Agronomist Norman Borlaug died yesterday. His work is largely responsible for increases in the world food supply that have saved the lives of billions of people. Literally: billions. Even a short interview with him gives a huge amount of insight into the technical side of a field few geeks know anything about:

In 1960, the production of the 17 most important food, feed, and fiber crops—virtually all of the important crops grown in the U.S. at that time and still grown today—was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled, to 596 million tons, and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960. If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares, about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality—which we didn’t have, and so it would have been much more. We would have moved into marginal grazing areas and plowed up things that wouldn’t be productive in the long run. We would have had to move into rolling mountainous country and chop down our forests… This applies to forestry, too. I’m pleased to see that some of the forestry companies are very modern and using good management, good breeding systems. Weyerhauser is Exhibit A. They are producing more wood products per unit of area than the old unmanaged forests. Producing trees this way means millions of acres can be left to natural forests.

He also has some harsh words for certain types of environmentalists and proponents of organic farming. Indulging concerns that have no technical merit is a vice of rich, well-fed people who don’t understand the realities of farming:

In zero tillage, you leave the straw, the rice, the wheat if it’s at high elevation, or most of the corn stock, remove only what’s needed for animal feed, and plant directly [without plowing], because this will cut down erosion. Central African farmers don’t have any animal power, because sleeping sickness kills all the animals—cattle, the horses, the burros and the mules. So draft animals don’t exist, and farming is all by hand and the hand tools are hoes and machetes. Such hand tools are not very effective against the aggressive tropical grasses that typically invade farm fields. Some of those grasses have sharp spines on them, and they’re not very edible. They invade the cornfields, and it gets so bad that farmers must abandon the fields for a while, move on, and clear some more forest. That’s the way it’s been going on for centuries, slash-and-burn farming. But with this kind of weed killer, Roundup, you can clear the fields of these invasive grasses and plant directly if you have the herbicide-tolerance gene in the crop plants.

I.e. there’s no evidence pesticides and genetically-engineered crops are hurting people. The lack of pesticides and genetically-engineered crops definitely leads to famine and environmental damage. It makes sense to consider both sides of the equation.

(via Hacker News)