singlehandedly largely overthrew wheat rust fungus in the US by treating science as the tool for human betterment, where Borlaug was to destroy the fungus reservoir that had been afflicting US wheat.

Under Stakman, Borlaug’s PhD hyperspecialised on plant pathology, with no forays into related subjects like ecology or plant breeding. Against Vogt’s humble focus on explaining the whole system, Borlaug worked just to get rid of pests that cut yields. During the war his brief work at Du Pont helped with numerous dull tasks relating to paint, fungus, and so on. Then in Mexico, he formed his vision of how agricultural science could overcome poverty through tools and knowledge, using fertilizer, irrigation and improved seed varieties to reconstruct their world and get rich.

Against strident opposition from his manager, Borlaug developed an innovative shuttle breeding program, taking wheat between three different regions in Mexico. In amazingly laborious processes and shocking conditions, he planted and bred new high yielding resistant wheat varieties, the path to the Green Revolution.
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DWill
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You are a worthy summarizer, Robert. And just to be clear, I admire Borlaug, with whose bio I wasn't familiar before Mann. My hope is that his brand of wizardry, a sort of science-can-do-no-wrong brand, has matured into a properly sceptical view of the aims of technology and science. Looking at the massive water projects that transformed California's arid Imperial valley into the largest producer of food in the U.S., starting in the 1930s, would we take such a route today? I would hope not; I would hope that we would realize food production needs to be local or at least regional. But this doesn't mean, on the other hand, that big is bad all the time. The Middle East water situation might be one where no other reasonable alternative exists.
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Robert Tulip
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Interesting that it was for peace, not economics, recognising the relationship between famine and security. “He’s actually credited with having saved over a billion lives, more than anyone else in human history.”
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DWill
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I wonder what Malthus would say about our ability today to feed 7 billion. Not that these 7 billion are actually being fed, but there seems to be agreement that hunger is more a result of bad distribution and lack of equity than inability of food producers to supply. So hasn't food production in fact increased exponentially? That might be an overstatement, but certainly Malthus couldn't conceive of our astoundingly productive, industrialized agriculture. I mean, something like 2% of the U.S. population directly involved in feeding us? Ridiculous.
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