Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Three Cheers For Norman Borlaug

Insty links to this Huffpo article by Gregg Easterbrook about Norman Bourlaug, who just received the Congressional Gold Medal. Bourlag is an agricultural scientist whose work led to the "green revolution." The number of people whom he saved is certainly in the hundreds of millions; it might even be as many as a billion. As Easterbrook says:

Born 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone else who has ever lived. A plant breeder, in the 1940s he moved to Mexico to study how to adopt high-yield crops to feed impoverished nations. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Borlaug developed high-yield wheat strains, then patiently taught the new science of Green Revolution agriculture to poor farmers of Mexico and nations to its south. When famine struck India and Pakistan in the mid-1960s, Borlaug and a team of Mexican assistants raced to the Subcontinent and, often working within sight of artillery flashes from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, sowed the first high-yield cereal crop in that region; in a decade, India's food production increased sevenfold, saving the Subcontinent from predicted Malthusian catastrophes. Borlaug moved on to working in South America. Every nation his green thumb touched has known dramatic food production increases plus falling fertility rates (as the transition from subsistence to high-tech farm production makes knowledge more important than brawn), higher girls' education rates (as girls and young women become seen as carriers of knowledge rather than water) and rising living standards for average people. Last fall, Borlaug crowned his magnificent career by persuading the Ford, Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations to begin a major push for high-yield farming in Africa, the one place the Green Revolution has not reached.

Now, it's not quite true, as Easterbrook would have it, that Professor Borlaug is unknown -- he's received the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal after all, as well as plenty of other accolades. I knew who he was, and it would seem that the folks at the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates Foundations do too. But Easterbrook is right that an award to the greatest living American -- or quite possibly the greatest human ever to live -- is more newsworthy than, say, the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

Some of Easterbrook's Huffpo commenters seem happy to hear about Professor Borlaug. Others, well, they take the opportunity to rant about Evil Biotech and how America is to blame for all the ills of the world.

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