Earth Day: Be more like Borlaug, less like Lysenko

Last year on Earth Day, I wrote about Norman Borlaug, the University of Minnesota graduate whose work creating new, higher-yielding wheat varieties helped save one billion people from starvation and allowed farmers to grow more food without using more land.

As a result, Borlaug was one of the most important humans in world history, ensuring prosperity for people and the planet.

Every hero has a counterpart, and while few people today know who Borlaug was or appreciate his importance to modern society, even fewer know of the man who was the opposite of Borlaug in virtually every way: Trofim Lysenko.

Lysenko was a Soviet scientist whose devastating rejection of the science of genetics made him responsible for millions of deaths, the most of any scientist in human history. History shows that Lysenko was a true Supervillain, the Lex Luthor to Norman Borlaug’s Superman.

Like Borlaug, Lysenko grew up desperately poor. Borlaug’s early years were spent on his family’s farm in Iowa, and Lysenko, who was sixteen years older than Borlaug, was the son of a peasant family in Karlovka, Ukraine, which is north of Mariupol.

After the Communist Revolution of 1917, Lysenko undertook studies at the Uman School of Horticulture, and he received a doctorate from the Kiev Agricultural Institute in 1925. Unfortunately, Lysenko’s scientific life would be shaped by the Communist Revolution and the ideology that inspired it.

Sam Kean of The Atlantic wrote:

“Having grown up desperately poor, Lysenko believed wholeheartedly in the promise of the Communist Revolution, so when the doctrines of science and the doctrines of communism clashed, he always chose the latter—confident that biology would conform to ideology in the end. It never did.”

Lysenko believed that all organisms, given the proper conditions, had the capacity to be or do anything. This belief system had certain attractive parallels with the social philosophies of Karl Marx, which promoted the idea that man was largely a product of his own will, wrote K. Lee Lerner.

Ian Godwin and Yuri Trusov wrote in The Conversation:

The emerging ideology of Lysenkoism was effectively a jumble of pseudoscience, based predominantly on his rejection of Mendelian genetics and everything else that underpinned Vavilov’s science. He was a product of his time and political situation in the young USSR.

In reality, Lysenko was what we might today call a crackpot. Among other things, he denied the existence of DNA and genes, he claimed that plants selected their mates, and argued that they could acquire characteristics during their lifetime and pass them on. He also espoused the theory that some plants choose to sacrifice themselves for the good of the remaining plants – another notion that runs against the grain of evolutionary understanding.

Pravda – formerly the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party – celebrated him for finding a way to fertilize crops without applying anything to the field.

The results of Lysenko’s pseudoscience were a disaster.

Unlike Borlaug, whose methods of improving crop genetics and increasing the use of mechanization and chemical fertilizers in the agricultural sector boosted yields while reducing the amount of land needed to grow this food, Lysenko rejected modern genetics, fertilizers, and pesticides, which led to record crop failures.

Four years after a 163-fold increase in farmland cultivated using Lysenko’s farming methods, these acres produced less food than they had before. As many as seven to 10 million Russians and Ukrainians died of starvation while Lysenko oversaw the country’s farms, and nightmarish stories of cannibalism soon spread across the country, according to Morgan Dunn.

The devastation spread beyond the Soviet Union when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and Mao Zedong began mimicking everything the Soviets did, including collectivization of farms and Lysenkoism.

According to Dunn:

The failure of these efforts was predictable, but the scale of the destruction wrought in China surpassed that of even the [Soviets]. Between 1959 and 1961, as many as 45 million Chinese people died as a result of starvation, malnutrition, illness, and injury after the country’s farms were wrecked by Lysenko’s crackpot ideas. This period of time would become known as The Great Chinese Famine.

Not all of these deaths are a direct result of Lysenkoism, but these disastrous ideas unquestionably made the collectivism of farms in Communist countries much more deadly than they would have been otherwise.

What does it mean for us today?

Lysenko’s mistaken ideas would not have led to such a devastating death toll if it were not for the support of Stalin, who used the power of the state to impose these practices on the Soviet agricultural sector. Absent Stalin’s influence, Lysenko’s unscientific ideas would have given way to reality as crop yields fell.

This sad chapter in world history should make us wary of allowing the state to use its power to pick winners and losers for different technologies because government-endorsed losers will necessarily have negative consequences. We are currently seeing this scenario play out with government mandates and subsidies for wind turbines and solar panels.

Pro-wind and solar policies are undermining the reliability of the electric grid and making energy more expensive. California is a case in point, where electricity prices are more than double the national average, and reliability has suffered. Additionally, the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), which oversees the electric grid to which Minnesota belongs, has warned that the region doesn’t have enough reliable power plants online and that the risk of rolling blackouts has increased relative to last year.

Our energy policy should be more like Borlaug’s, where environmental improvement is achieved by making our electricity system more efficient, producing ever-larger quantities of energy on smaller and smaller amounts of land, and less like Lysenko’s, where inefficient and unreliable energy sources exist due to government fiat.

Improving the plight of the planet requires serving the needs of the people in the most efficient ways possible. This is why American Experiment thinks nuclear power is probably the future, and wind and solar will eventually go the way of the Beanie Baby.