The Man Who Fed the World

He may have saved a billion people from starvation, but, if you asked a random sample of reasonably well educated Americans who Norman Borlaug was, they’d probably answer, “Norman who?”

I’ll tell you Norman who.  His biographer, Leon Hesser, called him the Man Who Fed the World. Science reporter Gregg Easterbrook called him the Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity. I’ve called him a Modern Prometheus. And comedians Penn and Teller said (well, mostly Penn said) that he was the greatest human being who ever lived.

Norman Borlaug was an American agricultural scientist and plant breeder whose work sparked what is now known as the Green Revolution.  He was recognized with countless scientific and humanitarian awards, including, in 1970, the Nobel Peace Prize. Quite tragically, he died of cancer yesterday, at the age of 95.

Borlaug was born on a small farm in Cresco, Iowa in 1914 and developed an interest in applying science and technology to agriculture during the Depression-era dustbowl that desiccated the Great Plains in the first half of the 1930s.  He went off to study forestry and plant pathology—and compete on the wrestling team—at the University of Minnesota in 1933. He eventually would complete a Master’s and Ph.D. at the U of M, after brief stints with the U.S. Forest Service that periodically interrupted his studies. After completing his Ph.D. in 1942, Borlaug worked for two years at DuPont,. contributing scientific research for the war effort.

In 1944, Borlaug got the opportunity that would come to define the rest of his life, joining a Cooperative Wheat Research Production Program co-funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the Mexican government.  At the time, corn still made up the vast majority of Mexico’s cereal production, even though wheat had been introduced hundreds of years earlier by Spanish settlers. The problem was that wheat varieties adapted to Mexican soil and climatic conditions were susceptible to numerous problematic diseases. Borlaug’s team bred various domestic and foreign wheat varieties together to generate cultivars that would resist most of these diseases, then crossed those long-stem wheat varieties with a semi-dwarf wheat variety from Japan in order to produce an adapted variety with stems that were short and strong enough to hold up the better producing seed heads.

Perhaps Borlaug’s biggest contribution was the development of an accelerated breeding schedule he called “shuttle breeding,” which let him improve the genetic composition of his wheat lines twice as quickly as with normal breeding. Despite opposition from fellow plant breeders who insisted this couldn’t be done, Borlaug and his team would grow one generation of plants at the higher elevations around Mexico City during the summer, and then grow a second generation at sea level some 700 miles to the north near the Sonoran coast during the winter.  Not only did shuttle breeding work, by doubling the progress of Borlaug’s breeding schedule, it also had the fortunate, but unintended side effect of producing wheat strains that were not sensitive the amount of light received each day, as nearly all other plant breeds are.

In just four years, Mexico went from importing almost all the wheat its people consumed to being self-sufficient in wheat production. Borlaug continued working in Mexico, but by the 1960s, his reputation had spread around the world. He was called on first to travel to India and Pakistan to help improve wheat production there. And after a stunning success, he went on to the Philippines and China, where his innovative breeding methods were used to raise yields in the rice varieties consumed by roughly half the world’s population. By the 1980s, Borlaug teamed up with Japanese billionaire philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa to try to spread the Green Revolution to Africa. Wherever he went, the combination of better plant varieties, along with agricultural chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia and other inorganic fertilizers, and synthetic herbicides and insecticides, have helped to more than triple wheat yields in less developed countries since the 1950s.

None of this was easy, however. Borlaug and his colleagues met severe resistance from local seed breeders and farmers set in their ways, as well as national and regional governments who didn’t want to see others succeed where their own programs had failed.  Borlaug wrote in the foreword to my 2004 book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” that, “As we created what became known as the ‘Green Revolution,’ we confronted bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions. … At the time, Forrest Frank Hill, a Ford Foundation vice president, told me, ‘Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually, the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won’t be able to get permission for more of these efforts.’” Indeed, bureaucratic hassles became much worse, he wrote. “If our varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are now being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available.”

But, perhaps no critics were tougher on Borlaug than western environmentalists. As Borlaug moved from Mexico to Asia, doomsayer Paul Ehrlich claimed that Borlaug “doesn’t have any idea of the magnitude of the problems in food production.” He said, “You aren’t going to make any major impact on producing the food that’s needed.” And Ehrlich wasn’t alone. Today, much of the political left still sees the Green Revolution as a failure, despite its obvious successes, because it promoted technological tweaks to address the deficiencies of nature, weakened socialist agrarian reform movements of the 1960s and 1970s by improving rural productivity, and permitted the survival of hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of lives who just end up despoiling the environment.

This failure of the political left, particularly the environmental movement, to acknowledge the usefulness of innovative agricultural technologies led Borlaug to eventually reject the movement he once embraced. Although he was largely apolitical, one lamentable aspect of Borlaug’s politics was his early belief in the necessity of global population control. But, by the 1990s, Borlaug had a change of heart. He also became one of the biggest boosters of food biotechnology and one of the biggest critics of those who believe organic agriculture is the only sustainable option. On the 30th anniversary of his Nobel Prize, he said “I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.”

I came to know Norm—and he always insisted that everyone call him Norm—about ten years ago. He was an energetic, inquisitive, and thoughtful man, and he always spoke with great passion about his own work and that of the countless others whose innovative research he has helped to spread around the world. I had the honor of spending the better part of a week hosting Norm in Washington in May 2004, when the Competitive Enterprise Institute arranged for him to give a “newsmaker” speech at the National Press Club. And, on the occasion of CEI’s 20th anniversary, we presented him with our first ever Prometheus Award for Human Achievement. Despite being in the presence of one of my very few heroes, I was struck most by Norm’s sheer humility. I thought it delightful, for example, that, even at 90 years old, the former wrestler still insisted on carrying his own luggage—and Norm seemed like he’d be willing to deck a guy, however well-meaning, for insinuating that he might be so frail as to need his host to carry it for him.

His beloved wife Margaret, an accomplished basketball star in her younger years, died just over two years ago, also at the age of 95. As I wrote then, “It’s not every spouse who will gladly pick up her family and move it to a foreign land, where they will live in modest conditions. [Borlaug had rejected an offer by DuPont to double his salary if he would pass up the position in Mexico.] But, Margaret was a strong and wise woman, and she gladly moved with Norm and their children to Mexico, where they dedicated their lives to helping others by promoting science, technology, and common sense. Her contributions were thus as important to the Green Revolution as almost any other person’s. So, anyone who values freedom and progress owes both Norm and Margaret a great deal of thanks.”

Today, reflecting on Norm’s death, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s words following the Battle of Britain: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” Indeed, never was so much owed by so many to a single man. Norman Borlaug will be sorely missed.