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

May 03, 2016
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy Resumé: What the Record Shows
Michèle Brand – Arun Gupta
What is the “Nuit Debout”?
Chuck Churchill
The Failures of Capitalism, Donald Trump and Right Wing Terror
Dave Marsh
Bernie and the Greens
John Wight
Zionism Should be on Trial, Not Ken Livingstone
Rev. John Dear
A Dweller in Peace: the Life and Times of Daniel Berrigan
Patrick Cockburn
Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward: What Would Mao Think?
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump
Chris Gilbert
Venezuela Today: This Must Be Progress
Pepe Escobar
The Calm Before the Coming Global Storm
Ruth Fowler
Intersecting with the Identity Police (Or Why I Stopped Writing Op-Eds)
Victor Lasa
The Battle Rages on in Spain: the Country Prepares for Repeat Elections in June
Jack Rasmus
Is the US Economy Heading for Recession?
Dean Baker
Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve
Ted Rall
Working for US Gov Means Never Saying Sorry
John Eskow
The Death of Prince and the Death of Lonnie Mack
May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail