|The following is reprinted
Best of The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
Dr. Norman Borlaug. Photo: khalampre
Ever heard of Norman Borlaug? Most people haven't, yet he's credited
with a truly amazing accomplishment: saving more life than anybody else
THE POPULATION BOMB
his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb
, author and biologist
Paul Ehrlich wrote that "the battle to feed all of humanity is over."
Ehrlich's chilling book predicted that a rapidly growing world population
would soon lead to massive worldwide food shortages, especially in third-world
countries. World population was just over 3.5 billion at the time and
was increasing at a faster rate than food production. "In the 1970s
and 1980s," Ehrlich wrote, "hundreds of millions of people will
starve to death." Most experts agreed with Ehrlich's dire predictions
... but they hadn't anticipated Dr. Norman Borlaug.
for Conservation Biology, Stanford University)
Borlaug was born in 1914 and grew up on a farm in Saude, Iowa. In 1942
he graduated from the University of Minnesota with PhDs in plant pathology
and genetics. In 1944 he was invited by the Rockefeller Foundation, a
global charitable organization, and the Mexican government to head a project
aimed at improving wheat production in Mexico. His assignment: to develop
a more productive strain of wheat that was also resistant to stem rust,
a fungal disease that was becoming a major problem in Latin America.
Borlaug chose two locations with an 8,500-foot altitude difference for
his testing. He grew and crossbred thousands of different strains of wheat,
and worked with the latest fertilizers, looking for plants that could
grow in both environments. Reason: they had to be able to grow anywhere.
Over the next several years Borlaug was able to develop hardy, highly
productive strains, but he found that the tall wheats he was using would
not support the weight of the added grain. So he crossed the tall wheats
with dwarf varieties that were not only shorter but had thicker, stronger
stems. And that was his breakthrough: a semi-dwarf, disease-resistant,
high-output wheat. He worked incessantly to get the seeds distributed
to small farmers throughout Mexico, and by 1963 Borlaug's wheat varieties
made up 95 percent of the nation's total production, with a crop yield
that was more than six times greater than when he'd arrived. Not only
could Mexico stop importing wheat, they were now an exporter - a huge
boost to any nation's nutritional and economic health, but especially
to an underdeveloped one. And now Borlaug wanted to take his high-yield
farming global. He wanted, he said, to secure "a temporary success
in man's war against hunger and deprivation."
In 1963 the Rockefeller Foundation sent Borlaug to Pakistan and India,
two nations with severe hunger and malnutrition problems. Borlaug's help
was resisted at first; there was cultural opposition to new farming methods.
But when acute famine struck in 1965 (1.5 million people would die by
1967), the barriers came down. And the results were incredible: by 1968
Pakistan, which just a few years earlier relied on massive grain imports,
was entirely self-sufficient. By 1970 India's production had doubled ad
it too was getting close to self-sufficiency.
At four o'clock in the morning one day in 1970, Margaret Borlaug got
a phone call. She raced out to the fields and informed her husband, already
hard at work, that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. "No, I haven't,"
he said. He thought it was a hoax. But he had indeed won it for having
saved the lives of millions - perhaps hundreds of millions - of people
in India and Pakistan and for the message it had sent to the world. "He
has given us a well-founded hope," the Nobel committee said, "an
alternative of peace and of life - the green revolution."
NOTHING ESCAPES CONTROVERSY
Borlaug had also been working on other grains, such as corn and rye,
and in the 1980s began developing more productive strains of rice to increase
production in China and Southeast Asia. He was setting up similar programs
in Africa, but ran into a major hurdle: environmentalists opposed his
methods. Among their charges: spreading the same few varieties of grains
all over the planet is harming biodiversity; huge farms are benefiting
from his high techniques and killing off the small farmer; inorganic fertilizers
used in the Borlaug method are harmful to the environment; and genetically
engineered food is unnatural and potentially dangerous.
"Some of the environmental lobbyist are the salt of the earth,"
Borlaug said," but many of them are elitists. 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." He admitted that he would rather his
work benefited small farmers, but added, "Wheat isn't political.
It doesn't know that it's supposed to be producing more for poor farmers
than for rich farmers." Supporters argue that Borlaug's high-yield
method has actually been a boon for the environment, saving hundreds of
millions of acres of wild land from being turned into farms. The controversy
continues, but none of it has stopped Borlaug from his mission.
KEEP ON PLANTING
1984, with the help of Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, Borlaug
set up the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA), training more than a million
farmers throughout Africa. Result: using Borlaug seed and methods, cereal
grain yields have increased from two- to four-fold.
As of 2005 - at the age of 91 - Norman Borlaug is still at it. He continues
to work with Mexico's International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center,
still heads the SAA, runs research programs, teaches young scientists,
gives lectures, and of course, still works in the field.
Over his 50-plus-year career he has been credited with saving as many
as a billion people from starvation, and has received numerous international
awards. In May 2004, he was presented with another: at St. Mark's Episcopal
Cathedral in Borlaug's college town of Minneapolis, he was shown their
new "Window of Peace." The Minneapolis Star Tribune
described the event: "He gazed upward to see the sun shining through
a 30-foot-tall stained glass window. There - along with depictions of
Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and other modern-day peacemakers - was
a life-size likeness of Borlaug, holding a fistful of wheat."