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Andrew Steele

The death of the greatest human being who ever lived Add to ...

Norman Borlaug is dead.

That probably means nothing to most people.

But Borlaug - along with other researchers who create the Green Revolution in food production - saved between two hundred million people and one billion people, depending on how you do the math.

Norman Borlaug spent decades with the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico cross-breeding grain varieties to produce a new disease-resistant dwarf strain of wheat that transformed agriculture, especially in the third world.

Previously, nations from Turkey to Mexico to India were rocked regularly by crop failures. Too much or too little rain, heat or cold could plunge entire nations into famine, war or revolution.

In the 1960's, Borlaug introduced new strains that absorbed more nitrogen and thus grew faster. Previously, plants that grew faster just fell over and rotted, but Borlaug cross bred them with shorter "dwarf" plants with hardy thick stalks that could stand up to high nitrogen absorption. The result was fast-growing, disease-resistant plants perfect for unstable climates.

He also introduced backcrossing techniques that increased their disease resistance through selective breeding.

Most importantly, he was focused on using these techniques specifically to alleviate starvation in the developing world. His goal was always to attack famine, not merely to improve margins in agribusiness.

His impact was immediate and dramatic.

When his seeds were used widely in 1963, Mexico instantly went from famine-prone to a wheat-exporter. Their wheat harvest was six times greater after Borlaug was done than before he started his work. Imagine the compromised stability of Canada and the United States if Mexico were still endured regular famines threatening the lives of millions.

Borlaug's seeds arrived on the sub-continent in 1965 as it was roiling through famine and war. Within five years, the previously starving Pakistan was self-sufficient for grains. India would be self-sufficient within a decade. The two nations were transformed. It is impossible to conceive of the great leaps of Mumbai and Kolkata in an India still experiencing regular famine. Consider the reception of the Taliban in Northern Pakistan if the government could not prevent famine in that region. Food security is a huge contributor to world peace.

He would go on to introduce new rice strains in China and grains in Africa that would continue to save millions.

It was conventional wisdom in the 1960s that hundreds of millions would die of mass starvation and no one could do anything about it. Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968, "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. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..."

Borlaug did.

His persistence and inventiveness demolished a horseman of the apocalypse. Today, the causes of famine are almost always political rather than weather. The disaster is far less common in the south and virtually forgotten in the developed world.

For his efforts, Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was the subject of an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit where he was lauded as the "Greatest Human Being Who Has Ever Lived."

Some critics have attempted to argue that Borlaug's work contributed to the environmental challenges of today, that the population growth of the last forty years contributed to or even caused climate change or resource depletion. Others have decried his invention as "genetically modified food," which it undeniably is.

Borlaug himself remained concerned about population growth and resource use. But the reality is that Borlaug's work was instrumental in saving the hundreds of millions of lives and hundreds of millions of trees. The Borlaug Hypothesis in agronomy states "increasing the productivity of agriculture on the best farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland." In other words, you do a better job with what you have and you won't need to use virgin resources.

Of his harshest critics Borlaug stated, "some… 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."

Borlaug remained grounded despite his elevation to sainthood with the Nobel Prize win. He continued to work in Africa, Asia and Latin America improving crop yields. In 1986, he created the World Food Prize to continue to spark innovation in food production.

Norman Borlaug died on September 12, 2009, at 95 years of age. His family released a simple statement that "We would like his life to be a model for making a difference in the lives of others and to bring about efforts to end human misery for all mankind."

When Princess Diana died, television networks covered it 24/7. Michael Jackson's passing created a tsunami of Internet traffic. I learned about Borlaug's passing on the sidebar of a news website on global development issues in foreign policy.

Norman Borlaug goes to a better place having made the Earth undeniably better, safer and freed from hunger.

And he goes in virtual silence.

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