Leaving the world a better place

In praise of Norman Borlaug (1914–2009)

When it comes to individuals whose actions in life affect the lives of millions, it is the world’s despots and mass murderers who tend to remain in the public consciousness after their deaths. This will not be the case with Norman Ernest Borlaug, who has died aged 95 after a life well spent feeding the hungry.

This gruff agronomist from Iowa, who spent much of his life living and working with scientists in Mexico, was the father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug and his colleagues’ pioneering science helped avert a global famine in the late 20th century, and thus saved the lives of hundreds of millions of starving human beings.

Borlaug was one of the more worthy recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

A green revolution it may have been, but Borlaug, with his advocacy of intensive farming, genetic engineering and the use of inorganic fertilisers, was to many environmentalists an agricultural bogeyman. Some of the political criticisms stuck, but there is no denying that Borlaug’s work helped prevent a disaster of epic proportions.

You can argue until the cows come home about sustainable human population levels, but, in a global crisis, dealing with the reality on the ground must take precedence. This is exactly what Borlaug and his fellow green revolutionaries did.

It didn’t help that Borlaug could display a haughtily dismissive attitude to some of his critics, typical of many scientists of his generation. But Borlaug was right, and yet took seriously at least some of his critics’ concerns, even if this is not evident in the following quotes…

“The Green Revolution is a change in the right direction, but it has not transformed the world into a Utopia.

“[The Green Revolution] was a temporary success in man’s war against hunger.”

“The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called natural methods … the one billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot. The new technology will be their salvation.”

“Some 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.”

With the stakes so high, and the price of failure being mass misery and death, Borlaug’s legacy is one to celebrate.

The Green Revolution is one to be continued.