Renowned agricultural scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug has died at the age of 95. Borlaug, known as the father of the “Green Revolution” for saving over a billion people from starvation by utilizing pioneering high yield farming techniques, is one of only five people in history who has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.
U.S. agronomist, Univ. of Minnesota (Ph.D.,1942). He worked as researcher with the E. I. du Pont Company until 1944, when he joined the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico. He became a director at the Foundation and headed a team of scientists from 17 nations experimenting with improvement of grains. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to eradicate hunger and build international prosperity.
During the mid-20th century, Borlaug led the introduction of these high-yielding varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India, greatly improving the food security in those nations. These collective increases in yield have been labeled the Green Revolution, and Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.
Later in his life, he helped apply these methods of increasing food production to Asia and Africa.
The following testimonial to Borlaug from CORE’s Paul Dreissen is especially telling:
“Since when did you become a global warming alarmist?” I kidded Norman midway into our telephone conversation a few weeks before this amazing scientist and humanitarian died. “What are you talking about?” Dr. Borlaug retorted. “I’ve never believed that nonsense.” I read a couple sentences from his July 29 Wall Street Journal article. “Within the next four decades, the world’s farmers will have to double production on a shrinking land base and in the face of environmental demands caused by climate change. Indeed, [a recent Oxfam study concludes] that the multiple effects of climate change might reverse 50 years of work to end poverty.”
I mentioned that my own discussions of those issues typically emphasize how agricultural biotechnology, modern farming practices and other technological advances will make it easier to adapt to any climate changes, warmer or colder, whether caused by humans or by the same natural forces that brought countless climate shifts throughout Earth’s history.
“You’re right,” he said. “I should have been more careful. Next time, I’ll do that. And I’ll point out that the real disaster won’t be global warming. It’ll be global cooling, which would shorten growing seasons, and make entire regions less suitable for farming.” I was amazed, as I was every time we talked. Here he was, 95 years old, “retired,” still writing articles for the Journal, and planning what he’d say in his next column.
The article we were discussing, “Farmers can feed the world,” noted Norman’s deep satisfaction that G-8 countries have pledged $20 billion to help poor farmers acquire better seeds and fertilizer. “For those of us who have spent our lives working in agriculture,” he said, “focusing on growing food versus giving it away is a giant step forward.”
Our previous conversations confirm that he would likewise have applauded the World Bank’s recent decision to subsidize new coal-fired power plants, to generate jobs and reduce poverty, by helping poor countries bring electricity to 1.5 billion people who still don’t have it. For many poor countries, a chief economist for the Bank observed, coal is the only option, and “it would be immoral at this stage to say, ‘We want to have clean hands. Therefore we are not going to touch coal.’” Norman would have agreed.
“Governments,” he argued, “must make their decisions about access to new technologies…on the basis of science, and not to further political agendas.” That’s why he supported DDT to reduce malaria, biotechnology to fight hunger, and plentiful, reliable, affordable electricity to modernize China, India and other developing nations. His humanitarian instincts and commitment to science and poverty eradication also drove his skepticism about catastrophic climate change.
He was well aware that recent temperature data and observations of solar activity and sunspots indicate that the Earth could be entering a period of global cooling. He had a healthy distrust of climate models as a basis for energy and economic policy. And he knew most of Antarctica is gaining ice, and it would be simply impossible for Greenland or the South Pole region to melt under even the more extreme temperature projections from those questionable computer models. He also commented that humans had adapted to climate changes in the past, and would continue to do so. They would also learn from those experiences, developing new technologies and practices that would serve humanity well into the future.
The Ice Ages doubtless encouraged people to unlock the secrets of fire and sew warm clothing. The Little Ice Age spawned changes in societal structure, housing design, heating systems and agriculture. The Dust Bowl gave rise to contour farming, crop rotation, terracing and other improved farming practices. Norman’s dedication to science, keen powers of observation, dogged perseverance, and willingness to live for years with his family in Mexico, India and Pakistan resulted in the first Green Revolution. It vastly improved farming in many nations, saved countless lives, and converted Mexico and India from starving grain importers to self-sufficient exporters.
In his later years, he became a champion of biotechnology, as the foundation of a second Green Revolution, especially for small-holder farmers in remote parts of Africa. Paul Ehrlich and other environmentalists derided his ultimately successful attempt to defuse “The Population Bomb” through his initial agricultural advances, and attacked him for his commitment to biotechnology. His response to the latter assaults was typically blunt. “There are 6.6 billion people on the planet today. With organic farming, we could only feed 4 billion of them. Which 2 billion would volunteer to die?”
Borlaug speaking at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in June 2003. See one of his lectures here.
The Atlantic Monthly estimated that Norman’s work saved a billion lives. Leon Hesser titled his biography of Borlaug The Man Who Fed the World. Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Greg Conko dubbed him a “modern Prometheus.” Science reporter Greg Easterbrook saluted him as the “forgotten benefactor of mankind.” And the magician-comedy-political team of Penn and Teller said he was “the greatest human being who ever lived.”
He deserved every award and accolade – and merited far more fame in the United States than he received, though he was well known in India, Mexico and Pakistan, where his work had made such a difference.
Norman was also a devoted family man and educator. He served as Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University into his nineties. A year and a half ago, he gladly spent 40 minutes on the telephone with my daughter, who interviewed him for a high school freshman English “true hero” paper – and did so just after returning from the hospital and on the one-year anniversary of his beloved wife Margaret’s death.
He told my daughter it was because of Margaret, “and her faith in me and what I was doing, that we were able to live in Mexico, under conditions that weren’t nearly as good as what we could have had in the United States, and I was able to do my work on wheat and other crops.”
I sent him occasional articles, and we talked every few months, about biotech, global warming, malaria eradication, some new scientific report one of us had seen, or some website he thought I should visit. As we wrapped up our early August chat, we promised to talk again soon. Sadly, he entered a hospice and passed away before that could happen.
His mind was “still as clear as ever,” his daughter Jeanie told me, but his body was giving out. To the very end, Norman was concerned about Africa and dedicated to the humanitarian and scientific principles that had guided his life and research, and earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Norman left us a remarkable legacy. But as he told my daughter, “There is no final answer. We have to keep doing research, if we are to keep growing more nutritious food for more people.” The world, its climate and insect pathogens will continue to change. It is vital that we sustain the incredible agricultural revolution that Norman Borlaug began. END
Borlaug historian Gregg Easterbrook in the Wall Street Journal in “The Man Who Defused the “Population Bomb”on September 16th sung the praises of this little known great man.
“In the mid-1960s, India and Pakistan were exceptions to the trend toward more efficient food production; subsistence cultivation of rice remained the rule, and famine struck. In 1965, Borlaug arranged for a convoy of 35 trucks to carry high-yield seeds from CIMMYT to a Los Angeles dock for shipment to India and Pakistan. He and a coterie of Mexican assistants accompanied the seeds. They arrived to discover that war had broken out between the two nations. Sometimes working within sight of artillery flashes, Borlaug and his assistants sowed the Subcontinent’s first crop of high-yield grain. Paul Ehrlich gained celebrity for his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” in which he claimed that global starvation was inevitable for the 1970s and it was “a fantasy” that India would “ever” feed itself. Instead, within three years of Borlaug’s arrival, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; within six years, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.
After his triumph in India and Pakistan and his Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug turned to raising crop yields in other poor nations especially in Africa, the one place in the world where population is rising faster than farm production and the last outpost of subsistence agriculture. At that point, Borlaug became the target of critics who denounced him because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was “inappropriate” for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that 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 things.” END
Like most agronomists and nurserymen, Dr Borlaug saw the importance of CO2 for plant growth.
The last 50 years has indeed seen a green revolution in part due to the great work of Borlaug and other plant scientists and in part ironically from increasing CO2, a plant fertilizer. NASA satellite shows the persistence of greening that resulted in a 30% increase in yields the past 50 years. More vigorous and healthy plants are also more drought resistant.