Norman, we hardly knew ye.

This weekend the world, very quietly, lost its greatest humanitarian. And I mean that literally. Superlatives like “greatest humanitarian” come cheap nowadays. Heck someone probably used the term on the podium at the MTV Awards last night. However I’m pretty sure no one in attendance there had really saved more lives than any human being in the history of the world. That was Norman Borlaug.

Who was Norman Borlaug? Well may you ask, since virtually no one recognizes his name anymore. Norman Borlaug was a poor Iowa farm boy who grew up during the depression. He spent his entire life finding ways to feed the world’s poorest peoples. It’s thanks to him that true famines don’t exist on Earth anymore. Or at least not naturally-occurring famines. There are still plenty of politically-manufactured famines on Earth (Ethiopia, Durfur), but those are a topic for another day.

Borlaug’s most famous achievement was the invention of so-called “dwarf wheat”, a modified strain that he developed while working among subsistence farmers in rural Mexico in the 40’s and 50’s. Those decades were a uniquely tense and worrisome period for humanity in general, a time when much of the planet might have starved to death. Populations were rising thanks to advances in medicine and hygiene, but global food production simply wasn’t keeping up with the growth.

That’s where “dwarf” wheat came in. As its name implies, it was a height-challenged strain of wheat, and that gave it several important advantages. For one, it was a sturdier plant, less likely to blow over and rot. But more than that, the fact that it didn’t expend energy producing lots of stalk and leaves meant it could put more energy into producing wheat berries. Thus dwarf wheat was remarkably high-yielding.

Borlaug’s new wheat ended hunger as an endemic problem in Mexico and lifted hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers out of poverty. It was the beginning of the “Green Revolution.” Soon Borlaug brought his high-producing wheat to Pakistan and India, where long-term, wide-scale famine was beginning to take hold. Despite initial setbacks (wheat was an agricultural novelty, also people were suspicious of high-yield crops) Borlaug began planting in 1965. Three years later, Pakistan became agriculturally self-sufficient. India became self-sufficient four years later, despite the predictions of pessimists like Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968), who claimed that dreams of a self-sustaining India were nothing but fantasy.

But Joe, more food just means more people, and we have enough of those, don’t we? In fact statistically, more food doesn’t lead to more people, as Normal Borlaug also proved. High food yields break the high birth rate—high mortality cycle of life found in impoverished, subsistence-level farming societies. So you see, Norman Borlaug not only helped increase the quantity of life on Earth, he radically increased its quality.

Still, the few people who even mention Normal Borlaug these days usually do so to criticize him. The last two decades, he has been unfairly tarred as a “right-winger” for his refusal to get onboard with the anti-technology organic movement. But for Borlaug, of course, overcoming what was essentially organic agriculture was the whole point. “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy: starvation is,” he famously said, and it’s a point that’s hard to dispute. His critics might be surprised to learn that among many other things, Borlaug was also the archetypal fair trader, having successfully pressured the governments of developing nations to pay world market prices for their grain, busting their longstanding practice of forcing their farmers to sell crops to them at sub-market rates.

For these and his many other achievements, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 (the one and only time it’s ever been awarded for agriculture) the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Public Service Medal, and the Rotary International Award for World Understanding and Peace (the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor). He was awarded many, many others.

Norman Borlaug continued to work on behalf the world’s poor until the day he died, at the age of 95, on Saturday.

12 thoughts on “Norman, we hardly knew ye.”

    1. Indeed, Julie. It’s sad I think that he’s so well kown in other parts of the world but so little known here. I hope to change that!

      Thanks for the note!

      – Joe

  1. You taught me today. I did not know his name or accomplishments. Thanks for enlightening one of the ignorant ones.

    1. Sadly almost all of us grew up ignorant of Norman Borlaug. I know I did. I’m just glad to be able to spread the word! 😉

      – Jim

  2. Great article Joe. So glad you took the time to pay homage to this man. I knew of the dwarf wheat but never of the man. Thank you.

  3. Wow, I knew nothing–I mean nothing–about him. How did I miss it, especially since I have tried to follow how various 19th century horticulturalists impacted what crops we depend on today. Thanks!

    1. Hey Nancy!

      It’s odd how little people know about a guy who’s had such a huge impact on the world. But I was in the same boat several years ago. He’s practically invisible in America, though in places like India and Nigeria there are streets, murals and statues dedicated to him. I can’t explain it, other than it seems to me that as a culture we stopped paying homage to agricultural or industrial innovators in the 60’s and 70’s.

      – Joe

    1. Hey Cristina!

      As I mentioned below, I was ignorant myself until well into adulthood. This sort of thing isn’t taught in schools any more. Why, I don’t know. Thanks for the email!

      – Joe

  4. The saddest part of all this is how, if you google ‘dwarf wheat’, all you get besides wiki is a whole host of articles about how his ‘genetically modified’ wheat is making the whole world sick. Which is, even with the very best possible interpretation, highly dishonest. There’s a significant difference between breeding for characteristics, which is (to the best of my research) what Norman Borlaug did, and genetic manipulation along the lines of Monsanto (which is what the phrase generally brings to mind. Humanity has been using cross breeding and selective breeding as long as we’ve been agricultural.

    1. Yeah, it is really sad. Spread the word GK! The world needs to know some of these stories again.

      – Joe

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