By Richard Levine
At last year’s annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, the 800 attendees were asked to write the names of their scientific heroes on their name tags. I’m here now in Cambridge, MA for the 2015 meeting and there is no such space on the name tags this year, so I’m going to write about it here.
The timing of this is significant because tomorrow I am flying to Des Moines, Iowa for the World Food Prize event, which was created by Dr. Norman Borlaug in 1986. After he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug noticed that there was no Nobel prize for agriculture, so he established the World Food Prize, which is given annually to a scientist who has made great contributions towards solving hunger problems in the world, especially in developing countries.
The man who saved a billion lives
Most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of him, which is unfortunate to say the least. Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009) was a scientist who has been credited with saving more than a billion lives — that’s not a misprint, it’s a BILLION with a B!
In the 1950s, there were serious food shortages in India, Pakistan, Mexico and many other countries. A popular book published in 1968 called The Population Bomb even predicted that these shortages would lead to mass catastrophes and nuclear war by the 1980s.
Instead of buying in to that, Dr. Borlaug developed ways to increase food production where they were needed most. He and his collaborators developed dwarf varieties of wheat, for example. These plants spent less energy on their stalks and more on the nutritious kernels used to make bread. In addition, many of the dwarf varieties were also resistant to disease. He also encouraged other ways to increase agricultural production, such as the use of fertilizers and irrigation.
High-yield agriculture saves natural habitats
Even some of his biggest fans probably don’t know that Norman Borlaug began his science career in forestry and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. He earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from the University of Minnesota,
Later, after he switched his focus to agriculture, his enthusiasm for preserving natural habitats for wildlife continued, and he believed that the agricultural advances that he advocated helped the preservation effort.
“If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by another 177 million hectares,” he said in interview in the year 2000. “We would have moved into marginal grazing areas and plowed up things that wouldn’t be productive in the long run. We would have had to move into rolling mountainous country and chop down our forests … If all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.”
In other words, growing more food per acre leaves more land for nature. This point is often missed by today’s critics of what they call “industrial agriculture.” If we were forced to give up genetically improved plants, fertilizers, and crop-protection products, the lower yields would force us to cultivate lands that are currently home to wildlife.
A humble man
Even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize and receiving credit for saving a billion human lives, Dr. Borlaug remained humble. I met him once when I was assigned to pick him up in a Lincoln Town Car to bring him to an event he was speaking at. He didn’t know that I was one of the organizers of the event, and probably thought I was just the limousine driver, but nevertheless he extended his hand from the back seat for me to shake and said, “Hello, I’m Norman.”
A friend of mine had a similar experience when he picked Dr. Borlaug up from the airport in 2004, when he was 90 years old. They waited in the baggage claim area and when Dr. Borlaug’s luggage came around, my friend went to grab it, but Dr. Borlaug said, “Oh, let me get that. It’s heavy.”
“He was serious, and he actually lifted the bag off the carousel,” my friend told me. “But I insisted on carrying it to the car. And it was heavy.”
A great athlete as well
In addition to being a bad-assed scientist, Norman Borlaug was also a great athlete. He was captain of his high school football team and he wrestled in college. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 2002.
Dan Gable, an Olymic gold medalist and former coach of the University of Iowa wrestling team, said, “He was a tremendously competitive individual, and he channeled that competitiveness into his research. His work saved lives, but the intensity of that work was born in the approach he used as he competed.”
No time for nonsense
Of all the things I’ve read about him, I can’t recall any incidents where he bad-mouthed other people, except for some activist groups. He had very little patience for people who opposed genetically modified crops (GMOs), pesticides, and other agricultural tools that are used to feed people, especially in developing countries.
“These are Utopian people that live on Cloud 9, who come into the Third World and cause all kinds of confusion and negative impacts on the developing countries” he said in an interview. “It worries me, if they gum up all of these developments. It’s elitism, and the American people are vulnerable to this, too … Our elites live in big cities and are far removed from the fields. Whether it’s [Lester] Brown or [Paul] Ehrlich or the head of the Sierra Club or the head of Greenpeace, they’ve never been hungry.”
A fan of technology and progress
Dr. Borlaug was obviously a supporter of innovative agricultural technologies, but he knew that they weren’t enough to solve hunger problems alone. He once lamented, for example, that Africa’s hunger problems are partially due to a lack of good roads. Without reliable roads, food products cannot reach places where they are needed most, and the same holds true for agricultural inputs like fertilizer, which can be three times as expensive in Africa compared to prices in developed countries.
I’m guessing that if he were alive today, he’d be happy to see what is happening with cell phones in Africa. These devices allow farmers to call contacts at different markets or fishermen to call different ports so they can hear which ones are paying the highest prices for the goods they wish to sell. That allows farmers to make more money, and it ensures that food is delivered to areas where it’s needed most.
The “Father of the Green Revolution” would certainly approve. I look forward to meeting others at this years’ World Food Prize event who are trying to continue his efforts.
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Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog.