Food For Freedom & The Green Revolution
By Bryant Spivey
County Extension Director
On March 19, 1942, M. A. “Happy” Morgan, the Cooperative Extension County Agent in Johnston County wrote a letter to the “neighborhood leaders”. In the message, Morgan was encouraging community leaders to work with and support others in their communities to “try to produce all of the food that will be needed on the farm.” The letter included an attachment entitled Johnston County Garden Notes and the motto, “Food for Freedom.” The garden notes were simple, proven techniques to improve home food production and preservation.
While I was not alive in 1942, I can certainly imagine that this must have been a tumultuous time in Johnston County and throughout our country. Even those of us that were not living know that our country was reeling from the December 7th Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into World War II. It seems obvious that many young people were in the process of either volunteering or being drafted for military service and leaving their homes. The country was gearing up for an all-encompassing war and resources were needed for that effort. In addition, all of this was coming on the heels of the Great Depression and undoubtedly families were doing everything possible to not only survive but thrive.
About the same time, a young scientist, Norman Borlaug was employed as a microbiologist at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware. During the war, his laboratory was converted to conduct research and development for the United States Armed Forces. He stayed with this effort through the war, and was later appointed to head a joint Mexican and US research effort as a plant pathologist and geneticist. Borlaug went on to lead efforts to transform wheat and corn production by hybridizing lines for arid climates. His work led to greater grain production in developing countries throughout the world and improvements that we all benefit from today. Due to his efforts he is credited by some for saving 2 billion people from starvation, Thus, Borlaug was aptly named “The Father of the Green Revolution,” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts to feed a hungry planet. From what I have read and seen, Borlaug was a humble man giving credit to others but, he was undoubtedly a transformative figure. My favorite Borlaug quotes are, “I’m not one to sit idly by and see man increasing his numbers faster than food production.” And “I like to play the game hard. To me the most important game of all is the game of life, to try to elevate the standard of living of whom you’re trying to help. I think it requires ones best effort.” By his own admission, Borlaug had a heart for people without sufficient food. He witnessed hunger during the depression and was determined to do everything possible to stamp it out.
So, you might ask how does this relate to present day? And, do we still need to produce Food for Freedom? Today in our nation we enjoy a great variety in our diet. We export food to other countries and we also import food as well. We are also very well fed as a country with higher obesity rates than many other countries. But today, less than 2 percent of the US workforce is involved in farming while the rest of us can be productive in other ways. Today many people grow vegetable gardens and there has even been a resurgence of food preservation at home. I might add that these are still areas with which NC Cooperative Extension in Johnston County can assist. We offer gardening classes and education, publications about gardening, soil sampling, and home food preservation workshops in addition to working with farmers in our county to be as productive as possible.
But to sum it up for most of us today food is plentiful. We have many options of where to purchase groceries and we can even get them delivered to our door. And if we do not wish to cook we can go to a restaurant or call and get take out or home delivery. Our food system has evolved due to demand for convenience and our busy lifestyles. Also the productivity of the American food system is unrivaled. Our production system is built around providing safe and healthy food at the lowest cost possible. We all benefit from this fact as it allows us to pursue other efforts rather than food production, and in this way agriculture provides tremendous support to our overall economy.
However, we all know that hunger still exists in the world today. I was recently reading about world hunger and poverty at www.worldhunger.org, the website of the World Hunger Education Service. They report that poor nutrition is the result of 3.1 million child deaths annually and 45 percent of all child deaths in 2011. At the present time, much of the world hunger is attributed to food insecurity (lack of access) rather than a shortage in production. But if the predictions of the United Nations are correct, the 2017 population of 7.6 billion is predicted to increase to 8.6 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. This is an increase of nearly 30% by 2050.
Now to really drive this point home, I challenge you to think of a trade war where food is heavily involved. For instance, in the current standoff with China tariffs have affected US soybean prices and steel prices. Our steel prices have gone up and our soybean prices have gone down. Imagine if the tables were turned and we were a net importer of agricultural commodities and food. That is a situation that I hope I never witness. If you felt like $4.00 per gallon gas was bad, imagine if other nations controlled our food supply and the grocery bill doubled.
So, we do still need “food for freedom.” A strong and healthy food production system contributes to the safety and security of our country. And I think that the American farmer is really a great deal like Norman Borlaug, they play the game hard and they have a strong desire to feed the world. In addition, those working in agricultural research and development, extension education, and agribusiness cannot rest. We must continue to seek the best and most efficient measures to meet the food and nutrition needs of a growing population. This means that we must use all of the tools and techniques in the toolbox. We must do like Norman Borlaug indicated, “we must play the game hard.”