Thursday, September 24, 2009

On the Third Day, God and Norman Borlaug Created Plants

When Norman Borlaug passed away at the age of 95 on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, I bet you didn't hear anything about it.

Not that you knew who Norman Borlaug was, anyway, right? I'm not judging; I didn't know who he was either. I met my parents for dinner a few nights ago and my dad told me about his passing and who he was.

"Great American hero" is a good start. I did some researching about Mr. Borlaug and came across a piece by Gregg Easterbrook in the WSJ, which is way better than any of his "TMQ" columns on ESPN.com, by the way.

It's a great piece because it goes into detail about the humble greatness and inspiring work that Borlaug achieved in his life. I found myself awed at the triumphant, life-giving forces that one man brought into our messed up world. What follows is just a glimpse of what Borlaug did with his life, and what he did for the world.

Borlaug spent most of his life in the poorest nations on the planet, "patiently teaching poor farmers in India, Mexico, South America, Africa and elsewhere" the wide-ranging agricultural techniques that came to be know as part of the "Green Revolution." These techniques, writes Easterbrook, "prevented the global famines widely predicted when the world population began to skyrocket following World War II."

Green Revolution methods are universally used to this day. They include hybrid crops specifically bred for vigor; "shuttle breeding," a technique for accelerating the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops; Borlaug was also responsible for helping to develop cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, thus allowing them to be grown in many different climates.

The result? "From the Civil War through the Dust Bowl, the typical American farm produced about 24 bushels of corn per acre; by 2006, the figure was about 155 bushels per acre."

Borlaug's innovation helped more than the American farmer, however. In 1943, Borlaug relocated to rural Mexico to establish an ag research station, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Borlaug called his station the International Maize and Wheat Center, abbreviated in Spanish as CIMMYT. Through CIMMYT, Borlaug produced the high-yield, low-pesticide "dwarf" wheat. Most of the world's population still depends on this hybrid crop for sustenance. In 2006, thanks mostly to Borlaug's methods, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization declared that malnutrition stood "at the lowest level in human history," even though the global population tripled during the 20th century.

In 1970 he won the Nobel Prize for putting an end to India and Pakistan's famine. Back in '99, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that through all of his agricultural-enhancing techniques, roughly one billion lives were saved.

I could go on. Read Easterbrook's article to understand just how much our world has been impacted by Borlaug. Next time you think American's are selfish individuals who should use their resources to help those living in impoverished, famine-stricken countries, think about Norman Borlaug and how his efforts have indeed helped feed the world.

I know. His advanced ag methods left a "carbon footprint." But Burlaug didn't care. He once told Easterbrook that 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 fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things."

Borlaug understood that the best resource isn't genetically-modified crops, but people. He was a true humanitarian, and, thus, a true environmentalist. As Borlaug himself said, "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."

We should have a National Norman Borlaug Day. We will eat the fruits of his crops and seek to acquire his heart for the poor. This might take some time, though, seeing how no one knows who he was.

1 comment:

  1. I learned about Norman Borlaug from the West Wing.

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