Called "arguably the greatest American in the 20th
century," during his 95 years Norman Borlaug probably saved
more lives than any other person. He is one of just six people to win the
Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal
of Freedom. And yet Dr. Borlaug, who died this past September, is scarcely
known in his own country.
Born in Iowa in 1914, Borlaug spent most of his
life in impoverished nations inventing, improving and teaching the "Green
Revolution." His idea was simple: Make developing countries self sufficient in
food by teaching them how to use modern agricultural techniques that are simple
to implement. Borlaug spent most of his time in Mexico, Pakistan and India, and
focused on five
areas: crop cultivars (seeds), irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and
mechanization. His successes were remarkable.
In 1950, Mexico imported over half of its food.
Thanks to Borlaug's efforts to convince farmers there to try his techniques,
Mexican food production increased 10-fold
by 1970, and the country had become a net exporter. In India and Pakistan, production
doubled. In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that Borlaug's efforts,
combined with those he trained and equipped, saved the lives of 1 billion human beings.
Shockingly, the Green Revolution was almost entirely funded
by developing countries and private charities (notably the Rockefeller and Ford
Foundations), rather than by the governments of prosperous nations. At the
time, the overwhelming view of academic and political elites in the wealthy
countries was that it was already too late.
Biologist Paul Ehrlich's 1968 bestseller "The
Population Bomb" typified this attitude. Ehrlich wrote, "The battle to feed all
of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people
will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." He
later said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who
thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India
couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980." Required
reading at many colleges, Ehrlich's book stated that it was "a
fantasy" that India would "ever" feed itself.
Ehrlich, who was wrong about several
things, was ignorant of what Norman Borlaug was already in the process of
In the introduction to a 2000 interview with
Borlaug, Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey wrote,
"In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in
1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields
continue to increase. Last year , India harvested a record 73.5 million
tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in
1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more
than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold."
In spite of Ehrlich's claims, Borlaug had India
feeding itself within a mere five years of his book release. Also around the
time of Ehrlich's misguided doom-mongering, Borlaug's colleagues at the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research were spreading his
ideas about high-yield rice through Asia, causing another food production explosion.
Towards the end of his life, Borlaug was working to institute his agricultural
revolution in Africa.
No good deed goes unpunished, so we shouldn't be
surprised that Borlaug was attacked by proponents of the trendy new faith of
radical environmentalism because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide
and lots of fertilizer. Gregg Easterbrook quotes Borlaug saying
the following in the 1990s:
"(Most Western environmentalists) have 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 50 years, they'd
be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged
that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these
There's an old proverb: "He who has bread has many
problems. He who has no bread has only one problem." Today, the talk is all
about demands for massively intrusive government interventions requiring
trillions of dollars to address deeply speculative problems 100 years hence
supported by highly suspicious computer models and data. Much less is said
about solving real current problems using proven methods pioneered by Norman
Borlaug that require much smaller sums.
More than 40 years ago Borlaug wrote,
"One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be
choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy."
Some things never change.
Jarrett Skorup is a 2009 graduate
of Grove City College with a dual major in history and political science. He is
a research intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are