Agronomist Norman Borlaug was born 100 years ago today. I think he was one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, and because he did, millions of others who might have died due to starvation also lived.
I wrote an article for The Interim about Borlaug when he died in 2009, entitled “Borlaug proved Malthus wrong.” Here’s a snippet:
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich said in his best-selling apocalyptic book The Population Bomb that the world was headed toward a Malthusian hell in which mass starvation would wipe out large swaths of people, most notably in Africa and Asia, making specific note that Pakistan and India would suffer collapse within the decade. Indeed, he called it a “fantasy” that India would ever be able to feed itself. By 1968, Pakistan had already achieved self-sufficiency in food production (rice and wheat) and India did the same two years later. India increased wheat production by about one-third over five years (seconding schools and theatres to store excess grain) and tripled it again over the next three decades. By 2008, it was a net food exporter, despite having 1.17 billion mouths to feed. Malthus’s disciple Ehrlich was proven spectacularly wrong – and yet four decades later, his doomsday predictions still have influence.
Surprisingly, Borlaug himself was susceptible to Malthus-Ehrlich hysterics about population growth. In 1975, he said the Green Revolution he helped usher in over the previous decade “only delayed the world food crisis by 20 to 30 years and we have already used seven of them.” In the 1980s, he attacked Ronald Reagan’s defunding of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which he thought was necessary to combat “monstrous” population growth.
Borlaug under-estimated the success of the programs he brought to the developing world. As Gregg Easterbrook reported in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1950, there were 2.2 billion people in the world and they produced 692 tons of grain. By 1992, there were 5.6 billion people and they produced 1.9 billion tons of grain. That is, there was a 220 per cent increase in global population, but a 280 per cent increase in global wheat production. For numerous food staples, this pattern held true. Furthermore, this increase in food production necessitated an increase of cropland of just one per cent due to Borlaug’s more efficient agricultural techniques and improved genetic strands.
Three comments to Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution post on Borlaug’s birthday are worth noting:
I think we should replace Columbus Day with Norman Borlaug day. He’s the type of person who deserves that kind of status.
And, talking about pollution from growing populations in India:
Even if Borlaug perfectly had known about those effects, saving the lives of the dying millions was a more immediate problem. I suspect in most moral calculus that need would triumph.
But this is the best:
This is a guy whose life work, many claim, actually helped save more lives than almost any human that ever lived. Yet, he does not appear to get a Google doodle celebration?