The death of Norman Borlaug, the man who prevented the detonation of the "population bomb", has passed with little fanfare in his home country.
Borlaug (pictured with students from Nigeria) had spent much of his 95 years solving world food shortages and in the process saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to help end the India-Pakistan food shortage of the mid-1960s. Other nations he assisted with his revolutionary agricultural techniques included Mexico, South America, India and Africa.
In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that his work, particularly in agriculture-extension agents saved the lives of one billion human beings.
In a tribute in the Wall St Journal, Gregg Easterbrook, said: "As a young agronomist, Borlaug helped develop some of the principles of Green Revolution agriculture on which the world now relies, including hybrid crops selectively bred for vigor, and 'shuttle breeding,' a technique for accelerating the movement of disease immunity between strains of crops. He also helped develop cereals that were insensitive to the number of hours of light in a day, and could therefore be grown in many climates."
His green revolution techniques boosted output in spectacular fashion. Production by typical American farms, for instance, shot up from about 24 bushels of corn per acre in the 19th century to 155 bushels per acre in 2006.
But Borlaug's revolution did not please everyone. Some green groups criticised him for his use of pesticide and fertiliser. On this point, Easterbrook was scathing: "Trendy environmentalism was catching on, and affluent environmentalists began to say it was 'inappropriate' for Africans to have tractors or use modern farming techniques. Borlaug told me a decade ago that most Western environmentalists 'have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.'"
Easterbrook said environmentalist criticism of Borlaug and his work was puzzling on two fronts. First, without high-yield agriculture, the world would by now be deforested. Second, the huge boost in food consumed little additional land.
As Borlaug himself pointed out: "Without high-yield agriculture, increases in food output would have been realised through drastic expansion of acres under cultivation, losses of pristine land a hundred times greater than all losses to urban and suburban expansion."
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the motives of certain "environmentalists" were not what they claimed, particularly given efforts at the time to impose contraception and abortion on so many developing countries.
Although Borlaug himself was a supporter of population control, his work took the sting out of the movement's warnings that the world would soon starve without radical policies on population control.
Despite his humanitarian work and his success in helping to rescue so much of the world's poor, Borlaug's name is still barely known in the United States. By contrast, as Easterbrook pointed out, streets and buildings are named after him throughout the developing world.
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