According to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Gregg Easterbrook, Norman Borlaug was “arguably the greatest American of the 20th century.”
Why? By conservative estimates, he saved the lives of over one billion human beings.
And yet most of us have never heard of him. He died on September 12, 2009 at the age of 95. Thanks to him, the United Nations Food and Agriculture organization was able to declare in 2006 that malnutrition is “at the lowest level in human history.” He is one of only six people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He also received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor.
In 1968 Paul R. Ehrlich published a book called The Population Bomb. He predicted that in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people would be dying of starvation thanks to the growth in the world’s population.
Ehrlich’s book was a rehash of the old Malthusian argument. Thomas Malthus was a British scholar born in 1766 who believed that population growth sooner or later gets checked by famine, disease and widespread mortality. Malthus wrote “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”
A leading critic of Ehrlich has been Julian Lincoln Simon who wrote a book called The Ultimate Resource. He argued the opposite of Ehrlich. He said that a larger population is beneficial. In 1980, Ehrlich and Simon made a bet. Ehrlich predicted that the price of metals in the 1980s would increase as the metals became more scarce in the Earth’s crust. Simon predicted that the price of those metals instead would decline, just as they had always declined throughout human history. Simon won the bet.
Malthus, Ehrlich and others like them have consistently predicted gloom for the future. Ehrlich predicted that the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 years by 1980 because of pesticide usage and that the population would drop to 22.6 million by 1999. Simon complained that “As soon as one predicted disaster doesn’t occur, the doomsayers skip to another… why don’t [they] see that, in the aggregate, things are getting better? Why do they always think we’re at a turning point — or at the end of the road?”
In contrast to the doomsayers such as Ehrlich, Norman Borlaug quietly went about solving the problems, so that Ehrlich’s predicted disasters never happened.
Borlaug received his PhD in plant pathology and genetics in 1942, from the University of Minnesota. Then he worked in Mexico in an agricultural research post, where he developed semi-dwarf, high yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat. He worked tirelessly to introduce these high-yielding varieties into places like Mexico, India, Pakistan, and other parts of Asia, and Africa, so that by 1963 Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India. These collective increases have been called “The Green Revolution.” In Pakistan, wheat yields went from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million in 1970. They had become self-sufficient in grain production by 1968. In the year 2000, their yields were 21 million tons. India was the same. Yields for India in 1965 were 12.3 million tons. By 1970 they were at 20.1 million and they were self-sufficient by 1974. By 2000, India harvested 76.4 million tons of wheat. Their food production is increasing faster than their population growth. On top of that, Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, calculates that India’s use of high-yield farming has kept 100 million acres of virgin land from being converted to farmland—about 13.6 percent of the total land area of India. In fact, worldwide, thanks to the Green Revolution, there has been virtually no increase in the amount of land devoted to farming, even as production has skyrocketed. Borlaug’s work at increasing crop yields has therefore curbed deforestation.
Despite Borlaug’s success in saving the lives of billions, those who consider genetic crossbreeding to be unnatural or who think it might have negative effects have denounced him. Others have criticized his work because it has brought large-scale monoculture, input-intensive farming techniques to countries that had previously relied on subsistence farming. Still others have criticized him because of the large profits that some U.S. agribusiness and agrochemical corporations have made as a consequence of the increased food production.
Norman Borlaug pointed out that “some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve 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 fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”