Norman Borlaug Special Issue of Population News

Normal Borlaug is the most important person you’ve probably never heard of before. Only one of three living Americans to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Elie Wiesel and the dubious Henry Kissinger being the others), ironically it is Borlaug’s success in his field which has led to his toiling away in obscurity, often unable to get serious funding.

Borlaug was the pioneer who in large measure created the Green Revolution. Back when Paul Ehrlich predicted there was no way developing nations could increase their crop yields, Borlaug was in the fields showing them how to do just that. In a profile of Borlaug for the Atlantic Monthly, Gregg Easterbrook doesn’t have to rely on too much hyperbole to claim, “the form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths!”

nbsp;In 1963, the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation set up the International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT) and sent Borlaug to India where he and others planted the first crop of dwarf wheat, a specially bred hybrid, which increased crop yields 70 percent and helped avert a wartime starvation (India and Pakistan were then at war).

The results speak for themselves. By 1968, Pakistan was growing enough food to feed itself. Although Paul Ehrlich claimed it was sheer fantasy that India could ever feed itself, in 1974 it became self-sufficient in cereal production. As Easterbrook notes, when Borlaug arrived India produced about 11 million tons of wheat, while today it grows over 60 million tons.

On the principle that no good deed should go unpunished, Borlaug’s very success has been his downfall. In the 1960s the primary doomsayers were people like Ehrlich who said the Green Revolution could never happen. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, environmentalists emerged who argued the Green Revolution shouldn’t have happened. Arguing that fertilizer-intensive agriculture harmed the environment, “extremist environmentalists” (to use Borlaug’s term) convinced nonprofits like the Rockefeller Foundation to stop funding work like Borlaug’s. The expansion of agricultural production in famine-prone areas such as Africa was no longer seen as a cornucopian fantasy but as an all-too-real threat.

Borlaug appeared before Congress in early August and lashed out at critics who see fertilizer as a greater environmental hazard than mass starvation. The Associated Press quoted Borlaug telling a Senate committee, “Afraid of antagonizing powerful lobbying groups, many international agencies have turned away from supporting the science-based agricultural intensification programs so urgently needed” in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Borlaug, “realistic soil fertility restoration and maintenance … in Africa will be the key to achieving needed agricultural growth rates.”

People like Borlaug can prevent millions, perhaps billions, of people from starving to death — if only the environmentalists will let him.

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