TCS Daily

The Man Who Defused the "Bomb"

By Steven Martinovich - March 25, 2004 12:00 AM

In the long history of the global popularity contest known as the Nobel Prizes it's beyond debate that more than a few of them were undeserved. What should also be beyond debate, however, was the merit in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Dr. Norman Borlaug in 1970. Despite the fact that Borlaug -- who celebrates his 90th birthday on March 25 -- isn't a household name, he is owed a debt by the world that is simply beyond calculation.

Borlaug's contribution to the world is what we know today as high-yield farming. During the Depression Borlaug, who had already made a name for himself researching the rust fungus, noted that areas that employed high-yield farming saw less soil lost to wind than those that employed traditional practices. Borlaug decided that his life's mission would be to spread the word about the benefits of high-yield farming.

Borlaug took that mission to Mexico in the 1940s when he became director of a wheat program. There he developed crops that were able to grow in a wide variety of climates and more quickly. Combined with fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug's new wheat was the answer to a problem that not many people were thinking about in the years after the Second World War. The world's population was growing quickly and many third world nations faced the prospect of perpetual famine.

In 1965, India and Pakistan were two of those nations. The famines were so extreme that the institutional resistance to Borlaug's technology disappeared. The results spoke for themselves. Just three years later Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat product. Despite a prediction by Paul Ehrlich in 1968's "The Population Bomb" that it was a "fantasy" that India would ever do the same, it managed the feat for all cereals by 1974. In 1967, the average Indian consumed 1,875 calories a day. That same average Indian consumed 2,466 calories a day in 1998 even while the population of India doubled during that period.

What Borlaug was able to do, as Gregg Easterbrook illustrated in a 1997 Atlantic Monthly essay, was grow more grain, for more people on only marginally more land. Not only had he managed to save the lives of more than one billion people, he also saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed.

"In 1950 the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people; by 1992 production was 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people -- 2.8 times the grain for 2.2 times the population. Global grain yields rose from 0.45 tons per acre to 1.1 tons; yields of corn, rice, and other foodstuffs improved similarly. ... The world's 1950 grain output of 692 million tons came from 1.7 billion acres of cropland, the 1992 output of 1.9 billion tons from 1.73 billion acres -- a 170 percent increase from one percent more land," wrote Easterbrook.

The Green Revolution, however, was nearly stopped before it could reach many parts of Africa. By the 1980s the environmentalist movement began to attack Borlaug and the methods he advocated. Under pressure by environmentalists, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, who for decades had underwritten Borlaug's research, decided against spreading high-yield agriculture to Africa. Thanks largely to support by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and a foundation created by the late Japanese businessman Ryoichi Sasakawa are fertilizer driven crops being promoted in the continent that needs increased food production the most.

At an age when most are contemplating the end of their lives, Borlaug continues with his messianic quest. He continues to work with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, teaches agriculture at Texas A&M University and promotes new agricultural technologies in sub-Saharan Africa. Simply put, he continues to add to his legacy as the man, as Easterbrook wrote, who "has already saved more lives than any other person who ever lived." Although his birthday passed with little fanfare, hopefully it reminded some people that the greatest gift received was the one that Borlaug gave to the world.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.


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