In memory of Norman Borlaug

Last week marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of a man credited with saving a billion lives.

Norman Borlaug was born on 25 March 1914. More than anyone other single person, he gave the lie to the Malthusians who believed the late twentieth century would be marked by mass starvation. Instead, food production shot up, such that the amount of food grown per person actually increased despite the world population having doubled. As I noted a couple of weeks after his death in 2009, it seems that many greens never forgave him for undermining their most potent argument against humanity’s successful exploitation of Mother Earth’s resources, namely that, as population grew, resources would inevitably deplete. But for everyone else, Borlaug was an inspiration, the embodiment of the idea that even the most challenging problems can be overcome with the application of effort and ingenuity. Here is my 2009 obituary to one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

Norman Borlaug, the American agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, died on Saturday aged 95. Borlaug managed to feed the world in a way Bob Geldof, Bono and friends could only dream about, yet he was far from being a household name in the Western world.

Born in 1914, Borlaug grew up on a family farm in Iowa, which he left to join President Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration at the age of 19. He went on to be a group leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps where he was in charge of many recruits who had become emaciated with hunger. He said of that time: ‘I saw how food changed them, and this left scars on me.’

After completing a degree in forestry, Borlaug met Elvin C Stakman, a pioneer of plant pathology, who inspired him. Aiming to further Stakman’s work, Borlaug completed a PhD in 1942 and went to work for DuPont in Delaware where he assisted the US war effort by helping to develop a number of important chemicals, including a canteen disinfectant and an adhesive for sealing food crates dropped at sea.

The turning point for Borlaug was when he went to work for a project jointly set up by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government with the aim of increasing wheat production. His big breakthrough came with his work on a Japanese dwarf variety of wheat. The plant produced high yields, but made poor quality flour and was susceptible to disease. After numerous attempts at producing a hybrid that retained the plant’s positive features, but not the negative ones, he finally succeeded in producing a viable crop. The results were remarkable: Mexican wheat production per hectare leapt from 1,400 kilogrammes in 1960 to 2,700 kilogrammes in 1963.

Borlaug repeated the trick in India and Pakistan, despite initial resistance from farmers wary of planting a crop developed by Americans that might (so they had been told) introduce foreign pests to the sub-continent. However, the new seeds were soon embraced and Indian wheat production jumped from 12million tonnes in 1965 to 17million tonnes in 1967, while Pakistan soon became self-sufficient in wheat seeds.

In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on food production. His efforts had defied those, like environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, who had assumed that mass starvation was just around the corner. But in his Nobel lecture, Borlaug was clear that his work had only bought humanity some time. ‘Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the population monster. The rhythm of increase will accelerate… unless Man becomes more realistic and preoccupied about his impending doom.’

In practical terms, that means that until population growth flattens out (as it tends to do as countries become more prosperous), we need a sustained assault on the problem of food production. While climate change and the environment are the big issues of the day, the fact that one billion people are still undernourished should be our most urgent priority. Borlaug had no time for organic food and other trendy reactions to modern agriculture, arguing that those who promoted such ideas had ‘never experienced the physical sensation of hunger’.

Borlaug remains an inspiration in many ways. Firstly, because he epitomises the ongoing scientific struggle to understand nature as a resource to be utilised for human benefit. No man is an island when it comes to scientific research and technological development, but Borlaug’s single-minded devotion to his task and his optimistic belief in the possibility of improving the world demonstrate what can be achieved by science as a humanist and humane endeavour.

Secondly, Borlaug is a wonderful example of a life lived well. Touched by poverty and hunger both in his native United States and in the developing world, Borlaug devoted himself to the task of finding solutions to problems that were ruining or even ending lives. We can only marvel at the intelligence and stamina of individuals like Borlaug who persevere to make innovations that change the world.

Now we need a new Green Revolution – as the leap in crop yields in the Fifties and Sixties was called – to feed the extra 50 per cent that will be added to the world’s population in the next 40 years or so. It’s an enormous challenge, one that can never be taken for granted. One thing is absolutely essential in that battle: we must never allow ourselves to be sidetracked by anti-modern concerns and never passively accept that disaster is inevitable.

For all you did, and all you represent: thanks, Norman. RIP.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

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