Sunday, September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug, RIP

When we think about the most important figures of the 20th Century, we tend to focus on the politicians -- Churchill, FDR, Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Reagan -- but there are others who arguably impact far more human lives. Norman Borlaug, who died yesterday at the age of 95, is one of those people. Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine interviewed Borlaug in 2000 and Bailey's introduction to the interview explains why Borlaug is a giant:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

So how did Borlaug's wheat do? Bailey:

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

Contrary to Ehrlich's bold pronouncements, hundreds of millions didn't die in massive famines. India fed far more than 200 million more people, and it was close enough to self-sufficiency in food production by 1971 that Ehrlich discreetly omitted his prediction about that from later editions of The Population Bomb. The last four decades have seen a "progress explosion" that has handily outmatched any "population explosion."

Ehrlich and his neo-Malthusian colleagues were utterly drubbed. It is passing strange that the Left has claimed the mantle of Science while disdaining the actual applications of science that Borlaug and his colleagues developed. You hear an echo of this argument today in the ongoing argument over "sustainable agriculture." Gregg Easterbrook profiled Borlaug in the Atlantic back in the mid-90s and made this crucial point about Borlaug, who had graduated from the University of Minnesota just as the Dust Bowl was about to begin:

At the same time, the Midwest was becoming the Dust Bowl. Though some mythology now attributes the Dust Bowl to a conversion to technological farming methods, in Borlaug's mind the problem was the lack of such methods. Since then
American farming has become far more technological, and no Dust Bowl conditions have recurred. In the summer of 1988 the Dakotas had a drought as bad as that in
the Dust Bowl, but clouds of soil were rare because few crops failed. Borlaug was horrified by the Dust Bowl and simultaneously impressed that its effects seemed least where high-yield approaches to farming were being tried. He decided that his life's work would be to spread the benefits of high-yield farming to the many nations where crop failures as awful as those in the Dust Bowl were regular facts of life.

As Bailey also notes from the 2000 interview:

More than 30 years ago, Borlaug wrote, "One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy."

Now, 40 years on, that's still true. Rest in peace.

(h/t: Instapundit)

1 comment:

Night Writer said...

While in Africa, hybrid corn sits untouched in warehouses, if it even makes it that far, while bureaucrats refuse to approve its distribution for fear that it's unsafe. Apparently, it's better to die of starvation.

That's an oversimplification to some extent, but I seem to recall when I was reading about Borlaug 10 years ago that many of the same concerns were voiced back in the day about his grain and rice.