Day By Day

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Greatest American Hero

The Hoover Institution has a nice piece on Norman Borlaug, one of my personal heroes and without doubt the greatest figure of the Twentieth Century. Because of his work in agronomy hundreds of millions, and probably billions, of people are alive today who otherwise would not have survived. In sheer quantitative terms no career in history has been of so much benefit to so many people as Borlaug's.
How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland—an extraordinary increase in yield-per-acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 pounds-per-acre. By 1968, thanks to Borlaug’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6,000 pounds-per-acre.

Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through the drastic expansion of land under cultivation—with major losses in pristine wilderness.
And throughout his career he faced major opposition from entrenched interests:
In his professional life, Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.
 And late in his career, as he turned his attention to gene modification as a means to increase food production he came under attack from environmental fanatics.
[S]mall numbers of dedicated extremists in the environmental movement have been doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks, and their allies in national and United Nations-based regulatory agencies are more than eager to help. Activists have trotted out... rumors to frighten rural illiterates that... gene-spliced plants cause impotence or sterility, or that they harm farm animals, for example. As Borlaug observed about opposition to modernizing agricultural practices in India in 1966, “The situation was tailor-made for demagogues, fear-mongers, second-guessers and hate groups. We heard from them all.” In the twenty-first century, they continue to spew their lethal venom.
 Read the whole thing here and note just who today are the world's real heroes and villains. There was a time when people like Borlaug were celebrities -- the subject of novels and films. Today they are ignored while we lavish our attention and adoration on drug addled stage strutters.


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