It is difficult to establish which person saved the most lives in the history of humanity. Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicilin, is frequently mooted as such. But it is not far-fetched to consider Norman Borlaug as the person who saved the most lives. His contribution? The development of new crops that saved hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.
In 1942, the world population was around 2.3 billion people. That year, Norman Borlaug received his doctorate in botanical genetics and pathology. He obtained his first job at the DuPont multinational and, at the height of World War II, focused on research connected to the needs of the military. Two years later he gave up this work and moved to Mexico. His objective was to fight against a different enemy, starvation.
Mexico had to import half of the wheat that it consumed, which irremediably impoverished a country that had economic difficulties to start with. Borlaug worked in the development of new varieties of wheat, repeatedly crossing local varieties and replicating the more promising results. As an additional advantage, he used different areas of the countries to produce two annual crops and duplicate the speed of improvements. The “dwarf” wheat varieties that resulted were not only more productive, but could also withstand greater climatological variations.
The success of Norman Borlaug allowed Mexico to be self-sufficient and led to his appointment as director of Mexico’s International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat (CIMMYT). A non-profit international investigation center dedicated to the creation of improved varieties of crops critical to the nutrition of the poorest segment of society. His appointment was timely. It was 1964 and the world population was approaching 3.3 billion people. Within twenty years world population had grown by one billion, and the scarcity of food was starting to spread throughout Asia. A couple of years later, India imported 18,000 tons of Mexican seeds to test their viability as a local crop. The success was so clear that Pakistan followed suit and the crop yields of both countries doubled in a short span of time. As a result, the world began to talk about the “Green Revolution“. In my opinion, we were very lucky that it was a public investigation center, and not a company, that developed these discoveries. It was research with public financing to solve problems affecting all, something that is missed in these times of crisis and austerity.
In 1970, Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize with the population of the planet having reached 3.7 billion. Nine years after this he retired to dedicate himself to the training of new researchers. It seemed that it would be the peaceful end of a more than commendable career. But a new crisis was in its inception in Africa. In the sixties, Africa was nutritionally self-sufficient. However, the explosion of births resulted in the local agriculture’s incapacity to keep up. The eighties saw famine extend throughout Africa while the world debated whether to donate fish or teach fishing. Borlaug was called upon again from his semi-retirement and started a new “career” using his prestige and international contacts to motivate governments and institutions to engage in a new effort to develop crops adapted to the African soil and climate. The combination of improved new crop varieties and techniques once again succeeded in increasing local foods production.
Norman Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of95, with our planet having to feed 6.8 billion people. Almost three times the population when he had finished his training and begun to work. For better or for worse, this population is part of the result of his legacy. A legacy which is not spared criticism. Some people say he saved humanity from starvation at the price of reducing the varieties of crops grown, promoting expensive seeds available from too few sources, abusing synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and intensifying the erosion of fertile terrain.
Personally, I do not agree with this criticism. Errors were made, as in any human activity, but agriculture was never “natural”. Evolution favors those plants and fruits that are most successful in reproducing themselves, not those that best feed us. By contrast, humanity has been crossing varieties and selecting more convenient characteristics for 10,000 years. It is as unnatural and old a process as using a plow. And as useful. Without the contributions of Norman Borlaug and his collaborators, world population would have tripled using traditional varieties of wheat and corn in order to feed itself. The tripling of the population implies triple the space dedicated to crops, triple the water, triple the fertilizers, and triple the impact on natural resources. And each new terrain dedicated to crops results in a reduction of forests, natural land, and biodiversity. Norman Borlaug’s work has helped both current and future generations. During the last years of his life, he defended genetically modified crops as the best way of feeding the population while preserving, where possible, natural areas. Sincerely, I think it may be our only option.
“Norman Borlaug is the man who saved the most lives in the history of humanity”, is a phrase coined by Josette Sheeran, United Nations World Food Program (WFP) director in 2009.
Founder of the weblog Ciencia de Bolsillo and collaborator of naukas.com, Pamplona (Spain)