Norman Borlaug deserves about a billion birthday cards every year. That’s because something like a billion people–and maybe more–owe their lives to this extraordinary man’s efforts to eradicate hunger by improving agriculture.
I’ve known Norm, who turned 90 on March 25, for about 20 years. Today we serve together on the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize. He once told me that his life’s ambition was to play second base for the Chicago Cubs. It’s a good thing he never achieved that lofty goal, because then he might not have become the father of the Green Revolution–the series of technological developments that boosted farm productivity and made it possible for the world to feed its exploding number of people.
The 20th century is often portrayed as the most destructive in history. Indeed, Norm was born just a few months before the start of the First World War. He went on to witness a Second World War, the Holocaust, the ravages of Communism, the threat of nuclear annihilation–the list is long and horrible.
It was the worst of times, but it was also the best of times (my apologies to Charles Dickens). In remembering that the 20th century was a time of unprecedented violence, we often lose sight of the fact that it was a period of unprecedented life as well. More human beings were born and thrived in the 1900s than in any other century in history.
There was a time when many so-called experts thought the depredations of the 20th century would include a catastrophic population crash brought on not by war but hunger. One influential book, a 1967 best-seller by William and Paul Paddock, foretold a tale of despair in its simple title: “Famine 1975!” The next year, Paul Ehrlich published his own doomsday tome, “The Population Bomb”.
These predictions turned out to be very, very wrong. Food production has tripled since the 1950s, thanks to better irrigation, pesticides, fertilizer and equipment. Improved seeds were a crucial part of this Green Revolution, and Norm Borlaug was indispensable in developing new breeds of grain that boosted harvests all over the world.
The “population bomb” fizzled–and in 1970 Norm won the Nobel Peace Prize for his life-saving efforts. “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world,” said the Nobel Committee. “We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
We certainly don’t have world peace today–but we don’t have a world fighting over dwindling food resources either. Today, the problem of hunger has much more to do with politics than agriculture.
We also have a much stronger environment. “Dr. Borlaug’s scientific leadership not only saved people from starvation, but the high-yield seeds he bred saved millions of square miles of wildlife from being plowed down,” says George McGovern, the former senator and presidential candidate. “He is one of the great men of our age.”
Norm has perhaps slowed a step in his walk, but his mind has lost nothing–he remains a man of unbounded intellect and energy.
And he spends much of his time touting biotechnology. He knows it’s an important part of keeping the Green Revolution going, as world population grows from more than 6 billion today to 8 or 9 billion by the middle of the 21st century. “Biotechnology will help us do things that we couldn’t do before, and do it in a more precise and safe way,” he said in one interview. “Conventional plant breeding is crude in comparison to the methods that are being used with genetic engineering.”
He has a single concern about biotechnology: “I believe that we have done a poor job of explaining the complexities and the importance of biotechnology to the general public.”
That’s a sentiment I share. I devote much of my own time to addressing this problem. God willing, I’ll keep at it until I’m 90 years old.
In the meantime, Norm, please accept this belated birthday greeting–on behalf of myself and a billion other folks.