The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives

Safe to say, most of us have never heard of agronomist Norman Borlaug.  If I hadn’t been tangentially involved with Indian agriculture, I wouldn’t have heard of him.  But Borlaug is not only a famous scientist, he’s one of only seven people to have won the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.  Apparently, the only prize to elude him was the Cy Young Award.

Dr. Borlaug is most famous for having launched what came to be known as the Green Revolution—the agricultural phenomenon responsible for an exponential increase, a veritable explosion, in the amount of food produced on earth.  And yes, it’s no exaggeration to say that Borlaug did, in fact, save a billion lives.

His singular achievement, the thing he’ll be remembered for forever, was the development of a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf Mexican wheat, an achievement that more or less prevented a big part of the underdeveloped world from starving to death.

While I was with the Peace Corps in Punjab, India (attached to the Punjab Department of Irrigation), a U.S. State Dept. agriculture officer kindly provided me with a layman’s overview of the significance of dwarf wheat.  At the risk of overly-simplifying it, here is what I understood it to be.

Whereas “standard” wheat plants are fairly tall and have narrow stalks (I saw them in the cultivated fields of Punjab), dwarf wheat plants are relatively short and squat, and have thick, husky stalks.  One advantage of that unique feature is that dwarf plants can remain upright.  They don’t fall over from their own weight and lie on the ground, rotting, and they don’t usually break down on a windy day.

Another advantage—indeed, the most important advantage—is that, compared to standard wheat plants, the dwarf produces a prodigious amount of wheat kernels.  The comparison is astounding.  It’s the difference between a fragile, spindly, low-yielding wheat stalk, and an incredibly resilient, high-yielding, highly motivated “wheat shrub” that is absolutely bursting with edible kernels.

Even with a population of 1.1 billion people (in a country about one-third the size of the U.S.), India is now self-sufficient in food production, an accomplishment that would’ve been regarded as wildly unrealistic, as all but impossible, just a few decades ago.  The world can thank Dr. Norman Borlaug for achieving that.

But oddly, scientific achievements like Borlaug’s can have a weird downside.  They seem to promote a reckless, almost irrational sense of optimism about the future, a belief that technology will eventually solve all the hairy problems we now face.

People like to remind you of all those semi-hysterical 1970s doomsday predictions of imminent world famine—predictions gravely guaranteeing that hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese would die of starvation.  Paul Erlich (author of the best-selling The Population Bomb) was one of those prognosticators.

The fact that this mass-starvation never occurred leads some people to the dubious conclusion that everything will turn out all right, that technology will tackle all of our future problems, including alternative energy sources, climate change, potable water shortages, and pollution.

Few people seem to be overly concerned about that Texas-size mound of garbage that’s floating around in the Pacific Ocean.  The reason they are unconcerned is, presumably, because they are confident science and technology will eventually address that filthy problem and solve it.

It’s as if these people have not only seen way too many of those sci-fi movies where the scientists are able to deflect the earth-bound asteroid at the very last minute, but have forgotten that those movies are pure fiction.

Wishing and hoping ain’t going to make that Texas-size mass of garbage (or for that matter, the actual state of Texas) disappear.  Or fix the problem of greenhouse gases.  Alas, we won’t be that lucky.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is “How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.” Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at Read other articles by David.