Remembering Norman Borlaug, a Man Who Quietly Saved Hundreds of Millions of People

By James Wanliss Published on March 24, 2016

The twentieth century is remarkable for bloodshed and lives lost through the madness of men. Stalin and Mao created environmental ruin and starved around 40 million individuals. The Black Book of Communism details another 70 million lives lost through the action of Soviet “cooperatives,” all in peacetime. World War I and the later monomania of Hitler and his financiers pushed nearly another 100 million out of this world. Then, in the past 40 years, due in part to American and European environmental policy, over fifty million people died from malaria.

Exploding populations post-World War II caused Paul Ehrlich to write in his book Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Ehrlich warned that only government action to force curbs on population would prevent massive destruction of the environment, and hundreds of millions dead.

Let us turn from such horrors to think on heroes.

There is no greater hero of the last century than Norman Borlaug. It is arguable that he saved over a billion people. He is one of just a handful of people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor.

Norman Borlaug was born in Iowa on March 25, 1914. The child of a farmer, Borlaug became an academic, receiving a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics in 1942 from the University of Minnesota.

Borlaug was, like his fellow academic Paul Ehrlich, troubled about potential famines due to burgeoning human populations. But unlike Ehrlich he did something positive about it. He set to work with his training to develop genetically modified high-yield rice and corn.

Borlaug’s work ignited the “Green Revolution,” leading to development of hybrid grains capable of handling varying climates and prevailing diseases, all while increasing crop yields over 700 percent compared to yields from agricultural techniques of 90 years ago.

Borlaug’s high-yield agricultural know-how prevented massive global deforestation as desperate people needed less land for food. Also, population growth dropped in every developing nation which applied his techniques, and education gained importance relative to muscle capacity.

One might be pardoned for imagining environmentalists would be grateful. Borlaug faced nothing but insults and criticisms for his efforts. Now more than ever in the affluent West there are efforts to demonize Borlaug’s methods in favor of so-called “organic” farming.

A story in Forbes Magazine is illustrative: “When Borlaug attempted to extend The Green Revolution to Africa in the 1980s, environmental lobbyists unified to stop him. Arguing that Borlaug’s farming methods would despoil the continent’s environment, they successfully persuaded the World Bank and the Ford Foundation to pull back almost all of their funding for Borlaug’s efforts. Even the Rockefeller Foundation, which had originally funded Borlaug’s wheat research in Mexico, withdrew monetary support.”

It seems for much of the environmental movement, famine is a feature, not a bug.

Paul Ehrlich showed the underbelly of the green movement when he wrote in 1970 in The Population Bomb: “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer.” Ehrlich and John Holdren — President Obama’s science ‘czar’ — wrote in favor of forced abortions to rein in those who ‘overproduce’ children.

Unlike Ehrlich’s efforts, the work of Borlaug shows he actually liked humans; he saved so many. Precisely for that reason environmentalists love to hate him.

In an interview with The Atlantic magazine almost two decades ago, he said, “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 50 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.”

Norman Borlaug died in 2009. But his legacy lives. While environmentalists seek to cut populations by draconian means Borlaug fed the hungry. His life should be remembered and celebrated — which is why the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation schedules its annual Day of Prayer for the Environment and the Poor on his birthday, March 25.

We should not just think about loving our neighbors but allow them access to technology that will keep them alive. As Borlaug wrote

I now say that the world has the technology — either available or well advanced in the research pipeline — to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.

Borlaug predicted, “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.”


James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC. He is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death.

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