A few people can be happy that they have saved a life. Fewer people can boast having saved more than one. Very few indeed can say they saved not millions, but hundreds of millions of lives. With the rubbish that have become household names these days, it is truly a shame that the name Norman Borlaug isn’t more widely recognized.
In the 1950s and 60s the writings of Thomas Malthus were starting to be very very popular. This is because millions of people, in India, in Africa and in South America, were starving, and crop yields could not keep up with demand. Malthus famously said that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”, and in the late 1960′s people started thinking the unthinkable might be true: people would have to die off so other people could have enough to eat. Mass famines were deemed inevitable in certain parts of the world.
Paul Ehrlich wrote about this in his 1968 book “The population bomb”, wherein he stated that India would never be able to feed itself and: “”The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
This is when Norman Borlaug, a scientist from Ohio, developed dwarf wheat.
Wheat is a top-heavy crop, which means it folds on itself and takes up quite a bit of space. The wheat developed by Borlaug’s team had short stalks but huge heads of grain. Suddenly the yield could be tripled and sometimes even quadrupled. Later, this same idea was applied to rice, one of the main staple foods across the world*.
The numbers can obviously never be precisely predicted, but this new form of growing crops saved many millions of lives, with some estimates putting it over one billion.
Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and would have been 98 years old today. We hope he is remembered for many years to come.
*As a side note, this wheat was obviously genetically modified. This is also why we have no patience for those who want to do away with genetic modification altogether. These people should probably be reminded that wheat itself is a genetic modification that humans developed around 7,000 years ago when they starting being agricultural.