RIP Norman Borlaug

A great man with a controversial legacy, but one could argue that he did more for human well-being than anyone else in the history of the world.
In 1960, before his techniques were widely adopted, the world produced 692 million tons of grain for 2.2 billion people. By 1992, largely as a result of Borlaug's pioneering techniques, it was producing 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people -- using only 1% more land. India and Pakistan are now agriculturally self-sufficient as a result of his intervention.
That's from this LA Times obituary, the first of many I am sure. It has an engaging discussion of his quest to improve crop yields through breeding.

Critics (particularly from the organic agriculture world) see him as the forefather of monoculture-dominated industrial agriculture and the myriad environmental and nutritional damages it has wrought. The jury is still out, but in my mind the burden of proof still lies on those who hold that organic agriculture can scale up to feed the world without bringing massive tracts of new land under cultivation.

Update: Here's a great story from later in Borlaug's life:
Borlaug formally retired from the International Wheat and Maize Project in 1979, becoming a professor at Texas A&M University. But in 1984, he got a call from Japanese industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa, who offered Borlaug funding for five years of work to aid agriculture in Africa.

Speaking through an interpreter, Borlaug said, "I'm 71. I'm too old to start again." Sasakawa called back the next morning and said, "I'm 15 years older than you, so I guess we should have started yesterday. Let's start tomorrow."

Update 2: has a good quote from Borlaug's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, showing awareness of the wider world beyond his discipline:
"We must recognize the fact that adequate food is only the first requisite for life. For a decent and humane life we must also provide an opportunity for good education, remunerative employment, comfortable housing, good clothing and effective and compassionate medical care."
It also has the interesting tidbit that Borlaug was a Hall of Fame wrestler at the University of Minnesota.

Update 3: Chris Clayton:
In the U.S., we are blessed so much that debate over agriculture focuses on the quality of food, where it comes from, how it's grown and how it's cooked. With the passing of Dr. Borlaug, perhaps people will be inspired to reexamine the higher calling of agriculture and those throughout the world who still have yet to be touched by the green revolution.

Update 4: A few people try to size how many lives Norman Borlaug saved. The Indian Minister of Agriculture says 245 million. The Liberty Papers says 1 billion. Greed, Green and Grains thinks even 1 billion might be an understatement (and with over 1 billion people currently suffering from undernourishment, I think he could be right).

Update 5: A long and interesting interview with Borlaug from 2000.

Update 6: Here is a provocative but loosely-reasoned piece on Norman Borlaug's complicated legacy. I applaud the author's attempt to explore the rippling ramifications of Borlaug's work, but, as this commenter details, there are "several inaccuracies - some tiny, some major."

Update 7: Here's a longer NYT article, including this reference to Vandana Shiva; I'm sympathetic with Borlaug's response.
In a characteristic complaint, Vandana Shiva, an Indian critic, wrote in 1991 that “in perceiving nature’s limits as constraints on productivity that had to be removed, American experts spread ecologically destructive and unsustainable practices worldwide.”

Dr. Borlaug declared that such arguments often came from “elitists” who were rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from. But over time, he acknowledged the validity of some environmental concerns, and embraced more judicious use of fertilizers and pesticides. He was frustrated throughout his life that governments did not do more to tackle what he called “the population monster” by lowering birth rates.

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