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.