Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Norman Borlaug

(Update: See this opinion piece by the great Norman Borlaug, in the Wall Street Journal, open link here, Sunday, July 22, 2007.)

Well, I have long known about Norman Borlaug, now age 93, as I have long done international development work. But my kid has never heard of him nor, come to that, students at my law school. Good for Gregg Easterbrook for pointing out that Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone living today. Here from the Huffington Post:

Today in Washington I was in the room as the greatest living American received a medal. George W. Bush, Nancy Pelosi and others were present. But will you ever hear this event occurred? To judge from tonight's major network evening newscasts, perhaps not. Cameras were allowed at the ceremony but I saw none from the major networks, though the international press was significantly represented. And will you recognize this great man's name when I say it?

The greatest living American is Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and joins Jimmy Carter as the two living American-born laureates around whose necks this distinction as been placed. Do you know Borlaug's achievement? Would you recognize him if he sat on your lap? Norman Borlaug WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, yet is anonymous in the land of his birth.

Born 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug has saved more lives than anyone else who has ever lived. A plant breeder, in the 1940s he moved to Mexico to study how to adopt high-yield crops to feed impoverished nations. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Borlaug developed high-yield wheat strains, then patiently taught the new science of Green Revolution agriculture to poor farmers of Mexico and nations to its south. When famine struck India and Pakistan in the mid-1960s, Borlaug and a team of Mexican assistants raced to the Subcontinent and, often working within sight of artillery flashes from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, sowed the first high-yield cereal crop in that region; in a decade, India's food production increased sevenfold, saving the Subcontinent from predicted Malthusian catastrophes. Borlaug moved on to working in South America. Every nation his green thumb touched has known dramatic food production increases plus falling fertility rates (as the transition from subsistence to high-tech farm production makes knowledge more important than brawn), higher girls' education rates (as girls and young women become seen as carriers of knowledge rather than water) and rising living standards for average people. Last fall, Borlaug crowned his magnificent career by persuading the Ford, Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations to begin a major push for high-yield farming in Africa, the one place the Green Revolution has not reached.

Yet Borlaug is unknown in the United States, and if my unscientific survey of tonight's major newscasts is reliable, television tonight ignored his receipt of the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian award. I clicked around to ABC, CBS and NBC and heard no mention of Borlaug; no piece about him is posted on these networks' evening news websites; CBS Evening News did have time for video of a bicycle hitting a dog. (I am not making that up.) Will the major papers say anything about Borlaug tomorrow?

Borlaug's story is ignored because his is a story of righteousness -- shunning wealth and comfort, this magnificent man lived nearly all his life in impoverished nations. If he'd blown something up, lied under oath or been caught offering money for fun, ABC, CBS and NBC would have crowded the Capitol Rotunda today with cameras, hoping to record an embarrassing gaffe. Because instead Borlaug devoted his life to serving the poor, he is considered Not News. All I can say after watching him today is that I hope Borlaug isn't serious about retiring, as there is much work to be done -- and I hope when I'm 93 years old I can speak without notes, as he did.

What I do recall, back in the early 1980s, were complaints from environmentalists with whom I was working at the time in Colorado, that the Green Revolution was environmentally bad because it promoted monocrop agriculture and faciltated population increase. The "deep ecology" view, as I heard it at the time, was that the Green Revolution was bad because it increased the technological dependence on cereal crops, but mostly that it facilitated population growth. As Easterbrook points out, in fact the fastest way to decrease fertility is to increase wealth, including by not starving people.

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