Monday, September 14, 2009

“Unknown hero” Norman Borlaug dies [updated]

"He was a bright, affirming flame in the midst of a sea of despair then prevailing."
………………………………-  M.S. Swaminathan, known as the "Father of the Green Revolution in India"

"Some credit him with saving more human lives than any other person in history."
- Bruce Alberts, President, National Academy of Sciences, U.S.

"Dr. Norman Borlaug is the first person in history to save a billion human lives. But he must also get credit for saving the wild creatures and diverse plant species on 12 million square miles of global forest that would long since have been plowed down without the high-yield farming he pioneered. The two accomplishments combined make him dramatically unique.”
- Senator Rudy Boschwitz, former member of the US Senate Agriculture Committee

"Dr. Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution that transformed much of the hungry Third World. . .  [I]n the 1960s . . . 4 million tons of food aid per year [was shipped] to India; now it can export food. Dr. Borlaug’s scientific leadership . . .  saved people from starvation. .  He is one of the great men of our age."
- George McGovern, former Democratic presidential candidate

borlaug-young If feeding the planet is your goal then your hero should not be Sting or Bob Geldof or Thomas Malthus or Jeanette Fitzsimons or (heaven help us) Che Guevara.  Even George McGovern can recognise that much. It should be that man in the picture there on the left: agricultural hero Norman Borlaug, who died on Saturday at his home in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 95.

Known around the world as the father of the real Green Revolution, despite viewing it himself as “a miserable term,” Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to stop world hunger, for which no one did more.  Penn Jillette reckoned a few years back that Norman Borlaug was then the greatest living human being. Why?

"At a time when doom-sayers were hopping around saying everyone was going to starve, Norman was working. He moved to Mexico and lived among the people there until he figured out how to improve the output of the farmers. So that saved a million lives. Then he packed up his family and moved to India, where in spite of a war with Pakistan, he managed to introduce new wheat strains that quadrupled their food output. So that saved another million. You get it? But he wasn't done. He did the same thing with a new rice in China. He's doing the same thing in Africa - as much of Africa as he's allowed to visit. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1970, they said he had saved a billion people. That's BILLION! BUH! That's Carl Sagan BILLION with a "B"! And most of them were a different race from him. Norman is the greatest human being- and you've probably never heard of him."

So why so unheralded?  Says Don Boudreaux:

    “By saving millions of people from starvation, green-revolution father Norman Borlaug arguably has done more for humanity than has any other human being of the past century. Yet unlike Sen. Kennedy’s, his death will go relatively unnoticed. He’ll certainly not be canonized in the popular mind.
    “Alas, in our world, melodramatic loud-mouths thunder to and fro in the foreground, doing little of any value while stealing most of the credit for civilization. Meanwhile, in the background, millions upon millions of decent, creative people work diligently at their specialties – welding, waiting tables, performing orthopedic surgery, designing shopping malls, researching plant genetics – each contributing to the prosperity of the rest. Some contributions are larger than others (as Dr. Borlaug’s certainly was), but even a contribution as colossal as his is quickly taken for granted, any notice of it submerged beneath the self-congratulation, swagger, and bellicosity of the politicians who pretend to be prosperity’s source. How wrong.”

Sure as hell is.  The men of the mind achieve their heroism unnoticed, while their moochers and looters hof the headlines that should have been theirs’. 

For a sober career assessment of Borlaug’s under-the-radar great work, read the Voice of America’s tribute:

    “[Norman Borlaug’s] effort to increase crop yields has been credited with saving millions of people from starvation. . .   His advocacy of intensive, high-yield agriculture came under criticism from environmentalists in recent years, but Borlaug and those who followed his lead argued that older methods of sustainable farming could not produce enough food to prevent hunger in poorer regions of the world. . .  [Borlaug, of course, has been proved right over and over again.]
    “In 1944, when many experts warned of mass starvation in developing nations where populations were expanding faster than crop production, Borlaug began work at a Rockefeller Foundation-funded project in Mexico to increase wheat production by developing higher-yielding varieties of the crop.  By 1957, the average yield per hectare of Mexican wheat had almost doubled. 
    “Borlaug remained involved with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, even after his research took him to other parts of the globe, where he replicated the success he had had in Mexico, building his reputation as father of the "green revolution" in the 1960's. . .
    “In a statement Saturday through Texas A and M University [where he was still teaching], Borlaug's children said ‘It is the hope of the Borlaug family that his life be an example to all.  We would like his life be a model for making a difference in the lives of others and to bring about efforts to end human misery for all mankind’.”

A vain hope perhaps, when arseholes still fight the introduction of new biotechnologies to increase food production, and those same empty-headed misathropic control freaks still deny the murderous effect of the ban on DDT – a ban which has killed millions, and still kills around 3,000 people every day!

Anyway, check out these tributes to the great man from those who have remembered him:

And finally, Listen to "The Norman Borlaug Rap" ‘sung’ by Rohan Prakash in honor of Dr. Borlaug's 90th Birthday., and check out Penn & Teller’s colourful tribute to Norman Borlaug on their Bullshit! TV show.

And check out the Norman Borlaug archive at AgBioWorld

As the tributes say, this was a man whose work saved more human lives than any other.  In a rational world this hero would not be unknown -- and his passing now should not go unnoticed.

PS: By the way, the ‘Ethics’ tag below is no accident.  It shouldn’t take a genius to work out why.
PPS: My thanks to the great folk at AgBioWorld for the links, most of which come from their latest newsletter.

  • Nobel winner credited with saving 1 billion lives, dies
    Scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug has died aged 95, known as the father of the "green revolution", he helped lead a movement that is credited with saving up to 1 billion people from starvation.
    Bravo TV3.

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24 Comments:

Blogger Ruth said...

What a great man - I didn't know he had died. A genuine environmentalist and conservationist -- the present crew could learn a lot from him. Sadly I suspect most 'greenies' have never heard of him.

9/14/2009 02:06:00 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

His death made the news on National Radio. It said that he was responsible for saving hundreds of millions of lives.

But I was struck by what immediately followed. His work, it said, was controversial, environmentalists saying the crops he developed may harm the environment, or words to that effect. The news item noted Borlaug's defence, which is that the area required for crop growth didn't increase thanks to the new technology.

To my mind, it is incomprehensible that the saving of a hundred million human lives, and the ocean of tears and human suffering that would have accompanied that event, could possibly be compared to any alleged cost to the environment. That those two things could even begin to be compared is beyond me. They are not in the same ballpark, not even the same game. By making that comparison, the implicit "price" the environmentalist puts on a human life must be very low indeed.

Environmentalism leaves unstated its core ideals: some humans, always people from some other place who look different and speak a different language, always poor, have low or zero "worth" and their elimination benefits their ideals. Individual freedom is opposed. You do not or should not have the right to disagree.

Environmentalism is a great, great evil, in lives destroyed it is among the greatest ever (only communism and national socialism has killed more, I believe the DDT ban has killed 30 million and counting which puts environmentalism third) and it is the great evil of our time.

9/14/2009 04:16:00 pm  
Anonymous B Whitehead said...

It's not often you get to read about someone who truely deserves a high level of respect.
Rest in peace Norman.

9/14/2009 06:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Mo said...

Norman the Great

9/14/2009 08:25:00 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

Thanks for the mention, PC.

Check out this Wiki article.

Some of the criticisms are just ludicrous. "the inability of [Borlaug's] crops to fulfill all nutritional requirements...construction of roads in populated third-world areas could lead to the destruction of wilderness"

Yes, environmentalist friends, compared to your free lunch world of perfection, Borlaug's work certainly comes up short.

But what I liked was Borlaug's response, also in that article:

"[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've 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 fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Class act.

9/14/2009 08:34:00 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

And here's another quote from Borlaug that resonates. Seems Norman tells it like it is:

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, 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.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.

9/14/2009 08:45:00 pm  
Blogger libertyscott said...

The BBC World Service did a lengthy feature about him, did him proud too. More than Ted Kennedy got (it stood aloof from him) There are some in Bush House who get it.

9/14/2009 09:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter, to my shame and ignorance I didn't know that these advances could be laid at the door of this one man.
Man sees problem, man gets focused, gets thinking, gets to work, solves problems.
The virtue of minding your own business and getting on with it.
Inspirational.
In the meantime the handwringing greens and the politically correct brigade are trying to convince us they can pick up a turd by the clean end.

George

9/14/2009 10:08:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Farmed animals eat one-third of the world’s cereal production. For every 10 kilograms of soya protein fed to America’s cattle only one kilogram is converted to meat."

It's not environmentalists that are causing hunger it is meat-eaters.

There is and always was plenty of land on which to cultivate crops. The problem is that it is very inefficient to then go and feed those crops to animals instead of eating them yourselves.

9/14/2009 11:49:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So go eat your soya. Enjoy! You wretched environmentalists can supplement it by picking insects off each other.

If God didn't intend me to eat animals, how come he stuffed them with meat?

George

9/15/2009 12:46:00 am  
Blogger libertyscott said...

I love this from the Wall Street Journal obituary "In saving so many, Borlaug showed that a genuine green movement doesn't pit man against the Earth, but rather applies human intelligence to exploit the Earth's resources to improve life for everyone."

9/15/2009 12:51:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the line on Bullshit about the Greenpeace dicks:
'It's pretty easy to protest when YOU'RE not hungry.."


Gman

9/15/2009 02:27:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What Norman Borlaug was amazing.

I think that you are however forgetting to mention the hundreds of scientists that laid the foundations for Borlaug's discoveries over the preceeding 50 years.

Borlaug's ideas did not work so well in Africa. I wonder why?

Could it be that food production is not only influenced by science but also by sociel and political factors?

Why is it so many famines have occured whilst edible crops are exported from the famine-stricken countries?

What difference does it make to someone starving if grain production increases if he cannot afford to buy any?

All questions which are very hard to answer. But Borlaug didn't attempt to. He was a scientist so he stuck to that and good on him.

9/15/2009 04:12:00 am  
Anonymous matt said...

Anon at 9/14/2009 11:49:00 PM

You are confusing welfare with cost. That 10kg of soya is required to produce 1kg of meat does not imply inefficiency. It implies a cost. But efficiency is defined by welfare, not cost. The question is whether the trade off of lots of soy for a little meat is worth it. Judged by the willingness of private individuals to bear the cost of meat, notwithstanding government interference one way or the other, that trade off is worth it at current production, and there's no reason to suspect inefficiency.

9/15/2009 09:10:00 am  
Blogger Sam P said...

What an outstanding man, and what an achievement. Thanks for posting PC.

9/15/2009 11:10:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When calculating the benefits gained by production of the meat as opposed to the soyabeans...you are only counting the cost in monetary terms.

You did not include the destruction of habitat caused by the extra acerage needed due to the fact that meat cannot feed as many people per square mile as vegetables can.

That is why the soya beans are better - because they feed peoples hunger without destroying as much of the natural environment.

The same cannot be said for the beef farms eating up the Amazin rainforest...

9/15/2009 11:50:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Norman Borlaug and his work give me hope for the human race. He was the Mother Teresa of the earth sciences, and will be missed.

9/15/2009 02:24:00 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

Anonymous 9/15/2009 11:50:00 AM

No. Food production is not about feeding the most people with the least amount of land. It is supplying people with the mix of products that meets their tastes.

I will grant to you the theoretical possibility that the wilderness value of natural habitat is not entirely reflected in the price of meat, and so there is, at least in theory, overuse of land.

But you're wrong about the extra acreage - that use of land is costly and one that is privately borne so a cost that producers of meat must pass on to their purchasers. If and only if their buyers are willing to bear that cost does this production occur.

Yes, you can force people to eat soy and not meat, and save land in doing so. But if you think that's in any sense ethical then you're probably the sort of people Borlaug had in mind when he wrote this:

"many of them [environmentalists] are elitists. They've 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 fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals [and meat] and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Your argument can be easily redirected at other land intensive activities - the production of bio ethanol for example. There are other sources of energy that are less land intensive - do you also object to biofuel production?

9/15/2009 05:34:00 pm  
Anonymous Barry said...

Sorry Matt: "I will grant to you the theoretical possibility that the wilderness value of natural habitat is not entirely reflected in the price of meat, and so there is, at least in theory, overuse of land."

It is not a theoretical possiblity. It is a fact. Science proves that meat takes up to 10 times more land than vegetables or fruit for the same food-energy value.

What your analysis lacks is any reflection of the land that is lost because excess agricultural land is used. It would be impossible for vegetables to cause raingforest depletion because it would be decades if not centuries before the available land was insufficient to grow enough food value for people.

They are not going to cut down more forests to plant crops that people don't want because they are already full. So vegetables and fruit cannot cause habitat depletion.

But meat can. If everyone eats an American diet then we would need 2 earths.

Therefore it is a fact that switching to a non-meat diet would solvethe problems in one go.

But it won't happen. People are too selfish to admit that their eating habits might be killing others.

So you gotta focus on the easier ones like raising crop production in India and Mexico for example...

9/15/2009 05:54:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the overuse of land extends to grain production as well.growing that grain will require the felling of forests, the draining of wetlands, and the destruction of topsoil.

In most places on earth, it will never be sustainable, and where it just possibly might be, it will require rotation with animals on pasture.

9/15/2009 06:08:00 pm  
Blogger libertyscott said...

Anonymous 9/15/2009 02:24:00 PM: He was anything BUT the Mother Teresa of earth sciences. He didn't glorify the suffering of humanity, he didn't provide succuour to dictators. You need to do some searching on this blog on Mother Teresa, at best an overhyped simpleton whose first love was raising money for the church, and whose last love was making the poor better off or the sick well.

9/15/2009 09:38:00 pm  
Blogger Richard McGrath said...

Thanks, PC. Borlaug was a true hero and humanitarian. It will be interesting to see if the Green Party have the decency to notice his passing.

9/15/2009 11:47:00 pm  
Anonymous matt said...

Barry

It is not a theoretical possiblity. It is a fact. Science proves that meat takes up to 10 times more land than vegetables or fruit for the same food-energy value.

I'm not disputing that. I don't know if it's true. But on its own it says nothing about efficiency, only cost.

What your analysis lacks is any reflection of the land that is lost because excess agricultural land is used. It would be impossible for vegetables to cause raingforest depletion because it would be decades if not centuries before the available land was insufficient to grow enough food value for people.

This is shifting the goalposts. The original claim is that meat uses more land therefore it is inefficient. That argument is wrong.

Welfare = difference between benefit and cost and is what defines efficiency. Basically you are saying that you know the net effects on welfare of all the people affected from the trade off of wilderness for agriculture and, within agriculture, of soy vs vegetables vs meat, and they should be doing x not y.

I call bullpucky. I say you do not know that trade off. Neither do I. I also say that leaving the allocation of crops to the people who bear the costs and enjoy the benefits of that decision gives a better (i.e. welfare-superior) answer on average than handing it to, say, you or me sitting in the comfort of our first world homes.

Why are first world environmentalists so willing to tell the world's poorest people how to act to satisfy first world environmentalists' objectives? It would be immoral and hypocritical enough if you were preaching to other rich people. You should be first in line to take your own medicine, rich man, but typing on your computer and sipping your latte you look like you're about last.

Anyway, this blog post is about Norman Borlaug and as widely noted his second great contribution, after saving a billion lives, is to reduce the land required to support all those people. He used technology to break the trade-off between human survival and environmental degradation. What a wonderful lesson.

9/16/2009 09:21:00 am  
Anonymous matt said...

Anon 9/15/2009 06:08:00 PM

the overuse of land extends to grain production as well.growing that grain will require the felling of forests, the draining of wetlands, and the destruction of topsoil.

What is your evidence for overuse? Is it that there aren't enough people starving? Is it that too many people are having their preferences met?

And what tells you agriculture is unsustainable? Its been going on 5,000 years and it feeds the world's people. Where's the evidence of this alleged unsustainability?

And, more to the point, what is your view on who should die in order to bring agriculture within the bounds of your idea of sustainability? Because that's the trade off.

9/16/2009 09:29:00 am  

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