Norman Borlaug’s 1970 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech Warning Us About The Urgent Need For Population Limitation

By Donald A. Collins | 23 April 2020
Church and State

(Screenshot via PBS)

Ah, today is Earth Day. I note that fact seems very slightly celebrated in the mass media so far, with little context given as to its importance. You can refresh your memory here.

Yesterday, on April 21st WETA TV here in Washington, DC ran the PBS documentary program about miracle wheat innovator Norman Borlaug, “the man who tried to feed the world” with his Green Revolution that began in the 1960’s.

This riveting tv history reminded us that he tried and briefly succeeded in his goal, but at costs that plague us today.

At his brief Nobel Prize award speech in Oslo on December 10, 1970, when in part he gave the world this warning:

It is true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better during the past three years. But tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again.

We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction.

Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention, and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially and sometimes spectacularly, as I hope to prove tomorrow in my first address as a newly decorated and dedicated Nobel Laureate. Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.

There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.

You can read his entire speech here.

In 1970, humans worldwide numbered 3.7 billion and over 200 million in the USA, up from 2 billion in the world and 125 million in the USA when I was born in 1931.

In 1970, I was the population program staffer for a rich lady who with her sizable charitable funds urged me seek out and find aggressive family planning grantees! For that reason, I also grew to know the many enemies of population limitation!

Those NGOs I identified for family planning grants knew then that limits had to come, either gently or harshly. One key leader I met who became a close friend and colleague, Dr. Reimert T. Ravenholt, the former the Director of the Office of Population at USAID never doubted the need for population limits as did his strong political advocate and protector, General William Draper Sr. a friend of Ike’s as well as to many other key leaders. Draper who I also got to know and admire very well, died too soon in the mid 1970’s. Bill’s passing lead to Rei being ousted by the usual suspects! Before that however, Rei and I helped start Ipas, IFRP now FHI360, and several other family planning entities. At his memorable 1976 speech at a conference on adolescent fertility at Airlie House, Rei brought along a key chart showing the dangerous trend in population growth.

Rei favored abortion choice and I helped him and others fund abortion clinics throughout the USA and the world. His liberal view of choice no doubt amassed the political pressure that forced him out too early. Not however before we got Battelle Institute’s early, safe menstrual regulation abortion kits funded by starting Ipas in 1971!!! I was Ipas’s first Chair and President until 1985.

The loss of the leadership of heroes like Rei and Bill Draper Sr was severe but many others I worked with were among those who understood the population crisis and continued to believe in tackling the long-term disaster inevitable in their predictions.

Together these NGOs worked hard at promoting access to birth control, an effort attacked by religious groups here and overseas. Some liberals who favored family planning mistakenly thought development and the move of vast numbers of poor farmers to what, thanks in part to Borlaug’s green revolution, became mega cites would solve the over population problem. They could not have been more wrong.

Turns out that Borlaug’s green revolution required vast changes in his miracle wheat’s production. New cultivation machinery and vast new acres of previously unused land plus more water and powerful fertilizers were needed to achieve the increases!

Borlaug’s method for increasing food production dramatically resulted in the creation of big agriculture combines, whose automated farming with big machines cut the need for labor. This drove millions of poor small farmers worldwide into urban slums where the extolling of religious leaders against family planning or at least no urging by them to their poor parishioners to embrace birth control caused 1970 population levels to reach nearly 7 billion by 1994.

All these bad effects were well in effect when my 10 colleagues and I under the leadership of Werner Fornos, President of the Population Institute attended the UN Conference on Population and Environment in Cairo in 1994.

There in Cairo we were faced with opposition to birth control that Dr. Madeline Weld subsequently brilliantly documented in her 2012 paper. Here in part is what she and other authors wrote in an April 2012 paper published by Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics.

It has become an unwritten rule of political correctness that in order to criticize people or their ideology one must share a biological characteristic of the people being criticized. The inherent racism or sexism of this assumption is lost on those who insist upon it. Nevertheless, the rule, in all of its absurdity, persists. Good arguments are routinely dismissed not on their merits, but by the fact that they are waged by someone thought to be racially or sexually disqualified to comment on the issue. (This cannot apply here, for Madeline Weld, President of the Population Institute of Canada, is a woman, and she reproaches the fem-left for its collusion in the crippling of the Programme of Action as set out by the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo 16 years ago.)

Let me interrupt this Weld quote by noting again that in Cairo for that historic 1994 UN conference — 26 years ago — the thrust for no population control attention came of course from the top officials from the Vatican who kept my friend and FHI360 fellow board member, the chief meeting presiding Chair, Dr Fred Sai, occupied for a couple of days over their opposition to family planning and abortion. These articulate Vatican representatives had obtained front row seating as delegates along with the invited large sovereign country delegates so they could easily publicly and in side bar interludes could fully argue their case, a privilege which no other religion got.

But worse and largely unreported was the strong push by the don’t talk about the numbers because development will solve the problem crowd lead by an avid feminist with strong NYC foundation connections, Joan Dunlap, the leader of a vocal group of anti-population limitation women. She had been John D. Rockefeller III’s assistant until his death in 1973. Dunlop’s views on abortion choice and the need to reduce births with family planning, which I gleaned from several personal one on one private meetings, was contrary to mine to say the least.

To resume the Weld Ethics paper quote:

The Cairo conference and its Programme of Action were steeped in the same taboo of the feminist and social justice left that has, for the last several decades, snuffed out any serious public discussion about population growth, which had been so much a part of the early days of the environmental movement. This attitude in fact made them strange bedfellows of the Vatican and other religious interests at the Cairo conference. While not explicitly stated in the Programme of Action, it was implicitly understood that anything remotely resembling demographic targets was racist, anti-woman, anti-poor, and flirting with eugenics.

Putting the Development Cart before the Population Horse

With the ‘P’ sidelined by ICPD’s refusal to countenance population control, the emphasis for a path out of poverty fell on the ‘D.’ It was assumed that development would lead to a reduction in population growth. Poverty would be eradicated ‘through sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development.’ The Programme of Action implicitly assumed that the Earth would support this sustained economic growth along with the rapid population growth that was inevitably going to occur for some time. Population growth would be slowed through ‘education, especially for girls; gender equity and equality; infant, child, and maternal mortality reduction; universal access to reproductive health services, including family planning and sexual health’ (UNFPA 1995a, Preamble, paragraph 1.12).

The wishful thinking that the indirect effects of development alone can overcome the problems created by rampant population growth is based on the belief in a silver bullet known as demographic transition. The idea is that parents have fewer children when they see that those they have are likely to survive, and, at the same time, with increasing rural to urban migration, they realize that children cost money rather than provide free labour. The trouble with the demographic transition theory is that it is treated like a law of physics when in fact it is only one of many possibilities. A major problem is the slowness at which it kicks in. The lag time between the child mortality rate falling and the desired family size also dropping can be very long indeed. In western and middle sub-Saharan Africa, the desired family size is still 6 children.

I strongly suggest you read this entire powerful indictment document here.

No real surprise that serious diseases as SARS or Ebola, or now Coronavirus begin in such crowded, often poor places. This is exactly what many people concerned with the proliferation of human numbers have been predicting for decades.

Borlaug’s wise advice should continue to challenge us into urgent action to insure birth control supplies and early access for young women to education.

Unfortunately, this urgent call has yet seemingly been unheard by the “sustainable growth” crowd which includes businesses large and small pontificated over with great big salty tears, but no repentance, symbolized on this past Easter Sunday by the lone figure of Pope Paul as he walked through those mostly empty ornate Vatican spaces!

Yes, Folks, we are there at planetary limits of which Global Warming is but a part.

With this Coronavirus crisis the public is fortunate to have such credible voices such Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx stating the need for more tests so we have the data we need to gainsay the extent of the pandemic. Presumably opening our world economy fully will take more time than is being forecasted by most political leaders.

The true irony is the fact that we are more than THERE in terms of acceptable human numbers. The world will have 8 billion people by 2025 and the US population is now 329 million plus some 12 million here illegally.

That means we are way beyond any relatively easy fixes such as could have happened had we harkened Dr. Borlaug’s advice at his Nobel speech in 1970.

Humans now number nearly 8 billion with experts predicting 10 billion by 2050. The fragility of so many people is demonstrated dramatically by the never before worldwide phenomenon of the COVID/-19 pandemic. While interrupting all our lives and already punishing so many with painful deaths, Covid-19 will doubtless, before it runs its course, deeply affect the businesses and employment of all of us survivors here in rich USA and likely a higher percentage around the planet.

Yet still there I have not heard of any major world leader recognizing that these dire circumstances are population growth related, as in 1970 Borlaug predicted they surely would be.

Where is the fervent call for all of us to understand that the reduction our human numbers is based on the now urgently irrefutable fact that endless growth on a limited planet is the path to massive suicide for all living creatures and all living things over our entire precious orb! As noted earlier, the widely touted dangers of global warming can be related directly to our human impact on our environment.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013

By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00MA40TVE
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“You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.” Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Jane Goodall @ Population Matters Conference 2019

Final Warning Limits to Growth

The Threat of Overpopulation

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