Bourlaug, who saved millions from hunger, dead at 95

Norman Bourlaug

This morning on NPR, I heard an interesting story about Norman Bourlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He died Saturday at age 95.

Bourlaug was known as the father of the “green revolution,” which transformed agriculture through high-yield crop varieties and other innovations, helping to more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990. Many experts credit the green revolution with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives.

Borlaug was one of only five people in history to score the feat of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal–placing him in the company of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel.

Googling for more information about Bourlaug, I came across a fascinating 1997 Atlantic Monthly article by Gregg Easterbrook–“Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity.”

Easterbrook starts the article by talking about the almost absolute lack of public recogntion in the United States of Bourlaug’s contributions to bettering the world and Western media’s role in this.

    Though barely known in the country of his birth, elsewhere in the world Norman Borlaug is widely considered to be among the leading Americans of our age…Yet although he has led one of the century’s most accomplished lives, and done so in a meritorious cause, Borlaug has never received much public recognition in the United States, where it is often said that the young lack heroes to look up to. One reason is that Borlaug’s deeds are done in nations remote from the media spotlight: the Western press covers tragedy and strife in poor countries, but has little to say about progress there.

Bourlaug’s methods averted mass food shortages and famine most notably in Mexico, Indian, Pakistan in the 1960s. In recent years, Bourlaug tried to bring high-yield agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, but large-scale success eluded him. In the Atlantic Monthly article, Easterbook suggests that Bourlaug lost support because of opposition from environmental groups. Easterbrook is highly critical of this. I bolded a phrase which really struck me.

    Reflecting Western priorities, the debate about whether high-yield agriculture would be good for Africa is currently phrased mostly in environmental terms, not in terms of saving lives. By producing more food from less land, Borlaug argues, high-yield farming will preserve Africa’s wild habitats, which are now being depleted by slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture. Opponents argue that inorganic fertilizers and controlled irrigation will bring a new environmental stress to the one continent where the chemical-based approach to food production has yet to catch on. In this debate the moral imperative of food for the world’s malnourished — whether they “should” have been born or not, they must eat — stands in danger of being forgotten…
    …Borlaug’s reaction to the [environmentalists’] campaign was anger. He says, “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve 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 fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

Today more than 1 billion people–mostly in the developing world– suffer from chronic hunger. Who will continue Bourlaug’s work? And are there still those who oppose it?

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