On the day Norman Borlaug was awarded its Peace Prize for 1970, the Nobel Committee observed of the Iowa-born plant scientist that "more than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world." The committee might have added that more than any other single person Borlaug showed that nature is no match for human ingenuity in setting the real limits to growth.
Borlaug, who died Saturday at 95, came of age in the Great Depression, the last period of widespread hunger in U.S. history. The Depression was over by the time Borlaug began his famous experiments, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with wheat varieties in Mexico in the 1940s. But the specter of global starvation loomed even larger, as advances in medicine and hygiene contributed to population growth without corresponding increases in the means of feeding so many.
Borlaug solved that challenge by developing genetically unique strains of "semidwarf" wheat, and later rice, that raised food yields as much as sixfold. The result was that a country like India was able to feed its own people as its population grew from 500 million in the mid-1960s, when Borlaug's "Green Revolution" began to take effect, to the current 1.16 billion. Today, famines—whether in Zimbabwe, Darfur or North Korea—are politically induced events, not true natural disasters.
In later life, Borlaug was criticized by self-described "greens" whose hostility to technology put them athwart the revolution he had set in motion. Borlaug fired back, warning in these pages that fear-mongering by environmental extremists against synthetic pesticides, inorganic fertilizers and genetically modified foods would again put millions at risk of starvation while damaging the very biodiversity those extremists claimed to protect. In saving so many, Borlaug showed that a genuine green movement doesn't pit man against the Earth, but rather applies human intelligence to exploit the Earth's resources to improve life for everyone.
Monday, September 14, 2009
The Man Who Fed the World
WSJ on the great Norman Borlaug, who passed on Saturday: