THE 1960s was a decade of explosive change, but the most important revolution wasn’t sexual: it was green. While Western intellectuals looked the other way, lost to well-meaning doom-mongering, one visionary saved a billion lives. Private foundations supported his work; rich governments’ aid programmes often thought it was wrongheaded. But Norman Borlaug (it’s pronounced Bor-log), born 100 years ago this week, triumphed anyway.
Borlaug sent crop yields in some of the world’s poorest countries sky-high, enabling their fast-growing populations to keep feeding themselves. It earned him a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. This week, a statue of him was unveiled in Washington DC’s Capitol building, as a representative hero of the state where he was born, Iowa. Yet Borlaug’s extraordinary work deserves to be world-famous. He shows us what human beings are capable of, even when the odds and the received wisdom are against us.
In 1950, Mexico couldn’t feed itself. More than half of its food had to be imported. In just 20 years, thanks to the techniques Borlaug persuaded local farmers to adopt and special crops he and his team bred, notably a high-yield dwarf wheat, food production improved ten times over. Mexico was a net exporter of food by 1970. Across India and Pakistan, his work, and the political battles he fought against price controls, saw food production double. The 4.6m tons of wheat Pakistan grew in 1965 became 8.4m in 1970. India went from 12.3m tons to 20m, and has been growing ever since. It hit 74m by the turn of the century.