One of the most influential and important figures of the 20th century recently died—Norman Borlaug. If you never heard of Borlaug, you are not alone. His face never appeared on the cover of People magazine, and the cable networks didn’t cover the story of his passing 24/7.
If Borlaug actually had been famous, his claim to fame would have been that, as the father of the “Green Revolution,” he saved hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion, lives. As one writer put it, Borlaug’s work is why “food today is cheap and widely available, and why famines have become relatively rare events.”
As the Los Angeles Times noted in its obituary, “in 1960, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people.” Thirty years later, thanks to Borlaug’s pioneering efforts in areas such as fertilizers, drought-resistant seeds, and high-yield agriculture, mankind was producing three times as much grain while only using 1 percent more land.
People of a certain age will recall being told about starving children in places like India, usually as a way to get them to eat their dinner. Those children weren’t a fabrication. In the years following its independence from Britain, India struggled to feed its people and was on the verge of famine several times.
Today, thanks to Borlaug, India is a net food exporter. In gratitude, it made him the first non-Indian to be awarded its second-highest civilian honor.
This wasn’t the only award Borlaug received. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech, he explained his vision in explicitly biblical terms. He reminded the audience that the link between hunger and social unrest wasn’t new. He quoted from Isaiah: “And it shall come to pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their King and their God.”
He said that by applying what we have learned for “the well-being of mankind throughout the world,” he hoped to see another prophecy of Isaiah come to pass: “And the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose...And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.”
People speak of making the world “a better place.” The vast majority of time, it’s only talk. But not with Borlaug. His legacy was so important that even his mistakes have a great deal to teach us.
In his Nobel address, Borlaug spoke of the need for the “fight for increased food production” and the “fight for population control” to “unite in a common effort.”
But as the U.K. Guardian noted, Borlaug’s own work actually undermined this erroneous, Malthusian worldview, which believes that human overpopulation will overwhelm the worlds’ resources. However, in 1970, there were 3.7 billion people on the planet. Today there are 6.5 billion. Yet the only food shortages are the results of bad policy, not an inability to grow enough food.
And, as Borlaug later realized, the biggest obstacles to his efforts were environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, who openly worried about the environmental impact of the green revolution.
But for Borlaug, people came first, which is why long after our disposable celebrities are forgotten, his legacy will live on.