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.
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 percentage 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 from 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 wheat’s 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.
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 paragraph of this article if you’d like to hear the details describe more eloquently than I could manage myself. 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 received 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 which he stopped even into his 90s, the scientists around the world who learned from and where inspired by him and continue to breed crops from rice to wheat to cassava, and the backbreaking work of uncounted farmers, India feeds those hundreds of millions of people as do many other countries that might never have been expected to the 1960.
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 worked his whole life so that others might live, he will be terribly missed. And plant scientists, plant breeders and agronomists around the world have some mighty big shoes to fill.
*In 1968 a man named Paul Ehrlich published a book called “the population bomb” where he claimed India would never be able to feed her own people, and by the 1980s hundreds of millions of people would be starving. When he wrote the book the population of the Earth stood at 3.5 billion and the sense permating every page was that trying to help doomed, starving people around the globe would simply drag America down with them. Yet forty years later the population of the earth is edging towards seven billion, and the question we face is not whether we can keep people from starvation, but simply whether we have the will to do so.