>R.I.P Norman Borlaug

>From the Economist.

Norman Borlaug, feeder of the world, died on September 12th, aged 95

AS DAWN broke over northern Mexico, Norman Borlaug wriggled from his sleeping bag. Rats had run over him all night, and he was cold. In a corner of the dilapidated research station where he had tried to sleep, he found a rusting plough. He took it outside, strapped the harness to himself, and began, furiously and crazily, in front of a group of astonished peasants, to plough the land.

The point was that he needed a tractor, and at once. He had come to Mexico in 1944, leaving a good job at DuPont, to increase grain yields, and to bring these half-starving people food. Hunger made its own imperatives. Feeding people could not wait. For the next ten years he was to work 12-hour days in these dry, baking fields, walking at a half-stoop to examine the stems for disease, perching on a stool to remove, with delicate tweezers, the male stamens of wheat flowers, harvesting wheat at one altitude to plant it immediately at another, until by 1956 Mexico’s wheat production had doubled, and it had become self-sufficient.

Wherever he went, Mr Borlaug showed the same impatience. Paperwork was spurned in favour of action; planting, advising, training thousands. In India, where he set up hundreds of one-acre plots to show suspicious farmers how much they could grow, he was so frustrated by bureaucracy that when at last his seed came, shipped from Los Angeles, he planted it at once despite the outbreak of war between India and Pakistan, sometimes by flashes of artillery fire. And when in 1984 he was drawn out of semi-retirement to take his seed and techniques to Africa, he forgot in a moment, once he saw the place, his plan to do years of research first. “Let’s just start growing,” he said.

As a boy, he hadn’t known what hunger was. He came from a small Norwegian farm in Iowa, the land of butter-sculptures and the breaded tenderloin sandwich. But on his first trip to “the big city”, Minneapolis, in 1933, grown men had begged him for a nickel for a cup of coffee and a small, dry hamburger, and a riot had started round him when a milk-cart dumped its load in the street. He saw then how close to breakdown America was, because of hunger. It was impossible “to build a peaceful world on empty stomachs”.

Crop diseases drew his attention first, inspiring him to turn from forestry to plant pathology under Charles Stakman, a lifelong mentor, at the University of Minnesota. Rusts especially exercised him: how they lived, under the green live tissue of stems, how they spread, travelling for miles on the jet stream, and how they fell from the sky to infect even the healthiest crop, if the moisture and temperature were right. Rust had devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, and Mexico shortly before he went there. So Mr Borlaug first bred wheat cultivars for rust-resistance, a ten-year task, and then crossed them with Norin, a dwarf Japanese variety, to produce a shorter, straighter, stronger wheat which, when properly charged with water and fertiliser, gave three times the yield.

This was the wheat that swept India in its “Green Revolution”, raising yields from 12m tonnes in 1965 to 20m by 1970, causing the country to run out of jute bags to carry it, carts and railcars to transport it, and places to store it; that made Pakistan self-sufficient in wheat by 1968; that almost doubled yields even in Sudan, on the edge of the Sahel. The famines and huge mortality that had been predicted for the second half of the 20th century never came to pass. More food led not to more births, but fewer, as the better-fed had smaller families. Global grain production outpaced population growth, and Mr Borlaug won the Nobel peace prize in 1970 for saving hundreds of millions of lives.

Greens attacked him, saying his new varieties used too much water and costly chemical fertiliser; his link with DuPont was noted. They complained that traditional farming was disrupted and diversity replaced by monoculture. Mr Borlaug called them naysayers and elitists, who had never known hunger but thought, for the health of the planet, that the poor should go without good food. Higher yields, he pointed out, saved marginal land and forest from farming. Inorganic fertiliser just replaced natural nutrients, and more efficiently than manure. As for cross-breeding, Mother Nature had done it first, cross-pollinating different wild grasses until they produced a grain that could eventually expand into modern bread.
The ticking clock

Genetic engineering of plants greatly excited him. The risks, he said, were rubbish, unproven by science, while the potential benefits were endless. The transfer of useful characteristics might now take weeks, rather than decades. More lives would be saved. The gene for rust-resistance in rice, for example, might be put into all other cereals. He hoped he might live to see it.

Meanwhile what he called the “Population Monster” was breathing down his neck, or rather ticking, like Captain Hook’s crocodile. Every second brought two more people, crying to be fed. By 2050, he wrote in 2005, the world would need to double its food supply. Some 800m were malnourished as it was. Mr Borlaug loved to talk of reaching for the stars, but his day-to-day motto was an earthly one. Get the plough. Start growing now.


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