Truly Great Man Turns 90

|

The man who saved more human lives than any other person in all of history, Norman Borlaug, turns 90 tomorrow. Borlaug, the father of the "Green Revolution" headed up the team of researchers that created the high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice which prevented the global famines widely predicted to occur in the 1970s and 1980s. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 1970.

Borlaug continues his work today as head of the Sasakawa Africa Association, which is working to bring a new "Green Revolution" to the poor farmers of Africa.

Reason interviewed Borlaug for our April 2000 issue.

Happy Birthday Dr. Borlaug!

NEXT: Geez, Maybe All This Hooha Is Undermining Marriage

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Jean Bart

    The argument against Erlich’s claims about population growth and starvation boil down to “human ability and technology will prevent this problem.” Norman Borlaug is the human. THAT is why he is justly celebrated. Normally these things don’t have one identifiable architect.

    Now, whether the starvation would have happened without him – probably not, probably someone(s) else would have done much of what he did. However, if you keep subtracting people like him, sooner or later you will run out of talent, and then you see the starvation. Note that in Africa, where green revolution was prevented or delayed by corrupt governance and colonial misrule, starvation did occur on a fairly grand scale. It was only in Asia and the Americas that his methods were applied and starvation averted or truncated.

  2. “However, if you keep subtracting people like him, sooner or later you will run out of talent, and then you see the starvation.”

    or if they are prevented from doing what they do.

  3. “Note that in Africa, where green revolution was prevented or delayed by corrupt governance and colonial misrule, starvation did occur on a fairly grand scale.”

    This is essentially what I am referring to regarding the failure of human institutions. In general, people don’t starve due to too little food, but to poor distribution of available food. This has notoriously been the case during recent famines in Ethiopia (for example). The economist Sen points to “market failure” regarding the famine in the late 1970s; but I think it was driven a very corrupt government and its willingness to displace subsistance farmers, herders, etc. from “their land” to bribe foreign and domestic interests with.

  4. Is this the one that Penn and Teller on Bullshit! named the greatest human being of all time?

  5. Why is it that I sometimes get the impression that the ecological doomsayers secretly long for a mass culling of the human population, although presumably themselves and immediate family members would be excused this thinning of the herd.

    When Paul Ehrlich was asked a decade ago, “How many people can the world support?,” he answered, 1 billion, “decently and sustainably.” Since there are now over 7 billion, that means an awful lot of culling. Ehrlich is hardly alone in believing that there are “too many people” and that we would be better off if many of them would just disappear.

    To be fair, Bill McKibben has argued that people should voluntarily have one or fewer children, and has himself stopped at one.

  6. “…the global famines widely predicted to occur in the 1970s and 1980s.”

    I hate to depress, but one must ask, were the predictions accurate?

  7. If you had included one extra word in the phrase you quoted, you would have already had the answer from the people to whom you’re addressing the question.

    “… prevented the global famines widely predicted to occur in the 1970s and 1980s.”

    Unless there’s some ironic nuance I’m missing here in your post.

  8. Sam I Was,

    Well, the problem is that they can claim that they “prevented” them all they want to; but if there is nothing to prevent, or far less to prevent, then the statement is meaningless. The reason I ask is due to the fact that this claim seems like one of the many “alarmist” claims that were seen during the 1970s from people like Jeremy Rifkin.

  9. Indeed, it would be odd for Ronald Bailey to substantiate these alarmist concerns in order to praise Borlaug.

  10. As Julian Simon noted, new problems bring new solutions by (hu)man the creator. Unless man acts, then we would suffer the fate of any species that exceeds the supply of available food. As humans have creative capacity, we are escape the fates of biology. The bio doomsayers are correct when they assert doom awaits us, but they are mistaken in believing that we can’t do anything about it.

  11. Regarding the famine predictions–what we do know is that in the 1960s, India, Pakistan, even Mexico were net importers of grains. After the Green Revolution, they would not and India even was exporting wheat to the Soviet Union after it has suffered yet another crop failure because of “drought.”

    Keep in mind that people like Paul Ehrlich were predicting that “hundreds of millions” would starve to death in the 1970s and that “billions” would starve in the 1980s. What we do know is that food supplies per capita worldwide are about 30 percent higher than they were in the 1960s despite the fact that world population has nearly doubled and the extra food has been produced on essentially the same acreage that was being plowed in the 1960s. Borlaug’s work is responsible for the enormous boost in agricultural productivity.

  12. Ron Bailey,

    In other words, the notion of “mass starvation” was a bit alarmist.

  13. Posted by Sam at March 24, 2004 10:10 AM

    Whoa. Time warp.

  14. Collectivists, including Erlich and friends, persist in regarding humanity as a population of cattle that must be managed by experts such as themselves.
    It’s funny how those who comprehend that an ecology must be left unmolested to function properly are so convinced that an economy must be constantly molested to function properly.

  15. Sam I Was:

    What?

  16. Daniel,

    Is this the one that Penn and Teller on Bullshit! named the greatest human being of all time?

    Yep.

  17. Jean Bart: ” In general, people don’t starve due to too little food, but to poor distribution of available food.”

    Ah, a redistributionist. That is, it isn’t necessary or desirable for people to produce their own food — those who have some should give it, and if they don’t, should be menaced by firearms until they agree to.

    The point of the Green Revolution is that it is applicable everywhere. African farmers are just as capable of producing sufficient food for themselves and their neighbors as anyone else is. Given self-sufficiency in food, transport of food from place to place is a matter of convenience and luxury. New York could feed itself, if necessary. New Yorkers have concluded that they’d prefer to have houses, factories, and roads, with the food coming from elsewhere — but they aren’t trapped; they don’t have to depend on someone else to feed them.

    Food self-sufficiency is an important component of independence. Of course, commentators such as yourself, perhaps unconsciously, don’t want such achievements to occur; thus you downrate contributions such as Dr. Borlaug’s. After all, someone must compel the “rich” to share their food with the poor, and you’re uniquely qualified, no?

    Regards,
    Ric

  18. Happy birthday Professor Borlaug.

    Thanks Ron for reminding us of the great mans 90th.
    The Ehrlichs and Lester Browns of the world have each curved out media careers by being not just wrong but spectactularly wrong. Ehrlich even won a MacArthur genius award! Go figure. As I recall Ehrlich thought that the Rockefeller foundation money that partly funded Borlaugs work was a waste of research funds since what Borlaug was proposing was impossible. Borlaug was funded anyway and quietly went ahead and achieved the “impossible” and millions of lives were saved. Why is it that I sometimes get the impression that the ecological doomsayers secretly long for a mass culling of the human population, although presumably themselves and immediate family members would be excused this thinning of the herd.

  19. Jean Bart:

    As “Sam I Was,” I was making a lame joke about the presence of a poster named “Sam.”

  20. John:
    RE: “scretly long for a mass culling”

    Actually, some of them are not so “secret.” For example, University of Leeds professor of medicine Maurice King argued that “mortality controls” such as easy live-saving therapies like oral rehydration should not be taught to Third Worlders until they adopt stiff “birth control” measures first. King wrote in 1990 in The Lancet: “If no adequately sustaining complementary measures [e.g., family planning] are possible, such desustaining measures as oral rehydration should not be introduced on a public health scale, since they increase the man-years of human misery, ultimately from starvation.”

    Translation: Let the little brown babies die of cholera and typhoid until their parents get their tubes tied.

  21. Ron Bailey,

    I don’t have anything against Borlaug; and praise him for his work. I’m just skeptical about the “mass starvation” claims. Of course I would also argue that the greatest contributor to starvation isn’t “drought” or other “natural causes,” but the the failure of human institutions to deal with these problems.

  22. “the greatest contributor to starvation isn’t “drought” or other “natural causes,”

    it’s collectivism!

  23. Mr. Cole,
    We simply cannot have any genetic modification of any kind in our food. With higher crop yields and resistance to pests, the food supply would surely increase. What would the environmentalists do then? They wouldn’t be able to sit back (in a cushy office, no doubt, with plenty of food for themselves)and surmise how devastating GM food would be for the environment, while many people starve. Why is it so abhorrent to some people to insert a gene for a natural pesticide into a plant, yet, according to these same people, it’s fine for this very pesticide to be purified and dumped onto crops by the ton simply because it’s labeled “organic”? Sometimes I am genuinely amazed at the reasoning (or lack thereof) employed by some.

  24. Sam,

    Well, that would be a failed human institution. 🙂

  25. “We have become a plague upone ourselves and upone the earth”….

    My mind is exausted… My eyes have grown black.
    If all of you intelligent individuals could all stop for a second… And realize that quotes like this ten, twenty years ago were likely to spark a flame in ones mind, yet now the end is more evident, more real. Every day we read, argue and joke about same sex marriage, policy, terrorism and war. Liberals ready to fly away, just to fly. Conservatives not far behind. We all have are heads stuck so far up the systems ass with theory and selfish logic that we overlook the big picture…..this is a virus uploaded by the system that keeps us glued to our computers daily conversing in silence opposed to creating a public awareness that influences the rest of America (the continent) to take this information under serious concideration.

  26. Thanks Ron for the response and the citation, thats one I wasnt aware of, absolutely chilling and in a top notch medical journal to boot. I thought the first rule of medicine was “do no harm” or something to that effect. I notice the collectivist, utilitarian philosophy in the quote, sacrifices will just have to be made for the greater good or until you do as you’re told.

    I have my own list of environmentalists’ little Freudian slips, here’s one I remember reading on Reason a while back. Bear in mind Mr Graber is not from the lunatic fringe of the enviro movement but a bona fide employee of the National Park Service, or maybe the National Park does in fact recruit from the Earth Liberation Front!

    REASON * February 1999

    Soundbite: Wild Idea

    By Michael W. Lynch

    In a 1989 Los Angeles Times book review, National Park Service ecologist David M. Graber forcefully articulated the anti-humanism that informs much of the environmentalist movement. “Human happiness and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet,” wrote Graber. “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth….Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”

    Not often you hear someone so openly longing for a few billion deaths. The whole interview is worth reading.

  27. A virus which was selective for the likes of David Graber and his ilk would be just fine.

  28. A virus which was selective for the likes of David Graber and his ilk would be just fine.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.