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September 13th, 2009:

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug passed away yesterday. I was never lucky enough to meet him, but I know my father had the chance a few times at the World Food Prize which is given away in Des Moines every year. Never the less, he’s the reason I am who I am today. Because his story, even more than the stories of people like Alexander Flemming (the man who discovered penicillin), shows the good science does in the world. The internet is, I hope, full of better tributes to the man than I can to write, but if you’ve never heard of the man, or know the name but can’t place why you do, I thought I’d give the very appreviated version of the life of the only man in the world to earn the Nobel Peace Prize through agricultural achievemnet.
Norman Borlaug was born in smalltown Iowa in 1914. He went to a one room school. He learned to be a scientist at the University of Minnesota. After working for the Forest Service and DuPont, he accepted a job working in Mexico on improving wheats productivity there. Over the next two decades he developed lines of wheat that were both more disease resistant, and shorter. Shorter in this case meant less trouble with being blown over by wind, more branching (good since each branch ended in a head of wheat), and a greater precentage of the total energy of the plant going into seed production. Although it’s not as pronounced as in wheat, you can see the same trend in corn breeding. Look at a picture of a cornfield fron the 1920, and you can see it’s much taller (and less densely planted) than corn grown today.
Wheat yields per acre in Mexico came close to doubling between 1960 and 1965. Which is all the more impressive when you remember I was just talking a couple of days ago about how much harder it has been to increase wheats productivity than that of maize. In 1963 Mexico, a country that had been importing 60% of its wheat less than two decades before, became a net exporter of wheat.
http://www.dallasobserver.com/2002-12-05/news/green-giant/4
Bringing those same benefits to Indian and Pakistan, while the two countries were at war over Kashmir no less, is a story in its own right. Read from the second page of this article if you don’t believe me. But in five years from 1965-1970** wheat production in both countries almost doubled, not from chopping down forests or displacing other crops, but by producing more on the same acres.
It was this work, feeding the hungry not for a day, but by giving them the tools to feeds themselves for a lifetime, for which Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel peace prize in 1970. Today the population of India is more than twice what it was in the early 1960s. Through the work of Norman Borlaug, the scientists around the world who came after him and continue to breed crops from rice to wheat to cassava, and the backbraking work of uncounted farmers, India feeds those hundreds of millions of people.
There are hundreds of millions of people alive today because of Norman Borlaug personally, and billions alive because of the work inspired by the proof he showed up all that fighting starvation was not a battle we were predestined to lose. He was a great man and he will be terribly missed.

Norman Borlaug passed away yesterday. I was never lucky enough to meet him, but I know my father had the chance a few times at the World Food Prize which is given away in Des Moines every year. Never the less, he’s the reason I am who I am today. Because his story, even more than the stories of people like Alexander Flemming (the man who discovered penicillin), shows the good science does in the world. The internet is, I hope, full of better tributes to the man than I can to write, but if you’ve never heard of the man, or know the name but can’t place why you do, I thought I’d give the very appreviated version of the life of the only man in the world to earn the Nobel Peace Prize through agricultural achievement.

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