Innovation

The man who saved 1 billion lives

borlaug-wheatNorman Borlaug, aged 95, died this past Saturday.   In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that his efforts (along with the people he trained and institutes he founded) had saved more than one billion lives … almost all in developing countries.  [Thanks to Gregg Easterbrook who posted op-ed piece today.]

You’re probably asking … what the heck did he do to have such an impact?

Borlaug was a key innovator in agriculture productivity.  He developed higher yield crops which required less water, less pesticides, were more disease resistant and thrived under much more varied and adverse conditions than previous cereal breeds.  He is often referred to as the father of the Green Revolution.

A few big picture stats:

  • In 1950, world grain production was 692 million tons for 2.2 billion people.
  • In 1992, production rose to 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people.
  • Grain yields doubled from < 0.5 ton per acre to 1.1 tons per acre.
  • From 1965 to 2005, global per capita food consumption rose to 2,798 daily calories from 2,063 … mostly in developing countries.

Changing history in India and Pakistan

In the 1965 India/Pakistan famine, Borlaug traveled with 35 truck loads of high-yield seeds to the Indian subcontinent.  In the midst of a famine (and a war), he (and his Mexican assistants) sowed the first crop with these seeds.  Within 3 years, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production and within 6 years, India was self-sufficient in all cereal production.  There hasn’t been a shortage of food since then in those countries.  He appropriately received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Backlash from people who have never gone hungry

As he ventured into seeking to provide similar cereal crop benefits to Africa, he was denounced by critics because his techniques require some pesticides as well as fertilizers.  Here’s some of his responses:

“[Most Western environmentalists] have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger.  They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels.  If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizers and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.”

“Without high-yield agriculture, increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion.”

In nations which have adopted his techniques, population growth as slowed as less workers are needed to produce food.

On behalf of the billions of people who have benefited from Borlaug’s pioneering work, I say “thank you.”

3 thoughts on “The man who saved 1 billion lives

  1. I was deeply saddened that on the day Norman Borlaug died, all I heard were reports about Patrick Swayze. Not to take away from Swayze’s accomplishments, but it is unconscionable that Borlaug wasn’t more celebrated.

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  2. I am almost ashamed that Mr. Borlaug’s contributions to humanity were not widely known or understood here. I have passed on the article so that others may also have a chance to undertand his work and the impact one individual can have in changing the plight of others. Thanks for sharing this.

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