Around 11 PM on Saturday night, Norman Borlaug died at the age of 95 at his home in Dallas.
Norman who? The greatest man of the twentieth century? What? I’ve never heard of him. What are you talking about?
If this is the first time you have ever heard Norman Borlaug’s name, don’t feel bad. Most people don’t know who he is. And that’s not right.
Norman Borlaug was an agronomist who taught at Texas A & M University from 1984 until his death. However, it was his research on wheat production in Mexico prior to that where he earned his greatness. By improving strains of wheat and making them more resistant to disease, Borlaug became the father of the Green Revolution - the transformation of agriculture, principally in the third world, that ended starvation over much of the planet. In 1968 the celebrated biologist and doomsayer, Paul Ehrlich predicted, “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. … I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.” Thanks to agricultural advances Borlaug devised, Ehrlich was proven wrong and India is today a net exporter of food, even though it has more people than ever. In gratitude, the Government of India awarded him (that is Borlaug, not Ehrlich) the Padma Vibhushan, its second highest civilian honour. The Times of London stated that his advances have saved the lives of 245 million people, however other estimates range as high as one or two billion people. Personally, considering the effect his innovations have had on world food production, I am inclined towards the higher estimates. In other words, a direct result of the deliberate actions he took, a billion or more souls are alive today whose fate otherwise would have been slow starvation.
To put it yet a third way, Norman Borlaug probably saved more human lives than anybody else in man’s history.
For this glorious feat he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and unlike some of the cutthroats who have also won that prize (cf Yassir Arafat and Le Duc Tho), he actually deserved it.
One reason I am writing an obituary of him on this blog - something I am not usually in the habit of doing - is that it has long bothered me how unjustly our culture remembers its dead. The truly great depart from our midst with barely a mention while maudlin orgies of grief are orchestrated for people who are, at best, inconsequential shallow celebrities - or worse. A life-serving senator who deliberately allowed a friend to suffocate to her death because he felt that calling the police in time to save her life could be inconvenient for his career is given a near state funeral and is proclaimed the “lion of the senate”. A few weeks earlier, the world came to a screeching halt when a twisted pedophile died of a drug overdose simply because he made some OK music 20 years ago. These people don’t deserve to be remembered (and in a hundred years won’t be). In a century where the greatest statesmen were rated by how many tens of millions of their own people they deliberately murdered, we find Norman Borlaug, a selfless, humble but capable man patiently toiling away and doing so much good in the process that he was able to counteract all the evil that all those tyrants did put together.
In fairness, at the height of his powers, in the late sixties and early seventies, he was much better known that he is today, but by the eighties his celebrity star began to fall because the rising environmental movement became increasingly uncomfortable with many of the techniques he had pioneered – genetically engineered crops and high yield farming at the expense of subsistence farming, something the environmentalists have a romantic fixation about. All his stuff just isn’t ‘organic’. Of course, the fact that it can be held against somebody that he saved a billion lives only illustrates that some of the core foundations of the philosophy of environmentalism are evil.
Because of trendy environmentalism, entomologist Paul Ehrlich – the man whose gloomy predictions Borlaug foiled - is an academic celebrity name and a household word, while Borlaug is a comparatively anonymous. However this speaks poorly of us, not Norman Borlaug. His great work lives on, in the form of the countless people who are alive and breathing today because, for 95 years, so was he.
Norman Borlaug, rest in peace.