March 25, 1914 Borlaug

Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Too often, history is measured in terms of its monsters.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive a single vote.  Josef Stalin deliberately starved as many as ten million Ukrainians, in a “terror famine” known as Holodomor.  Pol Pot and a Communist cadre of nine – the Ang-Ka – killed between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow citizens of 1970s Cambodia: about a fifth of the population.  Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million of his own people, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest twenty-nine million.

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From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, from Enver Pasha to Hideki Tojo and Leopold II of Belgium, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls.  Most of us remember the names, of the great monsters of history.  Who remembers the name of the man who saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

Today, we live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) writes “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”. 

It wasn’t always so.  In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” The American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner (with Douglass North) of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote that: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

It’s hard to get our heads around the notion of “food insecurity”.  I’m not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

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Norman Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born this day in 1914, on his grandparents’ farm near Cresco, Iowa.  The boy’s grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, once told the boy “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.”

A farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money.  As a leader in the Civilian Conservation Corps working with unemployed people on Federal projects, many of his co-workers faced near-catastrophic levels of hunger.  He later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937.  Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman, discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus that feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops. Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota, to study plant pathology under Stakman.  Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Borlaug attempted to enlist in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his application was rejected under wartime labor regulations.  He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

136250-004-46BB7BC1Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures, due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City, heading a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves backcrossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents.  In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220lbs of seed from four of the most promising strains.

norman-borlaugThe Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67.  Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich said, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

He could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time of Ehrlich’s book release in 1968, William Gaud of the US Agency for International Development was calling Borlaug’s work a “Green Revolution”. Massive crop yields substituted famine and starvation with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages to harvest crops, and insufficient numbers of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed, along with trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Some local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, for his contributions to the world food supply. The man’s name is nearly synonymous with the Green Revolution.

bios-newAccording to former Director General of the International Water Management Institute David Seckler, “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”  The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank.

Well fed environmentalist types congratulated themselves on their “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives.  Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug became involved in 1984, at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (now the Nippon Foundation).  Sasakawa wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques.  Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled, along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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Norman Ernest Borlaug died of Lymphoma in 2009, at the age of 95. Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil paid tribute, saying “Borlaug’s life and achievement are testimony to the far-reaching contribution that one man’s towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress”. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described Borlaug as “… a towering scientist whose work rivals that of the 20th century’s other great scientific benefactors of humankind”. American author and journalist Gregg Easterbrook wrote in 1997, “[The] form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.

The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion.  Today, that number stands at 7.6 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively man-made.  The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.”  Let that be the answer to the self-satisfied and well-fed, environmentalist types.

 

“I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug, 2000

 

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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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