Norman Borlaug, International Hero

Via Reason comes the news that agronomist Norman Borlaug died yesterday at age 95.  Borlaug was a great humanitarian, a Nobel Prize winner whose work to reduce hunger and malnutrition was unparalleled.  And yet many have never heard of this man who developed high-yield agricultural techniques to save a billion people from the ravages of famine.

Just think about it for a moment.  One billion lives saved.

Borlaug’s innovations in the breeding of wheat, rice, and corn enabled countries like Pakistan and India to become agriculturally self-sufficient.  The Los Angeles Times reports:

In 1960, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug’s pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people — using only 1% more land.

But Borlaug faced stunning challenges in his efforts to address hunger in developing nations, particularly those in Africa.  For decades, full-bellied, misanthropic environmentalists have campaigned against Borlaug’s use of genetic modification, inorganic fertilizers, and controlled irrigation to improve crop productivity.  He responded to the criticism by saying, “It appears that many of the most rabid crop biotech opponents are driven more by a hate of capitalism and globalization than by the actual safety of transgenic plants.”

Environmentalists also condemned his work for allegedly poisoning the water supply, threatening biodiversity, and contributing to overpopulation of the planet.  In the 1980s, buckling under pressure from environmental lobbyists, the International Maize and Wheat Center where Borlaug conducted much of his groundbreaking work lost the support of the World Bank and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Borlaug observed:

Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Ultimately, Borlaug was able to return to his efforts to bring high-yield farming techniques to several African nations with the assistance of Ryoichi Sasakawa, Japanese fascist turned philanthropist, and former United States president Jimmy Carter.  Today, the fruits of his research can be seen in the prevalence of the high-yield dwarf wheat that helps much of the world’s population live beyond the grip of starvation.

There are still more than 800 million undernourished people in the world.  Norman Borlaug’s legacy can change that, but only if we make it a priority.

Update: Common ground for the left and right?  Far left commenter Eclectic Radical is also honoring Norman Borlaug. (Yes, he insists on throwing a “David Duke:conservatives as misanthropic environmentalists:liberals” analogy into the comments below, but, you know, baby steps.)


4 Responses to “Norman Borlaug, International Hero”

  1. Eclectic Radical on September 14th, 2009 5:56 am

    This is an excellent post. I agree with very nearly all of it.

    It is important to distinguish ‘environmentalists’ from the Ehrlich-ites who buy into the ‘population bomb’ nonsense. Ehrlich wrote his book even as his theories were being disproved by Borlaug’s actual work, and the majority of those committed to his theories are a small fringe group as disparate from the mainstream of environmentalist thought as David Duke is from mainstream conservative thought. They are pretty damn loud, but most credible environmentalists and economists (even ‘leftists’ like New Dealers and Radicals) see Borlaug’s work as direct refutation of most of Ehrlich’s core theories. The ‘population bomb theory’ is that population growth will always outpace food production, and Borlaug’s Green Revolution has proved that total food production can very easily outstrip total population growth.

    The real challenge of feeding the world is no longer technological. The biggest reason for famine today is the system of distribution and its susceptibility to political instability, corruption, and economic depression.

    I’m tremendously amused that we both wrote of Borlaug’s death right away.

  2. Jenn Q. Public on September 14th, 2009 2:27 pm

    Thanks. I updated my post with a link to what you wrote.

    I realize supporters of Ehrich’s nonsense are fairly fringe on the left, but are they really so far out of the mainstream of environmentalist thought? Fringe or not, the ability to influence the World Bank as well as European biotech policy makes them pretty powerful.

    I agree with you that political instability and corruption are among the largest contributors to hunger. However, I’m not ready to say that the “real challenge is no longer technological.” Right now almost 20 percent of the world’s wheat crop is in imminent danger due to wheat rust. What Norman Borlaug giveth, nature could taketh away in the blink of an eye if we discount the importance of continued technological innovation.

  3. Eclectic Radical on September 14th, 2009 3:11 pm

    I’m certainly /not/ trying to dismiss the continued usefulness of technology. I’m on the far left, I believe in science. ;)

    Jokes aside, the ‘population control’ crowd /does/ have a following in Europe… less among environmentalists or even ‘liberals’ than among technocratic believers in what I would call a ‘managerial state.’ Mikhail Gorbachev is prominent in the movement, as one example… but so are quite a few European conservatives of the Franco-esque stripe.

    The population control people frequently /call/ themselves enivironmentalists, but their fundamental approach has a lot more in common with the 1910s and 1920s theory that if one simply properly managed every aspect of human life then one could engineer utopia. That’s NOT environmentalism, that’s something else entirely.

  4. CountyRat on September 17th, 2009 2:41 pm

    “The population control people frequently /call/ themselves enivironmentalists, but their fundamental approach has a lot more in common with the 1910s and 1920s theory that if one simply properly managed every aspect of human life then one could engineer utopia. That’s NOT environmentalism, that’s something else entirely.”

    Yes, it is something else. It is tyrany. Let’s call it by the ugly name it deserves.

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