Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Saved A Billion People

borlaug

There are very men in history who we can say truly saved the world, but surely Norman Borlaug, who died yesterday at 95, counts as one of them:

Norman E. Borlaug, the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives, died Saturday night. He was 95 and lived in Dallas.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokeswoman for Texas A&M University, where Dr. Borlaug had served on the faculty since 1984.

Dr. Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding led to spectacular success in increasing food production in Latin America and Asia and brought him international acclaim. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

He was widely described as the father of the broad agricultural movement called the Green Revolution, though decidedly reluctant to accept the title. “A miserable term,” he said, characteristically shrugging off any air of self-importance.

Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history. Largely because of his work, countries that had been food deficient, like Mexico and India, became self-sufficient in producing cereal grains.

“More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world,” the Nobel committee said in presenting him with the Peace Prize. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

The day the award was announced, Dr. Borlaug, vigorous and slender at 56, was working in a wheat field outside Mexico City when his wife, Margaret, drove up to tell him the news. “Someone’s pulling your leg,” he replied, according to one of his biographers, Leon Hesser. Assured that it was true, he kept on working, saying he would celebrate later.

Borlaug’s achievements are hard to understand as we sit here removed from time and space from when they happened, but they were truly remarkable:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. “In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich also said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971.” He insisted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn’t work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich’s book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug’s achievement as a “Green Revolution.”

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich’s dire predictions in 1968, India’s population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug’s success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

Contrary to Ehrlich’s bold pronouncements, hundreds of millions didn’t die in massive famines. India fed far more than 200 million more people, and it was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971 that Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb. The last four decades have seen a “progress explosion” that has handily outmatched any “population explosion.”

Borlaug, who unfortunately is far less well-known than doom-sayer Ehrlich, is responsible for much of the progress humanity has made against hunger. Despite occasional local famines caused by armed conflicts or political mischief, food is more abundant and cheaper today than ever before in history, due in large part to the work of Borlaug and his colleagues.

Forty years later, there are entire generations that are alive thanks to the work that Borlaug did. I’d say that’s a pretty damn good accomplishment.

Reason did a great interview with Borlaug that you can read here.

And, here’s a short video describing Borlaug’s role in the “Green Revolution:”

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  • Lawrence Thiagarajan

    I was party of Green Revolution in India . I just graduated from Agricultural College, Coimbatore (1964)and was posted in a delta area to introduce high yielding Rice varieties and modernize traditional ways with intensive cultivation. YES the yields were 3 or 4 times higher. With that more industries sprouted in the region for producing more Fertilizers, more pesticides and more Rice mills and more ware houses.New Dams were built across rivers to supply water to fields. 35 years later I look at what we created in these years. We poisoned the soil with chemical fertilizers, large amount of pesticides leached into our rivers and reached our oceans. Machine processed rice was responsible for the high incidence of Diabetics in these parts of the world. Increased Rice cultivation was responsible for drastic reduction in production and consumption of other cereals like millets and pulses. And most of all, the farm workers are poorer than in 1964! Yes we fed more people, but at what cost?. Is it not better to reduce and arrest human imprint on this world rather than trying to increase the population of the world?
    We need a new revolution on Sustainable Agriculture and sustainable level of population.

  • Dr. K.K.Kalariak

    I’m a participant of his green revolution programme to be implimented in India from 1965 onwards.We made resesarch in our universities on his principles and with local traits we developed many suitable varieties in Indian environments in wheat, millets,maize,cotton and sorghum. We are so much thankful for Dr. Norman Borlaug an eminant agricultural scientist that I can’t describe with words. May God help him in his peaceful journey to heaven.
    Dr.K.K.Kalaria,Ph.D in Agricultural Science( Gujarat Agri. University, India)
    47 Gilbert Taylor Rd., Cherokee, NC28719.

  • http://www.toughestschoolsintheworld.com JohnScott

    A shame that this could not have been published when he was ill and not gone. It would be nice if the world could show some appreciation.

  • jj

    I’m sure he didn’t do it for this reaason, but this obviously enabled a lot of destructive population growth. The world would be a lot better off had the countries mentioned below been limited by their food production capacity. We can only imagine now a better world with less people in it.

    What kind of science will someone need to do, to figure out how to get the world population to shrink down to maybe 1B people?

  • http://Google Linda Powers

    Yes, increased surviving populations would increase other problems, but many problems are not necessarily the direct result of increased life spans. Some are endemic to the cultures saved by greater food production and coincidentally developed along side Borlaug’s contribution. Yes, we need a new revolution but it has a lot to do with cultural norms and expectations among all strata of any given society. The world is stupid though when the likes of Al Gore now get the Nobel Prize instead of worthy contributors like Borlaug.

  • Ben Gorman

    How ironic that Borlaug’s achievements, laudable for their tremendous benefit to humanity, simultaneously set the stage for humanity’s downfall. The Green Revolution (whether he liked the term or not) cemented the present agribusiness death spiral. Our present food production system, which, thanks in large part of Borlaug, et al., now feeds a world population nearly double that of 1970, has effectively sterilized millions of acres of formerly fertile topsoil. Now dependent upon regular, heavy infusions of chemical fertilizers to meet ever-increasing yield demands, these acres are no longer ecologically sustainable, but dependent on massive nutrient inputs to function.

    Add in the concomitant economic pressures squeezing out small farmers, promoting monoculture farming, and relying upon an ever-shrinking variety of GMO crops, and we’re now on the brink of a new global disaster a quantum order more deadly than the one Borlaug averted in the 60s and 70s. It would take only one one wrench in the works to bring modern commercial agriculture to its knees– and humanity along with it. And there is no lack of wrenches poised to fall: a pest vector or unforeseen GMO failure in either of our two main food crops, corn and soy; global climate change disruptions of crop cycles (per study: http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/crop-yields-could-wilt-heat/); or the little-discussed but imminent effects of Peak Oil, which could effectively cripple modern fossil-fueled agribusiness.

    One wonders about Mr. Borlaug’s thoughts on what became of his gift to humanity.

  • HYLAND DELL HYLAND

    IT IS DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND THAT AMIDST THE NANOSECOND BY NANOSECOND TRIVIAL NEWS UPDATES.
    THAT A SINGLE MAN CAN REMAIN SO FOCUSED AS TO ACHEIVE THE GREAT!
    PERHAPS IF WE COULD SHIFT THE FOCUS OF JUST A FEW !!
    WHAT WONDERS WOULD WE FIND????
    GODSPEED TO YOU SIR!!

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  • http://biosystemsamerica.com GK Paul Batra, Ph.D.

    I am profoundly saddened by the untimely (yes, it is still untimely, even at the hoary age of 95, when the world needs you as badly as it did Dr. Norman E. Borlaug) death of Dr. Borlaug. I too am a scientist of Indian origin, was inspired by Dr. Borlaug to go into agricultural research, came to the US during the sixties to receive my doctorate in plant pathology and genetics from University of Georgia, and have never regretted it.

    In part, I agree with Dr. Thiagarajan’s thesis that the abuse of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers has somewhat tarnished the achievements of modern farming practices and that we need a more balanced, environmentally sensitive and sustainable agriculture worldwide, but this has nothing to do with the achievements of Dr. Borlaug. In my opinion, it is unwise and even irresponsible to associate the misuse of agricultural chemicals with Dr. Borlaug’s achievements in agricultural genetics and international development Extending the argument, for example, should we similarly blame Dr. Alexander Fleming for his discovery of penicillin just because some short-sighted people have misused antibiotics, which have led to the development of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) type of super bugs? I think not. Dr. Borlaug, unquestionably, remains the father of green revolution and perhaps also of modern agriculture, and the import of his achievements will remain with us in the annals of modern agriculture as long as humans and their domesticated animals need food and feed.

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  • http://franklinsvirtues.blogspot.com silvermine

    jj — I guess it’s easy to call for the death of millions of people when they are far away and not you. But the idea of it disgusts me. Actually wishing for millions of people to starve to death?

  • Lawrence Thiagarajan

    To set the record straight. I have a great respect and admiration for Norman Borlaug. But for him many millions would have starved to death. It is what we, the Agricultural Scientist did with his lead. If we have known what we know now we would have focused our research towards genetically pest-disease resistant varieties and drought resistant plants, microbial fertilizers and the like. That is why I want the new young Agricultural Scientist to concentrate on these and not towards finding more pesticides and chemical fertilizers and chemical enhancers.
    We should also spend our energy in educating the world on environment and the effect of population explosion.

  • L R A Narayan–India

    I have met him several times and he is really ajolly good man.He is very unassuming and mixes freely with all who is interested in enhancing production in agriculture

  • L R A Narayan–India

    I have met him several times and he is really ajolly good man.He is very unassuming and mixes freely with all who is interested in enhancing production in agriculture

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  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    Talk about perfect being the enemy of good. No one has the knowledge to create a perfect solution to any major world problem. Human beings just ain’t that smart.

    Every generation of human technology is imperfect. Improvements to address the most immediate of those are introduced, creating the next generation of technology. In this particular case, Borlaug was the one who came up with a solution that was good enough to save billions of lives. Not a perfect solution, though, as it comes with a new set of problems.

    What’s needed is people of this generation looking for solutions to make this level of agriculture sustainable. Not whining, bitching, or recriminating.

    On the subject of reducing the world population, I’m a big proponent of leading by example. I believe each and every person calling for a reduced world population has the duty to reduce themselves from the population first.

    Wait, what’s that? You’re too valuable a human being to commit suicide? What makes you, o population reduction advocate, more valuable than someone else? Well, if you’re not going to do your moral duty and commit suicide, at least take the paltry measure of not having kids.

    Wait, you still want two kids? You need to make sure that there are some educated people in the world? Fine. Then who should be prevented from having children so you can have your kids.

    Really, I’m interested in some answers to these from population reductionists. It’s so easy for them to declare that things should be done to other people. Why shouldn’t they apply to you?

  • J. Rahmani

    Dr. Borlaug did the world a great service by giving us an additional half-century to solve the problem of population control.

    It is not his fault that we did not address the problem in the time he gave us. His projects were carried out with the noblest of intentions for humanity.

    Now, unfortunately, we find ourselves back at square one, needing another Dr. Borlaug. Over the next fifty years, we may have one last chance to increase food production yet again with genetic modification, and along with those gains, one last chance to get a handle on population growth.

    But I do not foresee another chance after that. Food crops can only be pushed so far. We are already seeing dramatic diminishing returns from our biotechnology efforts.

    -Jayant “John” Rahmani

  • Aimee

    Quincy, I agree with you and you were able to say it much better than I could have. Funny how the comments stopped once you gave them a solution. I too would like to know why it is okay for them to continue living and having kids while elsewhere it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    Aimee –

    Yeah. It’s funny what happens when you offer these nuts both a solution and the opportunity explain why they’re more special than those “other” people.

  • TerryP

    Beyond Quincy’s solution, there is another solution and it is called the free-market. Every country that has tried it has gotten richer and generally when they become richer they have less kids. Now we just need to try and get all the poor countries in the world to try something that we are turning our back on in this country.

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    TerryP –

    My solution was more a caustic calling out of those who call for reduced population but expect the pain to be borne by others than themselves. I completely agree that the freedom to innovate and cooperate that the free market brings will be the real solution.

  • http://biosystemsamerica.com GK Paul Batra, Ph.D.

    Have I lost my marbles or is this uniquely a “home of the free” USA syndrome, where some idiots who can push keys on a computer, say whatever they please, even shout “fire’ in a crowded theater, if deemed necessary by them, without any sense of responsibility, relevance, reason or rhyme? Yes, some are even free to be ignorant and commit suicide; in fact, many do! Long live freedoms of America…

    The news supposedly (and subsequent comments) was about the passing away of Norman E Borlaug, an iconoclast of green revolution, and not about overpopulation, or whose point of view is more valid, cockeyed, or not for a possible solution to the perceived problem?

    Extending the argument, for instance, will American jurisprudence hold johns accountable for ruining countless lives of young prostitutes, or do drug addicts take any responsibility for their addiction or only the farmers of Colombia or Afghanistan are to be entirely blamed for producing cocaine and heroin? Similarly, do American drivers of fossil fuel (gas) guzzlers take any responsibility for their excesses, or must we blame only the Arabs for their supposed price-gouging or the expansionist Brazilians for depleting “their” rain forests and, thus, supposedly causing global warming?

    Finally, are editors of Liberty Papers awake and monitoring all this nonsense and, if so, can we expect this madness to end any time soon?

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Dr. Batra,

    We’re around, but the comment section is generally an area for free-form discussion.

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    Dr. Batra –

    Have I lost my marbles or is this uniquely a “home of the free” USA syndrome, where some idiots who can push keys on a computer, say whatever they please, even shout “fire’ in a crowded theater, if deemed necessary by them, without any sense of responsibility, relevance, reason or rhyme? Yes, some are even free to be ignorant and commit suicide; in fact, many do! Long live freedoms of America…

    You’ve not lost your marbles, sir. The comment threads on this particular blog are filled with some of the most varied and colorful opinions and rhetoric that can be found on the internet. Often, they drift completely off-topic into areas of conversation that are sometimes illuminating, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes frightening.

    As an editor, I rather enjoy this free-wheeling aspect of the comment section as it gives me the chance to challenge ideas I disagree with. Sometimes, I’ll admit to using colorful implementations of logical arguments like I did earlier in the thread.

    With regards to your challenge on taking responsibility, if you want the collected viewpoints of the editors, please feel free to view the archives of this site.

  • TerryP

    Quincy

    Don’t get me wrong, I loved your “solution” and the reasons you put it out there. That solution could be taken to many other areas of life where we really like something when someone else is paying for it and we receive the benefits, but it is not so nice when we have to pay for it or take the responsibility for it.