In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann outlines the implicit controversy between two visionaries who founded two diametrically opposed schools of thought: William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. They each propose a different concept of how agriculture should work in practice in order to feed humanity. What if precision agriculture could help find common ground between the two?
William Vogt: A Prophet of the Environmental Movement
Born in 1902, William Vogt was an American ecologist and ornithologist. There are two striking facts in Mann’s very detailed portrait of him: his mission to Latin America to observe the phenomenon of the dwindling numbers of the birds that produce guano (a natural fertilizer, highly prized at the time) and the publication of his best seller Road to survival, in which he expresses his fears about the risks of overpopulation on Earth. According to Mann, this book was the source of inspiration for the environmental movement. It is said to have inspired Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s equally famous The Population Bomb. According to historian Allan Chase, “Every argument, every concept, every recommendation made in Road to Survival would become integral to the conventional wisdom of the post-Hiroshima generation of educated Americans”  In this book, Vogt violently attacks capitalism and free enterprise. He also turns the conventional use of the term “environment” on its head – it does not mean “external natural factors affecting humans”, but “external natural factors affected by humans”. He also defines a fundamental concept, “The Carrying Capacity“, which in ecology is defined as ” maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain “. Today, this concept is expressed in the form of planetary boundaries or limits within which humanity can easily operate: These include “using too much water”, “putting too much nitrate and phosphorus fertilizer in the soil”, “depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere”, “changing the acidity of the oceans”, “using too much land for agriculture”, “causing species extinction too quickly”, “putting too many chemicals in ecosystems”, “polluting the ambient air”, and “releasing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere”. As Mann points out, Vogt believed that a simple life, centred locally, and community-oriented, was a logical consequence of the recognition of environmental and human boundaries, respectively the need to respect global carrying capacity, and the lack of information about ecological interactions.
Norman Borlaug: the magician of the Second Green Revolution
In the opposite camp to Vogt’s principles, we find the famous American agronomist Norman Ernest Borlaug. Born in Iowa in 1914, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution (or second agricultural revolution) and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Some consider that he has single-handedly saved more than a billion lives. So Mann dubbed him the magician in his book. And as he brilliantly explains, Borlaug’s lifelong mission revolved around plant pathology, which is a completely different vision from that of Vogt or Aldo Leopold, for example, since it is about “removing pests and diseases that impeded human needs”. And as the author says, “[while] Vogt’s ecology was an exercise in humility and limits; Borlaug’s plant pathology was a methodology of extension. Isolate the subject of study, perform the experiment over and over then push the result as far as possible […. ]” For years, this true hero of modern agriculture proceeded by trial and error in the suburbs of Mexico City, relying on the funding program set up by the Rockefeller Foundation to help the poorest people in this disaster area. For example, in a letter to his wife, Borlaug writes: “These places have clubbed my mind – they are so poor and depressing. The earth is so lacking in life force; the plants just cling to existence. They don’t really grow; they just fight to stay alive. The levels of nourishment in the soil are so low that wheat plants produce only a few grains… Can you imagine a poor Mexican struggling to feed his family? I don’t know what we can do to help but we’ve got to do something” This reminds us that Borlaug himself came from a poor family. Also, while Vogt would analyse the problem by thinking that poor environmental quality was the problem, Borlaug focused on farmers’ methods. After much trial and error, he finally succeeded in selecting a wheat variety resistant to the black stem rust disease (Puccinia Graminis) that was decimating local plantations. This variety, in addition to being resistant – a unique and new fact – could grow in any environment. As Mann later explains, the Borlaug method would be systematised as a package consisting of three basic elements: “seed, fertiliser and water”, which he compares to the antibiotics that arrived in doctors’ offices after the war: “An entity, the product of faraway scientists, which could work its magic anywhere, at any time, as good at wiping out bacteria in Ireland as it was in Indonesia. Borlaug could take the wheat package to any part of the globe. ” Of course, there would have to be adjustments made depending on the regions where the package was proposed, but the idea was to provide a turnkey solution. In 1968, an American official used the term “Green Revolution” and Borlaug won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work. According to Mann, both Borlaug and Vogt had absolute faith in science. Except that one called for less production, while the other hoped for more production.
Doing more with less: an impossible synthesis?
The Wizard and the Prophet is a remarkable work in that it compares two world views that are still in opposition today and lie at the heart of all debates. In addition, there are many considerations when trying to mediate between the two men’s’ views. The issue raised here also leads us to reflect more deeply on the solutions that technology now offers us to meet the needs of both sides, and see if there can be a way to bring them closer together on certain points. It would be interesting to explore the debate further by showing how precision agriculture in particular can ensure that “the heirs of the Borlaug method” can meet some of the requirements defined by Vogt by taking greater account of the limits. Many technologies have been developed to make agriculture more water-efficient, pay more attention to the soil, improve plants more easily with varieties both from NBTs and more locally adapted, or less input-intensive… And contrary to Mann’s criticism of Borlaug’s method, this method is now developing solutions with greater involvement of stakeholders (farmers or even consumers). In short, all the “qualities” that could be found in Vogt’s list of limits, except one of course, which is ideological: the one that would like to see the population be limited. On this subject, it seems impossible, unfortunately, to reconcile the two men. But this is a subject that we will have the opportunity to come back to often.
 The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann, Picador.
 In our very first editorial of the year, we used the title of this book to transpose the issue raised by this book to the Pinker vs Harari debate https://www.europeanscientist.com/fr/editors-corner-fr/vos-previsions-pour-2019-etes-vous-plutot-harari-ou-pinker/
 “Every argument, every concept, every recommendation made in Road to Survival would become integral to the conventional wisdom of the post-Hiroshima generation of educated Americans. ” Allan Chase, in The Wizard and the Prophet, p. 87.