Norman Borlaug Saves A Billion

Everyone loves a hero. Save someone from a burning building, and you’ll get your fifteen minutes of fame. That’s why I’m always surprised that more people don’t know Norman Borlaug, who would have celebrated his 104th birthday on Sunday. He won the Nobel prize in 1970 and there’s good reason to think that his hacking efforts saved about a billion people from starving to death. A billion people. That’s not just a hero, that’s a superhero.

To understand why that claim is made, you have to go back to the 1970s. The population was growing and was approaching an unprecedented four billion people. Common wisdom was that the Earth couldn’t sustain that many people. Concerns about pollution were rampant and there were many influential thinkers who felt that we would not be able to grow enough food to feed everyone.

Paul Ehrlich, in particular, was a Stanford University biologist who wrote a book “The Population Bomb.” His forecast of hundreds of millions starving to death in the 1970s and 1980s, including 65 million Americans, were taken very seriously. He also predicted doom for India and that England would not exist by the year 2000.

Here we are 40 or 50 years later and while there are hungry people all over the world, there isn’t a global famine of the proportions many people thought was imminent. What happened? People are pretty good problem solvers and Norman Borlaug — along with others — created what’s known as the Green Revolution.

Borlaug broke the rules for growing wheat as part of experiments he conducted in Mexico. Breeding high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat was just the start. He also developed methods to get two growing seasons a year, flying in the face of conventional wisdom. India and Pakistan imported this wheat and found they had an embarrassing problem. Wheat production rose to the point that they didn’t have sufficient storage, labor, or even bags to store the harvest in.

In Pakistan, wheat yields went from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970. They became self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968. In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons to 20.1 million tons in the same time period. By 1974, India became self-sufficient in the production of all cereals. Other countries took note, and the world was able to grow more wheat on less land than ever before.

It isn’t just wheat. Borlaug’s techniques inspired similar work with rice. It isn’t surprising that he won the Nobel prize. The story is told that his wife received the notification and since he was at one of the research fields, she drove out to tell him. This could be the genesis of the joke about winning the Nobel prize by being “out standing in your field.”

You might not think of farming as a hacking activity, but Borlaug and others bred high-yield plants with desirable characteristics. Others promoted synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticides, which worked in conjunction with the new varieties.

Of course, like anything complex, there are detractors. Ehrlich still thinks the world will starve to death sometime soon. Numbers of people who starve each year depend on how you count starvation, but the number is far less than the apocalypse Ehrlich warned about. The fact that about 11% of the seven billion people on Earth are not sufficiently fed is something we need to fix, but most people agree the food exists, it just isn’t getting to the hungry people due to economics and political issues. It isn’t that there isn’t enough food.

Regardless, world grain production went up about 160% from 1958 to 1984. In addition, on average, a person consumes 25% more calories today then they did before the Green Revolution.

I guess this story appeals to us because it is a great example of how predictions of doom can be solved by technology. After all, Thomas Malthus has been predicting world-wide famine since before 1800. Over my life, we’ve heard that we would run out of hydrocarbon fuel, we would make the air unbreathable, and a host of other gloomy predictions. Of course, we shouldn’t assume technology is going to fix everything. It is up to us to seek the solutions to all the daunting problems that loom ahead.

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