This past week the world celebrated the life and achievements of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant scientist who created high-yielding wheat varieties to stave off famine.
Dr. Borlaug, who died at age 95 on Sept. 12, led the so-called Green Revolution that created bumper crops in once impoverished countries like Mexico, India and Pakistan. In lauding Dr. Borlaug’s achievements, the United Nations’ World Food Program said he had saved more lives than any man in history.
But the eulogies for Dr. Borlaug often neglected an important and perplexing fact. Despite his accomplishments, more people are hungry today than ever and that total should exceed one billion people this year for the first time, according to the United Nations.
How can so many people be hungry when farmers produce enough food, at least in theory, to feed every person on the planet?
The answers are complex and involve everything from American farm politics and African corruption to war, poverty, climate change and drought, which is now the single most common cause of food shortages on the planet.
But David Beckmann, president of the antihunger group Bread for the World, boiled the causes down into one unifying theme – “a lack of give a damn.”
“It’s mainly neglect,” he said. “Political neglect.”
The yield gains of the last half-century, both in the developed and developing world, led to grain surpluses and low prices, creating a sense of complacency about agriculture and hunger.
“There was an attitude following the Green Revolution that the problem was solved,” said Gary H. Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation.