Two Paths Taken

posted in: Commentary | 12
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, 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've worked in agricultural research for nearly 40 years and I am currently a statistician in the College of Agriculture at the University of Idaho. Any words written here reflect my opinions and not those of my institution or colleagues. Disclosure: In 1981 I interviewed with Monsanto Corp. It was mutually agreed that my long hair and lack luster attitude towards the corporate atmosphere did not match their requirements at that time.