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LEISURE & ARTS
Man Who Fed the World
How a poor Iowa farm boy came to be one of humanity's greatest
Tuesday, September 5, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970? You may be forgiven for not remembering,
given some of the prize's dubious recipients over the years (e.g.,
Yasser Arafat). Well, then: Who has saved perhaps more lives than
anyone else in history? The answer to both questions is, of course,
Who? Norman Borlaug, 92, is the father of the "Green Revolution,"
the dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity that swept
the globe in the 1960s. He is now the subject of an admiring biography
by Leon Hesser, a former State Department official who first met
Mr. Borlaug 40 years ago in Pakistan, where they worked together
to boost that country's grain production. "The Man Who Fed
the World" describes, in a workmanlike way, how a poor Iowa
farm boy trained in forestry and plant pathology came to be one
of humanity's greatest benefactors.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1944, Mr. Borlaug
accepted an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on
a project to boost wheat production in Mexico. At the time, Mexico
was importing a good share of its grain. Working at plant breeding
stations near Mexico City in the south and near Obregon in the northwestern
part of the country, Mr. Borlaug and his staff spent nearly 20 years
breeding the high-yield dwarf wheat that sparked the Green Revolution.
(Using two stations allowed them to plant two crops a year instead
of one, doubling the speed of research.) The key to their success
was painstakingly cross-breeding thousands of wheat varieties to
find those resistant to highly destructive "rust" fungi.
They also changed the architecture of the wheat, from tall gangly
stems to shorter sturdier ones that produced more grain.
It was an achievement that made Mexico self-sufficient in wheat
by the late 1950s and, when later deployed throughout much of the
developing world, forestalled the mass starvation predicted by neo-Malthusians.
In the late 1960s, lest we forget, most experts were speaking of
imminent global famines in which billions of people would perish.
"The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist
Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in "The Population Bomb,"
his 1968 best seller. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions
of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked
As Mr. Ehrlich was making his dark predictions, Mr. Borlaug was
embarking on just such a crash program. Working with scientists
and administrators in India and Pakistan, he succeeded in getting
his highly productive dwarf wheat varieties to hundreds of thousands
of South Asian peasant farmers. These varieties resisted a wide
spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times
more grain than traditional varieties.
Mr. Borlaug's achievement was not confined to the laboratory. He
insisted that governments pay poor farmers world prices for their
grain. At the time, many developing nations--eager to supply cheap
food to their urban citizens, who might otherwise rebel--required
their farmers to sell into a government concession that paid them
less than half of the world market price for their agricultural
products. The result, predictably, was hoarding and underproduction.
Using his hard-won prestige as a kind of platform, Mr. Borlaug persuaded
the governments of Pakistan and India to drop such self-defeating
Fair prices and high doses of fertilizer, combined with new grains,
changed everything. By 1968 Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat,
and by 1974 India was self-sufficient in all cereals. And the revolution
didn't stop there. Researchers at a research institute in the Philippines
used Mr. Borlaug's insights to develop high-yield rice and spread
the Green Revolution to most of Asia. As with wheat, so with rice:
Short-stalked varieties proved more productive. They devoted relatively
more energy to making grain and less to making leaves and stalks.
And they were sturdier, remaining harvestable when traditional varieties--with
heavy grain heads and long, slender stalks--had collapsed to the
ground and begun to rot.
Hence the Nobel Prize. The chairman of the Nobel committee explained
why it had chosen Mr. Borlaug in this way: "More than any other
single person of this age, [he] has helped to provide bread for
a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing
bread will also give the world peace."
Whether bread induces peace is a question for another day. It certainly
kills hunger and saves lives. Contrary to Mr. Ehrlich's bold pronouncement,
hundreds of millions of people did not die for lack of food. Far
from it. Despite occasional local famines caused by armed conflicts
or political mischief, food is more abundant and cheaper today than
ever before in history. It is an absurd travesty that Mr. Ehrlich
is still much better known than Mr. Borlaug, but perhaps Mr. Hesser's
biography can begin to right the balance.
Mr. Borlaug is still tirelessly working to keep hunger at bay. He
remains a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center in Mexico and president of a private Japanese foundation
working to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa. He
believes that biotechnology will be crucial to boosting world food
supplies in the coming decades and decries the underfunding of the
world's network of nonprofit agricultural research centers.
He also laments the unnecessary suspicion with which biotech is
treated these days. "Activists have resisted research,"
he notes, "and governments have overregulated it." They
both miss the point. "Responsible biotechnology is not the
enemy: starvation is."
Mr. Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine and
the author of "Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral
Case for the Biotech Revolution."