President’s Note: Book Review – The Wizard and the Prophet

I recently read the book The Wizard and the Prophet, which contrasts Norman Borlaug (the Wizard) and William Vogt (the Prophet) – or, more simplistically, conventional ag. vs. organic ag. It is not a light read, due to the depth to which the author, Charles C. Mann, delves into both types of agriculture.

The book does not answer which is correct, but does contrast the differences, and traces how each view has developed over time. One believes in using science to increase agricultural production levels to feed the world; the other believes overuse of resources will ultimately lead to a collapse of society, and that we should live within the limits of the world’s ecosystems.

While the Kerr Center works in the world of sustainable agriculture and more closely aligns with “the Prophet,” I find there are pros and cons to both viewpoints. Plant breeding has led to higher yields and disease resistance using conventional techniques (not genetic engineering methods). This was what ultimately led to the Green Revolution.

Organic production methods don’t reject plant breeding as long as it does not involve genetic engineering methods, but do reject synthetic fertilizers and sprays, which were used to increase yields of new varieties used in the Green Revolution. Organic systems have long used cover crops, and now conventional production systems are adding cover crops to improve soil organic matter and reduce erosion.

While both viewpoints are still fundamentally different, there seems to be some adopting of technology and ideas across both methods. There is an interesting discussion on GMOs found on pages 201-206. It covers some early attempts to field-test the results of GMO research, and the resulting controversy and protests.

While the written part of the book is long, at 477 pages with an additional 103 pages of notes and works cited, it was an interesting journey through the history of both versions of agriculture, and how we arrived where we are today. It did not change my view on the importance of sustainable agriculture as we practice it at the Kerr Center, but it did show me how each view developed over time.

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