Norman Borlaug: Life Saver


(This 972nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 8, 2009.)



Norman Borlaug


The death on September 12 of 95-year-old Norman Borlaug caused scarcely a blip in the news cycle. In fact, I suspect that many readers have never heard of Dr. Borlaug, which represents a sad commentary on contemporary values.


Consider the simple fact that Borlaug's contributions saved an estimated one billion people from starvation. On July 17, 2007, President George W. Bush presented him with America's highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal. The associated act, Public Law 109–395, reads: "Dr. Borlaug has saved more lives than any other person who has ever lived, and likely has saved more lives in the Islamic world than any other human being in history."


How could anyone save that many lives? Let's see.


Borlaug was an agronomist, that is, a person who works with crop production and soil management, major aspects of farming.


Raised during the depression, in 1935 he played a small role in the Civilian Conservation Corps, working with the unemployed on federal projects, many of the participants starving when they first joined the Corps. He later recalled, "I saw how food changed them. All of this left scars on me."


Having completed his education and wartime work, in 1944 Borlaug left an excellent position at DuPont to join the Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program in Mexico. Although his division was understaffed and local farmers were resistant to change, he found a way to double the production of wheat by taking advantage of the country's two growing seasons, one in the central highlands, the other at lower elevation in northwestern Mexico.


When he originally proposed this plan, his superior disapproved it and in response Borlaug resigned from the program. Fortunately, a higher-up adjudicated the difference and Borlaug's plan was given a trial.


After this success, Borlaug turned to the problem of wheat rust, a fungus that causes losses of up to 20% in wheat and rye crops. He was able to develop disease resistant varieties by a method called backcrossing.


Next he improved wheat production by developing shorter stemmed varieties. By the time he was finished he had increased Mexican wheat production by a factor of six.


In 1963 Borlaug was sent to India by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to address their serious food shortages. At the time Paul Ehrlich was writing in The Population Bomb: "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."


Despite nearby fighting between India and Pakistan, Borlaug and his colleagues carried out their work with new crop strains, immediately producing crop yields better than any previously recorded in southern Asia.


Some results: In the early 1960s both India and Pakistan were wheat importers, but between 1965 and 1970 Pakistan's wheat yields increased from 4.6 to 7.3 million tons. At the same time India's production increased from 12.3 to 20.1 million tons. These increases made both countries self-sufficient in cereal crops.


In the early 1980s Borlaug turned his attention to Africa, but early efforts there were blocked by those who opposed his methods. The criticisms varied from opposition to genetic breeding to profits reaped by large corporations and the use of inorganic fertilizers. Support for his efforts was terminated by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the World Bank, but a 1984 famine in Ethiopia led to Japanese funding. Borlaug's immediate efforts in seven African countries led to a doubling of crop yields between 1983 and 1985.


Recntly Borlaug was less hopeful about the future: "Though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."


Even at the time Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 he warned against complacency: "We are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until food production and population control unite in a common effort."


Please honor Norman Borlaug by at least remembering his name.-- Gerry Rising