New York Post
August 20, 2006
MR. SMITH FEEDS THE WORLD
By HENRY I. MILLER
THE MAN WHO FED THE WORLD: NOBEL PEACE
PRIZE LAUREATE NORMAN BORLAUG AND HIS BATTLE TO END WORLD HUNGER
BY LEON HESSER DURBAN HOUSE, 297 PAGES, $24.95
LEON Hesser's straightforward yet gripping biography
of Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the
Green Revolution, offers the kind of nobility and idealism shown
by Jimmy Stewart in the classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Borlaug's life has been one of extraordinary paradoxes. A child
of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression, he attended a one-room
school and aspired to become a high-school science teacher but flunked
the university entrance exam. He went on to receive the Nobel Peace
Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the death of millions.
Borlaug, now 92, struggled against prodigious professional obstacles,
including what he calls the "constant pessimism and scaremongering"
of critics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation
was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and
Asia. His work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that
transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China and parts
of South America to feed their populations.
How successful was he? From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output
rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland
to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland - an extraordinary
increase in yield of more than 150 percent.
Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved
or increases in food output could have been realized only through
drastic expansion of land under cultivation. But that would've meant
losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to
urban, suburban and commercial expansion.
Borlaug recalls without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development
and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: the "bureaucratic
chaos, resistance from local seed breeders and centuries of farmers'
customs, habits and superstitions."
Both the need for additional agricultural production and obstacles
to innovation remain, and in recent years, Borlaug has applied himself
to ensuring the success of the application of gene splicing, or
"genetic modification," to agriculture. This second wave
promises to be as important as the first, offering the possibility
of even higher yields, fewer inputs of agricultural chemicals and
water, enhanced nutrition and even plant-derived, orally active
Environmental extremists, though, are doing everything they can
to stop scientific progress, and their allies in the United Nations
and other regulatory agencies are eager to help. "If the naysayers
do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually
precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they
have been predicting for nearly 40 years," says Borlaug,
The essence of Norman Borlaug? I'm reminded of a line by Matthew
Arnold about Sophocles: a man "who saw life steadily, and saw
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.