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PBS misses the boat on Norman Borlaug

The film’s characterization of the “unintended consequences” of Borlaug’s legacy of Green Revolution aftereffects is starkly unbalanced.

Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug
University of Minnesota

Even with the unprecedented amount of media coverage demanded by these most troubled times, I feel that an injustice done to aspects of the legacy of world-renowned scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug merits attention. The offender is a recently produced PBS “American Experience” documentary film (“The Man Who Tried To Feed The World —  A Tale of Good Deeds and Unintended Consequences”) about the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Borlaug, the University of Minnesota’s most highly acclaimed alumnus. Not to be consigned to the dustbin of history any time soon, the film is available online and on DVD.

I feel this documentary does portray admirably the “good deeds” of Norman Borlaug the person, agricultural scientist, educator, diplomat/advocate, and incomparable humanitarian. It commendably recounts his unrelenting scientific and political battle against world hunger which, along with substantial contributions by his teams of scientists (the film neglects to say many from the U of M) and farmers, is said to have saved a billion lives.

In contrast, unfortunately, in my view the film’s characterization of the “unintended consequences” of Borlaug’s legacy of Green Revolution aftereffects is starkly unbalanced. It gives almost exclusive attention to very negative detractors. It is understandable to acknowledge the controversy surrounding Borlaug’s legacy — but one should do so in a fair way, also presenting his advocates’ side in the debate.

Right from the get-go in the program’s introduction, very devastating statements are made by the narrator and others — “… unleashed vast, turbulent forces … enormous social upheaval … huge environmental damage.”  In the introduction’s most damning statement of all, Professor Raj Patel, a long-time Borlaug critic, tells viewers, “It’s not any credit to the Nobel Prize that Norman Borlaug got it.” These harshly accusatory remarks lingered for this viewer as the film proceeded.

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As the film does unfold, nowhere do we hear from any of the multitude of eminent scholars and other commentators globally who are Borlaug advocates and have very different, much more positive perspectives than the critics. This is especially true of their view of the environmental and societal impacts of the Green Revolution, the focus for much of the criticism. These supporters include prominent scientists at, of course, the U of M, also Cornell and Harvard universities, the National Academy of Sciences and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to name just a very few. (What are the bona fides of the critics?)

Don Henry
Don Henry
Nowhere is the viewer told about the frequently espoused counterpoint that “huge environmental damage” would have been greater if there had been no Green Revolution.  (And, of course, without it hundreds of millions would have perished — for which critics have no answer.) With only the pre-Borlaug traditional farming methods practiced in much of the world, vast amounts of additional land would have been required for food production.  This would have resulted in more drastic destruction of grasslands, deforestation, and sacrifice of wildlife. Still, only an insufficient food supply could have been produced, with millions starving to death. And there may well have been civil strife and wars with even greater loss of life.

Societal changes brought about by the Green Revolution denounced as “enormous social upheaval” also have advocates who find positives in these changes. Those who argue that greater urbanization is to mankind’s benefit, including environmental benefit, point to the Green Revolution as contributing to this process. Again, nothing about this perspective is in the film.

And perhaps most inexplicably, it is omitted that, in the first decade of the 2000s, when in his late 80s and 90s still engaged in life-saving efforts traveling the globe — and having been subjected to the rebukes from some circles for over 35 years — the lifetime achievements of Borlaug’s body of work were recognized with this nation’s highest science and civilian honors:  the National Medal of Science, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Public Welfare Medal (the most prestigious award given by the National Academy of Sciences).  He is the only person in history to have earned these awards along with the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom.  And, over his career he received honorary doctorates from more than 50 universities and colleges around the world.

This, then, is the person of unparalleled acclaim whose critics assail his accomplishments as ultimately wreaking havoc on the world. Those most notable entities cited above seemed not to have been persuaded by the naysayers’ arguments. Or perhaps they concluded simply that saving a billion lives outweighed all other considerations. One might have thought that this unprecedented recognition in the twilight of his remarkable career would indicate that Borlaug had prevailed, and the critics would be quieted. But no, almost 11 years after his death we have PBS resurrecting the negative attacks — and doing so essentially without presenting compelling counter-perspectives by any of the scores of eminent Borlaug supporters who could do so, including those noted here. I join several other reviewers in concluding that this is a “glaring failure” of the film, a film that is now online for the ages.

Don Henry, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist/administrator/stay-at-home dad, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, a native of Cresco, Iowa (where Borlaug went to high school), and a resident of St. Paul.   

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