"Dr. Borlaug's scientific achievements saved hundreds of millions of lives and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and the distinction of one of the 100 most influential individuals of the 20th Century."
Jimmy Carter
"Dr. Borlaug is an American hero and a world icon."
George H. W. Bush
"This biography of one of the greatest men of our time is written in the same fast-paced, common sense style that has characterized the amazingly creative life of Norman Borlaug... No one can tell this story of Dr. Borlaug better than his fellow agriculturist and development authority, Dr. Leon Hesser."
George McGovern
 
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LEISURE & ARTS

The Man Who Fed the World
How a poor Iowa farm boy came to be one of humanity's greatest benefactors.

BY RONALD BAILEY
Tuesday, September 5, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Who 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, Norman Borlaug.
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 upon now."
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 policies.
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."


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