The following is reprinted from The Best of The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
Dr. Norman Borlaug. Photo: khalampre [Flickr]
Ever heard of Norman Borlaug? Most people haven't, yet he's credited with a truly amazing accomplishment: saving more life than anybody else in history.
THE POPULATION BOMB
In 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.
(Photo: Center 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
In 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."
|The article above is reprinted with permission from The Best of the Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. The Bathroom Reader Institute handpicked the most eye-opening, rib-tickling, and mind-boggling articles from everything they have written over the last ten years and carefully crammed them into 576 pages of the book. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute has published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute.|
|Norman Borlaug was featured on Penn and Teller's BS on genetically modified food: [YouTube Link]|
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