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Jeff Jacoby

The man who hated hunger

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / September 16, 2009

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HE WAS AWARDED the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Science, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Scores of universities conferred honorary degrees upon him. Research institutions on three continents were named after him. He was greatly honored, and for good reason: He is reckoned to have saved more lives - hundreds of millions, perhaps a billion - than any man in human history.

Yet until last weekend, when he died at 95, you could have asked 1,000 people at random, and chances are 998 of them would never have heard of Norman Borlaug. Almost as many would likely never have heard of the “Green Revolution’’ Borlaug spearheaded - the spectacular increase in agricultural productivity he first achieved in Mexico in the 1960s and then worked to spread through much of the Third World. Instead of the worldwide famine so confidently predicted by population alarmists of the time, Borlaug’s agricultural miracle sent wheat and rice harvests soaring, outstripping the growth in population. The result was a world in which food became more abundant and affordable than it had ever been.

“In 1950 the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people,’’ journalist Gregg Easterbrook wrote in a profile of Borlaug for The Atlantic in 1997; “by 1992 production was 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people - 2.8 times the grain for 2.2 times the population.’’ Even more remarkable, this burgeoning of the world’s harvests barely affected the amount of land under cultivation. Between 1950 and 1992, cropland increased by less than 1 percent.

Borlaug grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, and experienced the hardships of the Depression and the “Dust Bowl’’ drought that devastated much of the Midwest. The sight of Americans suffering from hunger “left an indelible imprint on me,’’ he later said, and instilled in him a smoldering “hatred against hunger and misery and human poverty.’’ That hatred eventually drew him to the study of plant pathology, and to the crucial insight that unleashed the Green Revolution.

That insight was to breed tall wheat varieties that responded well to chemical fertilizer but tended to fall over from the weight of their seed heads, with short-stalked “dwarf’’ wheat sturdy enough to support the larger kernels Borlaug’s improved strains were producing. The results were extraordinary: Wheat output could be tripled or even quadrupled without needing to plow more land. Within a few years of adopting Borlaug’s methods, Mexico was self-sufficient in wheat.

When he took his innovations to India and Pakistan, the outcome was much the same. “The Indian wheat crop of 1968 was so bountiful,’’ the New York Times observed, “that the government had to turn schools into temporary granaries.’’ By 1970, India was producing 20 million tons of wheat, up from 12.3 million just five years earlier. The 2009 harvest is estimated at more than 78 million tons.

Like all great men, Borlaug had his critics and naysayers. It is often the case that those who can, do, while those who can’t write passionate manifestos explaining why it can’t be done. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,’’ gloom-and-doomer Paul Ehrlich declared in “The Population Bomb,’’ his 1968 bestseller. Hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death, he and others warned, and there was nothing anyone could do to prevent it. By 1968, as writer Ronald Bailey points out, Borlaug’s successes had already been dubbed a “Green Revolution’’ by the US Agency for International Development.

“He was one of the worst critics we had,’’ Borlaug recalled in a 2000 interview with Bailey. “He said, ‘You aren’t going to make any major impact on producing the food that’s needed.’ ’’ Such relentless pessimism might have been comical if it hadn’t been so influential. Under pressure, some of Borlaug’s funders backed away. Environmental critics faulted his embrace of chemical fertilizers and genetic modification. Others accused him of failing to respect the earth’s natural constraints on food production.

But Borlaug had seen too much of hunger ever to be cowed by such censure. The complaints of his well-fed Western detractors would vanish, he said, were they to spend just one month among the world’s poorest and hungriest people. Man may not live by bread alone, but he must surely die without it. Because Norman Borlaug lived, hundreds of millions of human beings were spared that terrible fate.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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