Norman Borlaug, the Man Who Fed the World, Dies at 95

By Brett Israel | September 14, 2009 2:56 pm

Norman_borlaug_webNorman E. Borlaug, a world-renowned American botanist, died this past Saturday at his home in Dallas from complications due to cancer. Borlaug, who was 95, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for starting the “Green Revolution” that dramatically increased food production in developing nations and saved countless people from starvation [Washington Post]. Borlaug pioneered high-yield agricultural techniques, using cross-bred crops and nitrogen fertilizers, which helped India, Mexico, and other nations combat hunger and become self-sufficient producers of grains.

“Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply,” said Borlaug during his Nobel Lecture in 1970. “Yet food is something that is taken for granted by most world leaders despite the fact that more than half of the population of the world is hungry. Man seems to insist on ignoring the lessons available from history.”

Borlaug’s thoughts on the barriers that exist to solving world hunger became increasingly unpopular. The Green Revolution eventually came under attack from environmental and social critics who said it had created more difficulties than it had solved. Dr. Borlaug responded that the real problem was not his agricultural techniques, but the runaway population growth that had made them necessary. “If the world population continues to increase at the same rate, we will destroy the species,” he declared [The New York Times].

By crossing different strains of wheat, Borlaug was able to engineer disease-resistant varieties that can grow in many different climates and produce incredible yields. Borlaug created “semidwarf” plants that were sturdy enough to support the large wheat heads that result after applying nitrogen-based fertilizer. His work is credited with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives [Huffington Post].

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Image: flickr/USDA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • http://www.thewif.org.uk Dr David Hill

    Norman Borlaug was debatably the greatest change-master in the ‘green’ revolution, but where Norman would have been the first to have said that this is only just one of the pieces in the jigsaw of human survival. For the realisation of a world without starvation, great wars et al, we have to look elsewhere and fast, as time is simply running out.

    In this respect the pace of economic recovery throughout the world should not be the prime consideration of industrialists (World Economic Forum, Dalian, China – 12th September 2009) or governments, but what the future holds for all who live and breathe on this planet. For the way that our politicians are working and addressing mounting global problems is like Nero fiddling whilst Rome burns. They are oblivious to the strains on humankind’s constant growth and are impotent in preventing global Agamemnon coming in this present century with their present thinking and mindsets. Whilst they try and fix the financial system through the people’s wealth, they impoverish tens of millions yearly. The system is a destructive force and where they are the conductors, forever adding fuel to the burning mass that goes on underneath. Over the next 20 years the world will increasingly witness a far more destabilised world, where emerging wars become a common event. By then there will be over 8 billion humans living on planet Earth (and that will be 2 billion less than peak population by 2075 at 10 billion humans according to the latest UN predictions), a significant number unable to sustain themselves. Indeed, the vast dwindling resources problem will create the base and start-line for global conflict, the size and ferocity never seen before. Therefore as Rome did indeed burn, so will humankind eventually with the present political mindsets. This is not pie-in-the-sky scare mongering, but sheer fact and is conditioned by common sense and what will eventually come to pass. That is why armaments throughout the world are increasing every year and where by 2030 through this vast expenditure by governments worldwide, could very well become the largest industry in the world turning over in excess of $5 trillion annually. Indeed in the case of the USA alone, the Friends Committee on National Legislation calculates for Fiscal Year 2009 that the majority of US tax payer’s money goes towards war – some 44.4% of all taxes. Therefore whilst our politicians continue to place their faith in that the strongest will prevail, they lose sight of any possibility of a peaceful future world. Indeed again, they fuel the whole process of human destruction and where their combined interests of relying upon weapons of mass destruction to protect themselves and the preservation of the capitalist system that supports such an unholy mechanism, is absolutely flawed. In time and when things are too late, politicians (and industrialists) will realise the folly of their mismanagement of the world order, for by then all that they once held so dear will have disappeared completely – and the rest of humankind with it.

    For having the insight gained from the thinking of many of the world’s foremost scientists and engineers, technology will not come to the rescue this time, as there are not any significant breakthroughs on the horizon in science today. Indeed, if a scientific miracle were discovered tomorrow to solve just one of humankind’s huge problems, it would take around 4 decades for this to have any significant global effect, as all other revolutionary technologies have shown us in the past – R&D development, technological prototypes, final technology product, mass manufacture, global distribution logistics etc, etc. Therefore any solution would come too late according to the dictates of common sense and where the resources necessary to support 8-10 billion humans, would not be there.

    And where all the above future problems are determined by a vastly overpopulated world, unimaginable depletion of natural resources over the next 25-years that will not be able to support all human life (it only takes 15% of the global population to be affected to cause an irreversible situation), lack of energy and food, the destruction of arable land by continual erosion (both the hot climate effect and rise in sea levels) and the decimation of the oceans through industrial pollution and energy resources extraction on a momentous scale.

    Dr. David Hill, DSc(Hon)
    World Innovation Foundation Charity
    Bern, Switzerland

  • Joan Marion

    Please create and distribute if possible lesson plans for schools which will make student,teachers,and others more aware of this crisis and include projects which require student learning activities using all disciplines ,
    Students need to know of scientists like Norman Borlaug and make him and others like him their heroes!
    Examining their role in limiting births and food production-Are the oceans a possibility?

  • Frank

    Thanks doc, you nailed it.

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