The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives.

In the 19th Century, a lot of Norwegians migrated to places like Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas to make a living as farmers. Tough, hard-working, close-mouthed, decent people. Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) fit the stereotype. He grew up during the Depression, worked his way through the University of Minnesota to get a BA in forestry (1937). Along the way he got interested in plant diseases, so he went on and got a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics (1942).

Borlaug spent most of the Second World War on research work for DuPont down in Wilmington. In 1944 his old Ph.D. adviser recruited him to work on improving wheat harvests in Mexico. Borlaug spent sixteen years in Mexico developing disease-resistant strains of wheat. Along the way he had to overcome resistance from incompetent, lazy, or anti-foreign bureaucrats. He also had to persuade farmers to try something new when they were both wedded to tradition and fearful that a failed experiment would leave them to starve. He persevered. The seeds developed by Borlaug both yielded high returns of grain and resisted disease. A bunch of his developments were impossible in theory, but possible in practice. (So much for Rene Descartes.) Largely as a result of Borlaug’s work, the yield of Mexican wheat rose five-fold between 1950 and 2000. Mexico went from being a wheat-importer in the 1940s to being a wheat-exporter by the 1960s while feeding a much larger population.

In the early 1960s developing countries all over the world were struggling with rapid population growth. (See: The Population Bomb.) How were they to feed their people? Agricultural scientists in India and Pakistan got their governments to call in Borlaug. Borlaug had to overcome all the same difficulties that he had encountered in Mexico, with the added problem that India and Pakistan were at war with each other for part of the time. He persevered. As a result of Borlaug’s work, the yield of Indian and Pakistani wheat quadrupled between 1960 and 2000. Other countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa then copied the Borlaug seeds. Then Asian governments applied his basic approach to producing high-yield, disease resistant rice instead of wheat. The huge increase in food production in countries that once faced the certainty of mass-death from famine has come to be called the “Green Revolution.”

In 1970 Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. When the committee called Borlaug at home to inform him, his wife said that he had already gone to work. It was 4:00 AM.

Later on, from 1984 on, Borlaug taught at Texas A&M University.[1]

Critics have found much to dislike in the effects of Borlaug’s work. They denounce the shift from subsistence farming to single-crop agriculture because it makes people dependent on the capitalist market. They denounce the reliance on scientifically-bred seeds and fertilizers and tractors and irrigation systems because it creates profits for American corporations. They dislike genetically-modified foods because it seems unnatural.

Borlaug replied that “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things”

Borlaug was a tough, hard-working, close-mouthed, decent man. It has been estimated that about a billion people didn’t starve to death because of his work.

[1] The “A&M” stands for “Agricultural and Mechanical.”   Once upon a time, we had a different vision of education.

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