Two Paths Taken

Norm Bourlag. Photo by Glen Stubbe via the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Norm Bourlag. Photo by Glen Stubbe via the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

As I write this, the agricultural community has just finished a week acknowledging and celebrating the work of Norman Borlaug.  Borlaug, of course, is widely known as the father of the Green Revolution, having increased the production of staple crops (particularly wheat) around the globe to unprecedented levels.  He single-handedly stymied Malthusian predictions of inevitable global starvation, thereby changing the global perspective on agricultural production. While this is due in part to Dr. Borlaug’s untiring and persistent work, it is probably less widely acknowledged that the great accomplishments he achieved were largely made possible by the system he used to deploy them.  His work was funded by private grants and he freely gave away his work, even to the point of begging or forcing farmers and politicians to take the seeds he had created.  Perhaps to more long-term effect, he actively sought out students from around the world to come and train with him to learn his methods and techniques so they could be applied worldwide.  This generosity even extended to the peasant children whose curiosity led them to follow Borlaug around his plots in rural Mexico.

Harry S. Steine. Photo via Forbes list of the world's billionaires.

Harry H. Stine. Photo via Forbes list of the world’s billionaires.

I was struck by the stark contrast that I found in a recent article at Forbes.com, outlining the story of Harry H. Stine.  Like Borlaug, Stine too had his beginnings on a poor farm in the American Midwest. Early on, he too saw the potential of breeding plants (soybeans) to increase productivity.  The methods he chose to leverage this, however, were quite different.  Stine sought to protect his genetic creations by contractually preventing growers from reusing his seeds.  Breeders could access his work only through licensing agreements giving royalty payments to Stine’s businesses.  In a move reminiscent to Bill Gates, he snared a long term licensing arrangement with a large newcomer to the seed industry, Monsanto, thereby ensuring his enterprise would grow to the billion dollar worth it is now [Edit: As Gillian has pointed out below, there were other companies as well such as DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer].  Like Borlaug, he is not content to rest, however, and has set his sights on doubling corn yields in the near future using breeding and management techniques.

I don’t pose these two together to pass judgment on them, and I anticipate that some would even object to me putting them side by side. I admit that even I have some personal conflict as to the right or wrongs here. There can be no denial, however, that both men have greatly influenced modern agriculture.  Both have pushed the expectations of their respective crops beyond what was thought possible.  Both have given the world useful products and enhanced the lives of growers who use them.  The products of both have also led to some detrimental social and environmental consequences.  I suppose one could argue that even Norman Borlaug’s achievements were only possible through the wealth of capitalism (he was largely funded through the Rockefeller Foundation).  Yet,  I still find the contrast interesting. These two people, with different philosophies, have both influenced the global system of agriculture and the respective lives of so many.  In our concerns for the food production system, we tend to spend the majority of our time examining the minutia, the details of certain production systems, techniques or technologies, while in actuality, the path we ultimately end up on may simply come down to the human nature of a few individuals.

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I have worked in and around experimental and production agriculture for more than 35 years. I am currently a statistician in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho. I can be found on Twitter at: @pdiff1


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10 comments to Two Paths Taken

  • Wow, that parallel hadn’t struck me. But now that you say that–it’s really fascinating. Huh.

  • Wonderful compare and contrast of two similar yet different men doing similar tasks but taking such different paths.
    I think this points to a greater contrast in our society – some people do good by doing well in business then donating to charity (as Stine does to Mayo Clinic, according to Forbes), while others spend their lives doing good. Usually the day-to-day work of the two types of people is not the same, though!

    • Chris

      Anastasia, guys like Gates and Stine have done more public good while making profits than they have or maybe ever will with their charitable work. The advancements in technology by Gates in particular have been the gifts that keep on giving allowing yet more technological advancements to happen. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be charitable, but some people do good WHILE doing well in business.

  • Kent Wagoner

    Interesting that these two men are compared this way. Harry is my great uncle, and when I was a child waaaay back in the 60′s, my family regarded him as something of a black sheep for some of his “odd” ideas. He just didn’t jive with the stoic, quiet, “Iowa Stubborn” kind of family dynamic that all the rest of us were so used to. I am glad to see him being recognized, though.

    • Hi Kent. I was certainly surprised to see a relation reply to this post, but welcome! I’m not surprised some might have thought your great uncle to be “odd”, but I don’t think he is alone there. I’m even sure there were doubters of Borlaug as well. This is probably just the price to pay for thinking differently :).

  • Gillian

    Hi Bill- Perpetuating the Monsanto monopoly myth?! The Forbes article clearly states there are 5 key players (Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer)and yet you only mention Monsanto. I appreciate the need to pull in the haters so thay can share their myth drivens facts- but it feels like you are pulling in all the baggage Monsanto has into this agricultural commentary.

    • LOL! Yes, you are correct there, although Monsanto was by far the largest player. I’ll add an edit.

      Sorry, but I’m still laughing that I’ve been accused of promoting the Monsanto monopoly myth :)

  • Gillian

    Much appreciated Bill! Thanks for sharing this interesting perspective.

  • Sexcomb

    I was wondering. Could it be that the difference between them is simply the crops they chose to work on? Corn is usually used as hybrid corn, which gives a tremendous advantage in yields through hybrid vigor, the ease to create new hybrid varieties and the uniformitiy of the F1 plants. However this requires that you purchase seeds every year from a manufacturer. Wheat is self-pollinating, but the flowers contain the male and female gametes in close proximity, so any kind of hybrid technology is hard and costly to implement. Hybrid wheat is still not a thing. Can the differenc simply be that a corn grower is dependant on the seed manufacturer, while a wheat farmer can retain seed and re-plant them? This is a technical difference, but with great consequences: Borlaug could give away his wheat strains, they could be re-planted several times, because it was technically possible. Stine could give away his strains too, but they would still have to be hybridised to make the corn seeds suitable for farming.

    • That’s a good point for some of the disparity, but not all. Stine started with soybean, which is self pollinated and up until fairly recently, was often replanted from saved seed. Certainly, if Borlaug had started with corn, things would be different, although I doubt his sentiment regarding the release of material would have changed. As you say, breeding wheat lines requires time and labor, both of which Borlaug was willing to provide to students through training. They went home, not with seeds, but with the knowledge of how to create the new seeds. He was interested in disseminating knowledge, not things, specifically. Hence, his approach, IMO, would have succeeded, regardless of crop biology.

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