Norman Borlaug

Yesterday, Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug died. This AP story reviews his life and accomplishments. Without question, Borlaug deserved to be better-known – a scientist whose work reached out to touch almost all the world’s population. One indication of the neglect: going out to find more material to link about Borlaug, the best sources were written years ago.

Gregg Easterbrook profiled Borlaug in The Atlantic twelve years ago. This article is one that’s been cribbed in many of the obituaries you’ll see today, and is worth reading in its entirety.

The popular image casts Borlaug as a foil to doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich. Indeed, the trend toward higher productivity, begun before Borlaug’s work in postwar Mexico, seems to have escaped the awareness of the “Population Bomb” crowd, impressed by the demographic trends but ignorant of agricultural trends. But countervailing trends can only go as far as agricultural science progresses, and Borlaug himself saw problems in the future:

Borlaug continues, "But Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."

In 2000, Reason’s Ronald Bailey (author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution) interviewed Borlaug, touching on a range of topics from biotechnology to the problems maintaining food supply chains in sub-Saharan Africa. Some highlights:

Reason: Environmentalists say agricultural biotech will harm biodiversity.
Borlaug: I don't believe that. If we grow our food and fiber on the land best suited to farming with the technology that we have and what's coming, including proper use of genetic engineering and biotechnology, we will leave untouched vast tracts of land, with all of their plant and animal diversity. It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was recently able to set aside another 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas. That would not have been possible had it not been for the efficiency of modern agriculture.

And on the history of doomsaying about impending collapse:

Reason: You mentioned that you are afraid that the doomsayers could stop the progress in food production.
Borlaug: It worries me, if they gum up all of these developments. It's elitism, and the American people are vulnerable to this, too. I'm talking about the extremists here and in Western Europe....In the U.S., 98 percent of consumers live in cities or urban areas or good-size towns. Only 2 percent still live out there on the land. In Western Europe also, a big percentage of the people live off the farms, and they don't understand the complexities of agriculture. So they are easily swayed by these scare stories that we are on the verge of being poisoned out of existence by farm chemicals.

Borlaug was far from alone in working on agricultural productivity, but he did stand apart in his social engagement, his early demonstrations that massive gains were possible on dwarf varieties of wheat, and his long sustained focus. He began his work in Mexico at age 32.

Related: I reviewed The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, a biography of the Russian agricultural scientist who tried to develop highly productive and disease-resistant crops, but was foiled by Lysenko.