Norman Borlaug has died, and Joe Carter calls him the world’s greatest unknown hero and says that “few men have ever done more good for the human race.”  He links to another calling Borlaug the greatest human being ever.

Borlaug, perhaps the leading advocate of mass industrial agriculture, has also been called the anti-Wendell Berry.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. I’m a big fan of Berry and think he is an important, prophetic voice for our time. But if we all followed his boutique agrarian model most of the world would still be starving to death.

    I’m certainly willing to make sacrifices for the cause of localism, but having most of the world going hungry isn’t one of them.

    (Also, I think it’s a bit unfair to be comparing the two. Borlaug is known for his work in agronomy while Berry will be remembered for his literary work—not for any innovations in agriculture.)

  2. There can be no doubt that Berry’s writing and ideas provided an important impetus to the organic farming revolution; to the growth in CSAs (the owners of many credit their reading of Berry); to the rapprochement between ecological activists and farmers; to the eat-local movement; to resurgent popularity of older, less fuel-intensive farming methods (more farming is being done today with draft horses than when Berry started writing, believe it or not); and well, hell, that’s just quickly off the top of my head. Few writers have had more real-world impact than Berry has had, and much of his impact has come precisely in spurring “innovations in agriculture.”

  3. …and the Port William membership is the finest collection of American stories ever written, period, el finito!
    So there Joe!

  4. Okay, let me clarify that what I meant by “innovations in agriculture” was “things that make it easier to feed the world” not “things that make people feel good about themselves.” ; )

    You cite organic farming, which is neither nutritionally nor environmentally superior to industrial farming. It may boost the esteem of the people who can afford to shop at Whole Foods (which is something I guess) but the impact of organic farming now, much less its lasting legacy, is negligible.

    Same for the “eat-local” movement. It often requires more energy to produce local grown crops than to produce them on an industrial farm and ship them to where people live. While there may be some benefits to the community from local-grown crops—that should not be easily dismissed—as far as agricultural innovations go, it’s a backwards step.

    There’s a reason that most farmers are not “agrarians” (at least not the same types you often find online). Using draft horses may help some boutique farmer to feel better about himself but it’s not going to increase his yield or help feed more people.

    Some people, of course, may think that agriculture is more than about feeding people. This is probably defensible, but it’s also a very modern view. For most of human history, farming was not about self-actualization but about keeping folks from starving. That’s why we should be thankful for people like Borlaug—instead of scraping out a meager living on our sharecropper farm, we have the the leisure time to have arguments about the merits of Berry’s methods.

  5. Yes Carter, perhaps you are right, this Hippy Farmer Movement and it’s Well-Heeled supporters may be something new in history but it can also be asserted that for much of history, one would have never seen pictures of those pathetic hurricane flooded pigs of a few years back, sunburned like a northerner on spring break, stranded atop industrial barns with their sewage lagoon mixing scenically with the rest of the North Carolina surface waters. I don’t think an area half the size of Europe under monocultural corn cropping is an altogether august tradition either…….nor is a Chicken “Ranch” with the population of greater Bombay on 35 acres. But , just to be fair, the Mayans apparently tried Corn As a Way Of Life but I don’t seem to recall the outcome.

    Bless Mr. Borlaug anyhow, and condolences to his family…..just not the U.S. Department of Agriculture, our last bastion of Soviet-Style Socialism wed to Corporate Citizenship.

  6. I tend to be sympathetic to the views expressed here on the Porch. But how do Porchers address the issue Joe raises? The agricultural methods promoted by Borloug dramatically increased crop yields. Farmers are able to feed perhaps billions more people because of it. If we return to earlier modes of agriculture, how do we feed the world’s population? What is the matter with hybridizing wheat strains to produce higher yielding, hardier plants?

    Perhaps those desiring a closer connection with the land should not simply condemn Borloug or parrot him as the anti-Berry, but consider what of his methods could be used in conjunction with local agriculture. Is there anything that prevents using agricultural innovations in accord with the principle of subsidiarity?

  7. And here was my response.

    Carter’s marginalization of Berry as that virtuous prophet who nobody should listen to, lest half the world DIE DIE DIE is even more blatant than Russell’s earlier bits, and being in the mixed company of strangers constrains my heartfelt response.

    Let me just say that, as others have pointed out more obliquely above, Carter is playing the tool.

  8. Joe, for a beloved Texas billy-bob you sure stepped in it today. Congratulations, you’ve p*ssed off more Yankees on this thread than I do on three!
    You CAN NOT put the mouth on Wendell Berry and expect it to go unnoticed! Wait until the rest of the FPR crew get wind of this.
    BTW, I still can’t link to First Things!!!
    Have a nice day,

  9. We see here, in Mr. Carter’s remarks, a good example of how clarifying a point leads to greater obfuscation. “Feed the world” is a hollow phrase through which agri-dollars travel. They end up in the pockets of agribusiness, which uses industrial farming and official U.S. agricultural policy to launder its money. “Feed the world” is a phrase that should be struck from the American tongue so that no one is ever duped by it again.

    Due in large measure (though not exclusively) to industrial farming, which is run from seed-time to supper-time on oil, we currently have a huge global population. A population inflated by oil cannot be sustained in its absence, which means that industrial farming must eventually starve the population it has suckled. There is no way it can do otherwise. It is parasitic. It proposes that we live by the carrying capacity of our bellies rather than by the carrying capacity of our habitat. It proposes that we live by the limits of our wits rather than by the limits of nature. One of the great mysteries of modernity is that people who call themselves “conservatives” cannot understand this fundamental principle.

    And, at any rate, industrial farming is not providing food. It is providing energy. It is providing feedstock for animals not meant to eat corn and ethanol for people not meant to drive cars. In doing so it is destroying agricultural potential–that is, life. Whatever proceeds from extraction to exhaustion ends in death.

    As soon as the cheerleaders of industrial farming (short-sighted if not short-skirted) learn that cheap money and cheap energy are related, and available therefore only in limited supply, the sooner we can begin to replace the current industrial economy predicated on extraction with an agrarian economy predicated on return. Until such a time, we will have more blather about feeding the world with methods that in the end will surely starve it.

  10. AML,
    In this All In Poker Game of Modern Industrialism on a Numbers Racket, one risks running out of victims to save because well, everyone turns up sooner or later as a victim. I always enjoy the Technocrats impugning the sympathies of the Fuzzy-Headed Front Porcher, suggesting that we might have to conduct a Who’s Going To Live Tribunal if the Porchers were, egad…. given the great power to make all those very important decisions up on the Bridge of the USS Juggernaut, sailing briskly out to sea in search of somebody to save at gunpoint, or tribunal point or New World Order Point.

    The motto of the Lab Coat Crusader: “Your suffering is our Bread and Butter”

    Cripes you dingbats, exactly when in your long career of thinktankery and junketeering did you all decide that the world is “One Way” ? Moderation and scaled approaches will never do, nosiree, We Must Advance, like the Shark, or die. I surmise that Mr. Borlaug did some important and worthwhile science and people were saved from starvation but damning Mr. Berry because he has the temerity to suggest that running the remaining soils of the planet like they were a vast scientific playground might not be a wise universal principle…well, in the words of Jack Nicholson, “go sell crazy someplace else, we’re all full up here.”

  11. FPR doesn’t strike me as a forum afraid to address the ethical contours and limits of its localist sympathies. Until now. I’m dismayed by the ad hominem attacks against those who question or dissent.

    Localism is not at its best when its advocates take to prescribing principles for folks who reside very much elsewhere.

    Do Wendell Berry’s wise and beautifully conveyed preferences hold sway for those not blessed with the fertile land (not to mention access to draft horses)and freedom he enjoyed as a birthright?

    (Oh, and much as I admire WB, I’m not sure he’d be in the running with Hawthorne, Crane and Faulkner for best short stories honors.)

  12. Huggins,
    What would you suggest? That we perhaps tell the Technocratic Crusaders their dismissal of Mr. Berry and his ethics and prose is fine and that furthermore, we will happily swallow their Cheap Oil and Packaged Food Jamboree and not defend another point of view? One good ad hominem attack deserves another.

    While I will grant you that there is some bias against the urban setting professed here, it aint universal and it don’t originate out of my fulminations….but more importantly, what is needed, in my estimation…is a better fit between the urban and rural in America…so that the ties between the two are re-established and re-invigorated …and the all-important cross-fertilization turned loose again. Factory farming may produce reams of food but it has formed a chasm between the city and the source of everything that supports the city….thus deeply institutionalizing a kind of fruitless disregard for limits, both ethical and biological….while reducing rural life to a kind of hayseed caricature that is wholly insufficient and inaccurate.

    We have created a life of categories in this technocratic age, of actuarial tables and I don’t know about you, but a life based on columns and categories is something that makes my ass ache, thus squeezing my head, thus causing the head to sqwawk..a-hominem a hominem a hominem..

    And the ending swipe at WB vs. Hawthorne….this is not ad hominem?

  13. “(Oh, and much as I admire WB, I’m not sure he’d be in the running with Hawthorne, Crane and Faulkner for best short stories honors.)”

    Berry, within the world of the membership, is better than Tolstoi and Dostoyevski, in that he has accurately placed man in terms of spirit/soul and existential order between, in the middle (in der Mitte) between the nonbeing of nature and absolute being (God) without making it thematic. In his stories he conveys the idea that “everything divine is human, and everything human is divine..” and, in so doing, explicates man, living in right order, as the connection of the entire universe, where the soul’s unconscious depth is ultimately and necessarily grounded in the Divine.

  14. Finally that moron died. No one has single-handedly done more to destroy America than Borlaug. Before his “miracle,” foreign nations did not so greatly outnumber us. We could have put technology to reduce fertility in the plants we gave them, at least. Or taken control of their governments.

    Without Borlaug China would currently be no threat to us. Nor would Pakistan. Or the Middle East. We would be the dominant nation on the planet. Only foreign nations living within our borders would continue to threaten us.

    If Borlaug were a Star Trek captain, he would have faced court Marshall for breaking the prime directive.

    Am I the only one who recognizes the enormous harm he caused his own people in his quest to save outsiders from their own stupidity?

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