FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Man Who Saved a Billion Lives

by DAVID MACARAY

It’s probably safe to say that most of us haven’t heard of agronomist Norman Borlaug. If I hadn’t been tangentially involved with Indian agriculture, I wouldn’t have heard of him. But Borlaug is not only a famous scientist, he’s one of only seven people to have won the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Apparently, the only prize to elude him was the Cy Young Award.

Dr. Borlaug is most famous for having launched what came to be known the Green Revolution—the agricultural phenomenon responsible for an exponential increase, a veritable explosion, in the amount of food produced on earth. And yes, it’s no exaggeration to say that Borlaug did, in fact, save a billion lives.

His singular achievement, the thing he’ll be remembered for forever, was the development of a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf Mexican wheat, an achievement that more or less prevented a big part of the underdeveloped world from starving to death.

While I was with the Peace Corps in Punjab, India (attached to the Punjab Department of Irrigation), a U.S. State Dept. agriculture officer kindly provided me with a layman’s overview of the significance of dwarf wheat. At the risk of overly-simplifying it, here is what I understood it to be.

Whereas “standard” wheat plants are fairly tall and have narrow stalks (I saw them in the cultivated fields of Punjab), dwarf wheat plants are relatively short and squat, and have thick, husky stalks. One advantage of that unique feature is that dwarf plants can remain upright. They don’t fall over from their own weight and lie on the ground, rotting, and they don’t usually break down on a windy day.

Another advantage—indeed, the most important advantage—is that, compared to standard wheat plants, the dwarf produces a prodigious amount of wheat kernels. The comparison is astounding. It’s the difference between a fragile, spindly, low-yielding wheat stalk, and an incredibly resilient, high-yielding, highly motivated “wheat shrub” that is absolutely bursting with edible kernels.

Even with a population of 1.1 billion people (in a country about one-third the size of the U.S.), India is now self-sufficient in food production, an accomplishment that would’ve been regarded as wildly unrealistic, as all but impossible, just a few decades ago. The world can thank Dr. Norman Borlaug for achieving that.

But oddly, scientific achievements like Borlaug’s can have a weird downside. They seem to promote a reckless, almost irrational sense of optimism about the future, a belief that technology will eventually solve all the hairy problems we now face.

People like to remind you of all those semi-hysterical 1970s doomsday predictions of imminent world famine—predictions gravely guaranteeing that hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese would die of starvation. Paul Erlich (author of the best-selling The Population Bomb) was one of those prognosticators.

The fact that this mass-starvation never occurred leads some people to the dubious conclusion that everything will turn out all right, that technology will tackle all of our future problems, including alternative energy sources, climate change, potable water shortages, and pollution.

Few people seem to be overly concerned about that Texas-size mound of garbage that’s floating around in the Pacific Ocean. The reason they are unconcerned is, presumably, because they are confident science and technology will eventually address that filthy problem and solve it.

It’s as if these people have not only seen way too many of those sci-fi movies where the scientists are able to deflect the earth-bound asteroid at the very last minute, but have forgotten that those movies are pure fiction.

Wishing and hoping ain’t going to make that Texas-size mass of garbage (or for that matter, the actual state of Texas itself) disappear. We won’t be that lucky.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net. 

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
February 5-7, 2016
Jeffrey St. Clair
When Chivalry Fails: St. Bernard and the Machine
Leonard Peltier
My 40 Years in Prison
John Pilger
Freeing Julian Assange: the Final Chapter
Garry Leech
Terrifying Ted and His Ultra-Conservative Vision for America
Andrew Levine
Smash Clintonism: Why Democrats, Not Republicans, are the Problem
William Blum
Is Bernie Sanders a “Socialist”?
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
We Can’t Afford These Billionaires
Enrique C. Ochoa
Super Bowl 50: American Inequality on Display
Jonathan Cook
The Liberal Hounding of Julian Assange: From Alex Gibney to The Guardian
George Wuerthner
How the Bundy Gang Won
Mike Whitney
Peace Talks “Paused” After Putin’s Triumph in Aleppo 
Ted Rall
Hillary Clinton: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Gary Leupp
Is a “Socialist” Really Unelectable? The Potential Significance of the Sanders Campaign
Vijay Prashad
The Fault Line of Race in America
Eoin Higgins
Please Clap: the Jeb Bush Campaign Pre-Mortem
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Invisible Epidemic: Radiation and Rising Rates of Thyroid Cancer
Andre Vltchek
Europe is Built on Corpses and Plunder
Jack Smith
Obama Readies to Fight in Libya, Again
Robert Fantina
As Goes Iowa, So Goes the Nation?
Dean Baker
Market Turmoil, the Fed and the Presidential Election
John Grant
Israel Moves to Check Its Artists
John Wight
Who Was Cecil Rhodes?
David Macaray
Will There Ever Be Anyone Better Than Bernie Sanders?
Christopher Brauchli
Suffer Little Children: From Brazil to Flint
JP Sottile
Did Fox News Help the GOP Establishment Get Its Groove Back?
Binoy Kampmark
Legalizing Cruelties: the Australian High Court and Indefinite Offshore Detention
John Feffer
Wrestling With Iran
Rob Prince – Ibrahim Kazerooni
Syria Again
Louisa Willcox
Park Service Finally Stands Up for Grizzlies and Us
Farzana Versey
Of Beyoncé, Trudeau and Culture Predators
Pete Dolack
Fanaticism and Fantasy Drive Purported TPP ‘Benefits’
Murray Dobbin
Canada and the TPP
Steve Horn
Army of Lobbyists Push LNG Exports, Methane Hydrates, Coal in Senate Energy Bill
Colin Todhunter
“Lies, Lies and More Lies” – GMOs, Poisoned Agriculture and Toxic Rants
Franklin Lamb
ISIS Erasing Our Cultural Heritage in Syria
David Mihalyfy
#realacademicbios Deserve Real Reform
Graham Peebles
Unjust and Dysfunctional: Asylum in the UK
Yves Engler
On Unions and Class Struggle
Alfredo Lopez
The ‘Bern’ and the Internet
Missy Comley Beattie
Super Propaganda
Ed Rampell
Great Caesar’s Ghost!: A Specter Haunts Hollywood in the Coen’s Anti-Anti-Commie Goofball Comedy
Cesar Chelala
The Public Health Impact of Domestic Violence
Ron Jacobs
Cold Weather Comforts of a Certain Sort
Charles Komanoff
On the Passing of the Jefferson Airplane
Charles R. Larson
Can One Survive the Holocaust?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail