Norman Borlaug—arguably the greatest American of the 20th century—died late Saturday after 95 richly accomplished years. The very personification of human goodness, Borlaug saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived. He was America’s Albert Schweitzer: a brilliant man who forsook privilege and riches in order to help the dispossessed of distant lands. That this great man and benefactor to humanity died little-known in his own country speaks volumes about the superficiality of modern American culture.
Born in 1914 in rural Cresco, Iowa, where he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work ending the India-Pakistan food shortage of the mid-1960s. He spent most of his life in impoverished nations, patiently teaching poor farmers in India, Mexico, South America, Africa and elsewhere the Green Revolution agricultural techniques that have prevented the global famines widely predicted when the world population began to skyrocket following World War II.
In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that Borlaug’s efforts—combined with those of the many developing-world agriculture-extension agents he trained and the crop-research facilities he founded in poor nations—saved the lives of one billion human beings.
As a young agronomist, Borlaug helped develop some of the principles of Green Revolution agriculture on which the world now relies—including hybrid crops selectively bred for vigor, and “shuttle breeding,” a technique for accelerating the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops. He also helped develop cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, and could therefore be grown in many climates.
Green Revolution techniques caused both reliable harvests, and spectacular output. From the Civil War through the Dust Bowl, the typical American farm produced about 24 bushels of corn per acre; by 2006, the figure was about 155 bushels per acre.
Hoping to spread high-yield agriculture to the world’s poor, in 1943 Borlaug moved to rural Mexico to establish an agricultural research station, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Borlaug’s little research station became the International Maize and Wheat Center, known by its Spanish abbreviation CIMMYT, that is now one of the globe’s most important agricultural study facilities. At CIMMYT, Borlaug developed the high-yield, low-pesticide “dwarf” wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world’s population now depends for sustenance.
In 1950, as Borlaug began his work in earnest, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, with Borlaug’s concepts common, production was 1.9 billion tons of grain for 5.6 billion men and women: 2.8 times the food for 2.2 times the people. Global grain yields more than doubled during the period, from half a ton per acre to 1.1 tons; yields of rice and other foodstuffs improved similarly. Hunger declined in sync: From 1965 to 2005, global per capita food consumption rose to 2,798 calories daily from 2,063, with most of the increase in developing nations. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared that malnutrition stands “at the lowest level in human history,” despite the global population having trebled in a single century.
In the mid-1960s, India and Pakistan were exceptions to the trend toward more efficient food production; subsistence cultivation of rice remained the rule, and famine struck. In 1965, Borlaug arranged for a convoy of 35 trucks to carry high-yield seeds from CIMMYT to a Los Angeles dock for shipment to India and Pakistan. He and a coterie of Mexican assistants accompanied the seeds. They arrived to discover that war had broken out between the two nations. Sometimes working within sight of artillery flashes, Borlaug and his assistants sowed the Subcontinent’s first crop of high-yield grain. Paul Ehrlich gained celebrity for his 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” in which he claimed that global starvation was inevitable for the 1970s and it was “a fantasy” that India would “ever” feed itself. Instead, within three years of Borlaug’s arrival, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production; within six years, India was self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.
After his triumph in India and Pakistan and his Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug turned to raising crop yields in other poor nations—especially in Africa, the one place in the world where population is rising faster than farm production and the last outpost of subsistence agriculture. At that point, Borlaug became the target of critics who denounced him because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was “inappropriate” for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists “have 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 in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.”
Environmentalist criticism of Borlaug and his work was puzzling on two fronts. First, absent high-yield agriculture, the world would by now be deforested. The 1950 global grain output of 692 million tons and the 2006 output of 2.3 billion tons came from about the same number of acres—three times as much food using little additional land.
“Without high-yield agriculture,” Borlaug said, “increases in food output would have been realized through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion.” Environmentalist criticism was doubly puzzling because in almost every developing nation where high-yield agriculture has been introduced, population growth has slowed as education becomes more important to family success than muscle power.
In the late 1980s, when even the World Bank cut funding for developing-world agricultural improvement, Borlaug turned for support to Ryoichi Sasakawa, a maverick Japanese industrialist. Sasakawa funded his high-yield programs in a few African nations and, predictably, the programs succeeded. The final triumph of Borlaug’s life came three years ago when the Rockefeller Foundation, in conjunction with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a major expansion of high-yield agriculture throughout Africa. As he approached his 90s, Borlaug “retired” to teaching agronomy at Texas A&M, where he urged students to live in the developing world and serve the poor.
Often it is said America lacks heroes who can provide constructive examples to the young. Here was such a hero. Yet though streets and buildings are named for Norman Borlaug throughout the developing world, most Americans don’t even know his name.
Mr. Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Atlantic and author of the forthcoming “Sonic Boom,” due out by Random House in January 2010.