During the “Eat This” segment of their docu-comedy series BS, Penn Jillette beat Teller in a round of their “Greatest Person in History” card game. Penn needed just one card: Norman Borlaug.
This Iowa farm boy and University of Minnesota agriculture graduate lived Thomas Edison’s maxim to the fullest. “Invention,” Edison once remarked, “is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Dr. Borlaug did most of his 99% in the sweltering fields of Africa, India, Mexico and Pakistan.
At 94, and despite having cancer, the “Father of the Green Revolution” is still “an Energizer Bunny,” his daughter Jeanie says. He serves as a consultant, attends occasional conferences, and graciously let my daughter interview him for a high school paper.
Decades ago, while neo-Malthusians were predicting mass famine, Borlaug used Rockefeller Foundation grants to unlock hidden (recessive) genes and crossbreed different wheat strains, to create new “dwarf” varieties that were resistant to destructive “rust” fungi. The shorter plants were also sturdier, put less energy into growing leaves and stalks, and thus had higher yields.
He also taught modern farming methods to Third World farmers and persuaded governments to lift price controls and permit the use of chemical fertilizers, thereby generating unprecedented harvests. Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat by 1960, India and Pakistan soon did likewise, and Borlaug next helped China, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries achieve great success with wheat, corn and rice.
When the Nobel committee awarded him the 1970 Peace Prize, it said his work had saved a billion lives. Borlaug simply observed that “you can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” He later won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal.
In 1985, he began working with former President Jimmy Carter to bring a Green Revolution to Sub-Saharan Africa, emphasizing intensive modern farming methods with new hybrid and biotech seeds on existing fields, to reduce the need to slash and burn wildlife habitat, as soil nutrients are exhausted.
Unfortunately, their progress may be undermined by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his misleadingly named Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Annan says biotech crops are unsafe, untested, and likely to enslave poor farmers to mega-corporations and expensive seeds. He wants to battle Africa’s chronic poverty and malnutrition with “traditional seeds” and methods.
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