New Documentary Explores One Agronomist’s Complex Legacy - Modern Farmer

New Documentary Explores One Agronomist’s Complex Legacy

Get to know the man whose work sparked the Green Revolution.

Norman Borlaug in a Mexican wheat field, holding bunches of his “miracle” wheat.
Photography courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Arthur Rickerby photography.

Norman Borlaug dedicated his life to tackling world hunger. But the renowned agronomist’s work, which has been credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation, also left a legacy of unintended consequences.

In the 1960’s and 70’s Borlaug developed techniques for crossbreeding plants that created high yield disease-resistant strains of wheat. Critics of industrial agriculture, however, associate him with the large quantities of water, pesticides and fertilizer that were used to achieve these high levels of production.

The complexity of his agricultural legacy was what filmmaker Rob Rapley says he wrestled with in his latest documentary about Borlaug, The Man Who Tried to Feed the World.  He says he aimed to highlight what one person can accomplish when they’re determined.

“You can look at his story any way you want,” Rapley says. “But, I hope people see that he was a well intentioned person with pure motives.”

In the PBS film, scheduled to premiere at 9PM, ET on April 21, Rapley attempts to create a deeper understanding of who Borlaug was as a person and what influenced his path in agriculture. He believes breaking down the details of the scientist’s past shows he only wanted to help the hungry.

“Critics of industrial agriculture tend to look at some of the negative consequences and they look for a villain, who has to be responsible for these things,” he says. “They’ve tended to lay it at Borlaug’s doorstep without really learning about him personally.”

The documentary reveals details of Borlaug’s upbringing where technological advancements in agriculture gave him the start he needed in life. As a child, he worked from dawn until dusk using methods in the field similar to the ancient Romans. But in the mid-1920’s, the introduction of the Henry Ford tractor let him reduce the amount of time he spent working on his family farm to attend college.

In the 1940’s, after he obtained a Ph.D. in plant pathology, Borlaug was recruited to a Rockefeller Foundation program designed to develop agriculture for rural farmers in Mexico. At the time, he was employed to defeat stem rust, a fungus which was destroying the country’s wheat crops year after year. When he arrived, he was struck by the prevalence of malnutrition he saw across the country and wanted to do something about it.

By the early 1960s, many farmers in Mexico embraced his disease resistant variety and wheat output in the country had soared six fold compared to the levels of the early 1940s. Borlaug was then invited to India in 1963 to help address food supply issues. In 1968, when his wheat program was implemented, the harvest was one and a half times larger than the previous record. And by 1970 variants of his wheat had produced record-breaking harvests in other countries like Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his ability to reduce global hunger. 

His methods also triggered what is now known as the Green Revolution. As industrial agriculture has become widespread, the viewer learns that Borlaug believed his wheat varieties and the chemicals used to grow them were only methods created to buy time for another 20-25 years before global hunger could be addressed in other ways. 

Today, the repercussions of his efforts are often associated with environmental destruction such as groundwater depletion, desertification, soil erosion and the spread of toxic chemicals. Acknowledging this criticism, Rapley believes Borlaug’s story can be seen as a valuable lesson so that history doesn’t repeat itself. 

“He shows us the peril of taking a purely scientific approach to solving real world problems,” he says. “This serves a cautionary tale as we investigate scientific solutions to things like global warming.” 

The Man Who Tried to Feed the World will premiere on PBS American Experience, PBS.org and the PBS Video App. It is also available on DVD from PBS Distribution.

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