The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives

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.


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."


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.


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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I'm fascinated that many people end their line of thinking with "and this contains genes from another species and therefore is bad". First, the claim that animal genes are in plants in itself is dubious for commercially approved food products. But, even if you accept that supposition, how is it that you KNOW that is necessarily bad? Just because a particular genetic sequence hasn't become dominate in nature yet doesn't mean its wrong, only that it didn't occur yet or offered no reproductive value at the time it did.

Genetic evolution is a process of randomized changes which are tested in the environment at a particular point in time to see if they improve chances of reproduction. Humans are part of that environment and have selectively increased the reproduction rate for plants and animals with certain traits for thousands of years. Newer microbiology methods have only increased the rate at which new genetic combinations can be tested, but all combinations are always theoretically possible.

What I generally see is a fear of what people do not understand. They don't understand how genes work; they don't understand how genetic manipulation works; they aren't sure how the changes will interact with the environment; they're not sure how it will affect them.

And that's exactly why we do research. We need knowledge, not ignorance. People are worried about fertilizer pollution; genetic engineering could allow crops to perform their own nitrogen fixation. The would also remove the need for the Haber-Bosch process which some fear so much, reducing the energy needed to produce food. If that seems too "unnatural" for you, you should know that it already occurs in some plants without human intervention.

Before you jump to conclusions about what is and isn't right, you should always consider the possibility you don't know as much as you think you do. And then do serious research; not reading blogs or websites for activist groups for any side of any issue, but technical books and technical journals. Otherwise, you don't really know what you're talking about.
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the question was asked above (paraphrased many ways): "What would nay-sayers say if there were billions of poor starving in the streets w/o Dr Borlaug's work?" Wait a sec! Its not like there are _proportionately_ fewer poor and starved people today than 40 years ago, there are just an _absolutely_ larger number of people. Upgrades in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world have been on the margins - so don't start with minimal increases in per capita income, most of the world is poor and starving right now - subsisting on 2$/day or less). This issue is far more complicated than food production. More food has made more poor people. There'd be fewer "rich", also - b/c billions of people would never have been born. I'm NOT saying kill 3 billion people, problem solved - I AM saying this topic is much more complex than how many iPhones there are on the planet.
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I am not a fence-sitter, but this issue is complicated. I will start by finishing and say that your life is entirely up to you - it develops over long periods of time based on decisions you make. You also have to work with what you got, right? Sometimes it is a rare big decision that affects _your_ course, sometimes the small decision you make every day affects your course. That is how I approach this. My lifestyle is _somewhat_ like the "average american" with the car and computer - however I carry a daily reverence for the complexity of "humanity" as it relates to "technonogy." How can one ignore that the "high-flying" western lifestyle is so stressful and selfish as to merit careful consideration of its praise? That 80% of the population of Earth is kept "surviving" so that the other 20% can live such - from what I can tell - a stressful and self-destructive and very often "meaningless" lifestyle?

I've made many "different" decisions. For instance, I _chose_ to develop working knowledge of foraging and "living off the land" as our pre-industrial forefathers did. I am talking about thankfulness and respect and connection, not fundamentalist Green thinking. I am talking about going out and doing something, not reading or thinking or opinionating. These things are complex, use your head and your heart. If there is no easy solution for everyone, then what is the best you can do for yourself and your loved ones today? Bashing either side of this argument for the sake of it is not going to cut it for me.

Let me say this though, modern agriculture, as stated in a great post above, is based on petroleum and nat gas and it poisons us and our waters as much as it feeds us - so if you think eating is good so eating off the floor at taco bell is good then maybe you need to slow down a little.

To those that would tell me to go eat some dandelions and stop trying to use my computer to make a post admonishing the starving-off of billions: I simply say that I support no such policy, I am doing my best and I am not a poor African and I am thankful. But what is the end-game of the promotion of making more and more and more food? So that more people can be cramped into the unhealthy, Western, mostly paper-pusher and service-worker civilization? Have you been to an American hospital lately? Most of the ill are there of their own doing - not because we all just get old and sick and that's the way it is. My wife is a nurse and a good 30%+ of the patients there for chronic conditions are "bariatric" - what most of us would call really fat people. These people have all the time and money to eat and eat and make themselves sick, but they are so sick they can't work. Another significant % of their patients are drug-seekers who use "milking" or "creating" illness as their way to not work but to get access to opiates while they waste away b/c they really aren't living for anything anyway. Seeing how the masses abuse the modern-medical system, and how the insurance companies and gov't pay for it all while very little productive is actually going on - how do you think I feel about "Universal Healthcare?" I KNOW what three-quarters of the healthcare today is actually spent on, and it's not what the healthy masses who desire cheap-access imagine. Kill off these American addicts and selfish slobs and maybe we'd all have more money and be better off - but wait - will my wife still have a job? What about the millions of "good materialistic Americans" who are not quite there but well on their way to their self-induced illness? Is this what we want as the end-game for the 80% of the world trying to climb out of starvation using Dr. Borlaug's work? Corruption on top of selfishness on top of opulence mixed with pride and confusion?

If you are still reading, I'll wrap up like this: you are part material, your body, and part something else. That something else is what makes life worth living. All the material you want, the new car, new computer, carribean cruise, none of that will help your body or spirit be healthy if you don't have integrity and do things for the right reasons. And the right reasons have nothing to do with making more money for a "better" school, a bigger house, or a more exotic cruise. If you wrap your mind up entirely in the material world and causes, your spirit then your body will get sick and die - I don't care how good you think medicine is or how much food you have. If you ignore this advice, you will surely be lonely and sick in your final years - and maybe much worse. Most of us try desperately to ignore the downside to our selfish and materialistic society. If YOU win the lotto, then YOU will be happy, right? If YOU get the promotion and raise, THEN you will be happier, right?

But there's only so many seats at that table - and that's why you want it so bad. But 80% of people are gonna be growing your food and mowing your lawn and cleaning your toilets. Show me a way out of that and I'll show you some beachside property in Arizona that is real up-and-coming.

Yes, there are absolutely beneficial solutions to all of this, but only YOU can affect YOU. And seek and ye shall find. I can't go into my solutions here, much less yours.

There, if you've never heard anything like that before then boo-ya, good luck trying to put that genie back in its bottle if you dare try.
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For an interesting perspective on the concept of food production vs. population growth, read (or read about) the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

Apart from that, change does not have to occur in a generation. The population is increasing, this rate of increase must slow down, stop, and perhaps backpedal a bit. Then, death by starvation, wars and riots are not necessary. The old will pass, and fewer young will be there to take their place.

In the wild, animals, beings, starve--keeps populations in check. Since we humans have exempted ourselves from the laws of nature, we must find a way to keep our population-our birth rate-in check. If we don't, the earth will do it for us the hard way by running out of resources to sustain us. Then, mass starvation and suffering.

Now, if population growth rate is indeed the root cause, reducing it will solve the problem of overpopulation, and of ever-increasing need of food production. It would also help with the running out of limited resources.

Of course, the rate of population growth isn't simple to tackle either. But treating the symptoms without treating the disease is naive. It probably won't be pretty and equitable to everyone--the poor will probably suffer and the rich prosper, as it has ever been.

Kudos to Bourlag for easing suffering. But until people find a widely acceptable way of reducing population growth, making more efficient food production--or stealing still more habitat for the rest of Earth's creastures--does not affect and perhaps even worsens the larger problem. Starvation will always be a problem, regardless of increasing food production, until population growth is reduced.
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