A Tribute to Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, the founder and driving force behind the revolution in high-yield agriculture that Paul Ehrlich predicted was impossible, has died at the age of 98 95.  Like Radley Balko, I am struck by how uneventful his passing is likely to be in contrast to the homage paid to self-promoting seekers of power like Ted Kennedy who never accomplished a tiny fraction of what Borlaug achieved.  Reason has a good tribute here.  Some exceprts:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

The contrast to Paul Ehrlich is particularly stunning.  Most folks have heard of Ehrlich and his prophesies of doom.   But Ehrlich has been wrong in his prophesies more times than anyone can count.  Borlaug fed a billion people while Ehrlich was making money and fame selling books saying that the billion couldn't be fed -- but few have even heard of Borlaug.   Today, leftists in power in the US and most European nations continue to reject Borlaug's approaches, and continue to revere Ehrlich (just this year, Obama chose a disciple of Ehrlich, John Holdren, as his Science czar).

Continuing proof that the world moves forward in spite of, rather than because of, governments.

Update: More here.

Update #2: Penn and Teller on Borlaug


  1. Gordon:

    Stunned to hear the news. Borlaug was still active in crop improvement (in Mexico City working at CIMMYT). I was fortunate enough to hear Borlaug speak once, and he was still passionate about his work, at 91. Some revisionists now blame Borlaug and others for bringing "industrial agriculture" to Asia & Africa. I did my PhD research on disease resistance in corn and spent time in Africa (Uganda, funded by USAID) and that industrial agriculture is improving lives there as elsewhere. In many ways Borlaug was my idol.

  2. Anonymous Mike:

    I am likewise struck by the lack of attention paid to Dr. Borlaug, but I would imagine that if the media and culture paid attention it would be to burn him in effigy for he committed 3 great sins which either still resonate today or remain in full force

    First he had more of an impact on 3rd World poverty and hunger than most of the multinational NGO - it's always bad for your PR to make irrelevant those highly educated parasitic do-gooders who not only work for those NGOs but have good PR firms working for them

    Second he made a chump out on eco-alarmist, Ehrlich, and today that type of person is revered as a wise truth-teller... cannot honor the man who showed that the predecessor of today's heroes had no clothes

    Third, that billion people he saved? That doesn't make him a hero because that's a billion more carbon foot prints roaming the Earth

    No, I think given modern day green sensibilities that no honor is due the man. I think rather the man should be dug up and a la Pope Formosus, have his corpse put on trial and then tossed into the Tiber

  3. Texas_Engineer:

    Dr. Borlaug was a giant - no doubt about it. And the inane critics who are basically saying he should have left things alone and let people starve are truly sick. Yes - we have too many people on the planet and we will pay for that some day. But Dr. Borlaug did noble work because he wanted to save humans from starvation.

    Two others who made major contributions to the "Green Revolution" were Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who invented and commercialized the "Haber Process" that in combination with low cost natural gas made it possible to manufacture affordable ammonia for fertilizer. Without fertilizer even Dr. Borlaug's new varieties of wheat would not have mad the contribution they did. As in all "Scientific Revolutions" there are many aspects that make up the whole.

  4. Fred Z:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man.

    Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as "bad luck."

    -Robert Heinlein

  5. Quincy:


    I'm not surprised by anything we get in the comments anymore. Once Google News picked us up, the intellectual and moral dregs of the internet have been leaving comments. In this case, it's the anti-human zealots whose biggest contribution to the human race would be to rid it of themselves. Other times, it's been holocaust deniers, ObamaCare activists, or apologists for Latin American dictators.

    It's a sad commentary on the state of humanity.

  6. Prof HK Chaudhary:

    A Tribute to Norman E. Borlaug from Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab, CSK HP Agricultural University,Palampur, India

    We, the members of Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab, CSK HP Agricultural University, Palampur, India while paying tribute to Father of Great Revolution, Prof Norman E. Borlaug wish to the Great Almighty for showering immense blessings upon this philanthropist. His remarkable, indefatigable and untiring efforts to secure food in the entire world has created an unforgettable history on the earth till the last day of life on the blue planet. We pay homage to the sacred soul with a promise to move steadfastly on the sacred path of service to mankind as shown by the Nobel Laureate.

    (Prof H K Chaudhary)
    Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab
    CSK HP Agricultural University, Palampur, India

  7. Prof HK Chaudhary:

    A Tribute to Norman E. Borlaug from Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab, CSK HP Agricultural University,Palampur, India

    We, the members of Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab, CSK HP Agricultural University, Palampur, India while paying tribute to Father of Green Revolution, Prof Norman E. Borlaug wish to the Great Almighty for showering immense blessings upon this philanthropist. His remarkable, indefatigable and untiring effort to secure food in the entire world has created an unforgettable history on the earth which will remain till the last day of life on the blue planet. We pay homage to the sacred soul with a promise to move steadfastly on the sacred path of service to mankind as shown by the Nobel Laureate.

    (Prof H K Chaudhary)
    Molecular Cytogenetics & Tissue Culture Lab
    CSK HP Agricultural University, Palampur, India

  8. rxc:

    This article really goes with the one above it regarding newspapers. The reason Dr. Borlaug was not well known is that he was interested in increasing the amount of food available to the world's population, instead of wanting to "fairly re-distribute" the fixed amount available 50 years ago. And the chattering classes in the US are not really interested in people who want to produce more - they really like conflict and much prefer debates about how to slice the pie differently, because it lets them do what they want to do, which is just talk about things.

    Some day people are going to realize that the people on this planet who actually make stuff, such as farmers and engineers and scientific researchers like Dr. Borlaug, are much more important to human life on this planet than lawyers and financiers and activists for human rights and reporters.

  9. DrTorch:

    What an indictment on me and my science eduation that I'd barely heard of this guy.

    I'd also say it's an indictment on the Christian church and "Christian education" that this guy barely gets noticed as well.

  10. dave smith:

    DrTorch...right. Why he is not studied along side of GeoWashCarver is beyond me.

  11. Hani Ghosheh:

    A Giant Knight
    Dr. Norman Borlaug was one of a kind. I had the chance to be in his class at Texas A & M University, where he specked passionately at the age of 80, about a better future for humans. Not only was he a teacher for me, but also he was a mentor for my father in the 1960’s when was training agricultural specialist from all over the world on how to improve crop yields through plant breeding, in Mexico. Agriculture lost a giant advocate with his death.

  12. thebastidge:

    Bjorn Lomborg ("The Skeptical Environmentalist") is another good resource to counter the Rachel Carsons ("Silent Spring") and Paul Ehrlich ("The Population Bomb").

    Personally, I believe that the world is overpopulated from an aesthetic stabndpoint. But Aesthetics is not a valid reason to espouse policies like forced sterilization, and maintaining crushing poverty through communist redistribution. And a population crash is just as bad as a boom- because when the skilled portion dies off, it leaves the rest stripping the tree bark to feed themselves. This actually happens in north Korea- people are ruining the environment there out of deserate hunger, when prosperity is a few socio-economic changes away.

  13. Dr. Lawrence Busher:

    Re your comment on Ehrlich, so what is your answer? More crowding until we have wall-to-wall people and bumper-to-bumper congestion forcing more and more straight-jacketing of individual freedoms until we are squeezed to the point that nobody has any elbow room at all? There are 7 billion people on this planet. Are we ostriches? Borlaug bailed us out once. How many Borlaugs are there out there? Not enough I fear. To attain the lofty goal of delivering the U.S. standard of living to the rest of the nations of the world, we would need 7 more planets. Are you arguing that we should go ahead and be cheerleaders for an infinite number of people on this planet? If not, what is your number? How many should we be allowed to have? Where do we stop, pull our head out of the sand and have the courage to address this question? Can you deliver on the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for everyone? An ostrich with his head in the sand doesn't keep it there forever. Why is it that scientists and policy-makers are not seeking to ascertain exactly what the carrying capacity of Earth is? Or seeking to reach a consensus on it to steer us to safety? Where is the prudent judgment here? What is the reasonable and right thing to do here? Are you proposing an "everybody do anything you want" answer? Are you proposing infinite crowding on the assumption that we will always have someone like a Borlaug to step in and bail us out? Is that a safe bet? Why is it that these are not legitimate questions to be addressed if we have any sense of honor and obligation to our children and future generations to deliver to them the quality of life that they deserve? Why is that?

  14. Foxfier:

    Gotta love it... folks say "it works this way now, and so we must force people to kill themselves off"-- as opposed to folks like this good, late, man, who said: "it works this way now-- how can I change how it works? People will starve...so I will find a way to get more food to them. People in straw-and-mud one room huts, without plumbing, cannot fit with our population growth-- what about a sky scraper with huge population density?"

    Dr. Busher- you might want to research a little, maybe watch this kinda cutesy video:

    I'm thinking mebbie misanthropes just like the idea of being able to get rid of people, make those fools behave rationally.

    Hm, sounds like Girl Genius' "Madboys".....

  15. Quincy:

    Dr. Busher presents a nice strawman. One is either for infinite population or a fixed, pre-determined limit on population. Sorry, Doc, but humanity is not intelligent enough to figure out what that number is. Further, the amount of human misery brought on by efforts such as those in China must be taken into consideration before rough-hacking a guess and inflicting it on people.

  16. thebastidge:

    Dr. Busher clearly is the one with his head up his... in the sand.

    Let me type it for you s.l.o.w.l.y. Erhlich has been proven WRONG!

    Continuing to argue for his point of view makes you look s.t.u.p.i.d.

    There should not be any number of children allowed- only what you choose to have. In other words, there is no allowing or disallowing: you don't get to say for other people.

    More prosperity is the only key to population problems. The only thing most people have in the 3rd world is the (nutritionally limited) strength of their backs. They breed like rabbits to have some percentage make it to adulthood to support them in turn with labour. Until people are well-enough fed, well-enough educated, and prosperous enough to plan for the future rather than simply trying to survive, the population will continue to grow. One fo the worst things that could happen is a sudden population reduction. These things need to be graduated.

    Population growth is already slowing, on a global basis. It will eventually taper off and decline when the economic incentive exists. That will be long before Malthusian cannibalism takes over, as long as we continue to embrace technological progress and principles of liberty.

    Clearly, doc, you haven't traveled much. The problem with people getting enough to eat in the third world is not because our natural resources are so much better, it's how efficiently we utilize them. The majority of mankind's problems are created by cultural habits which have become (or in some cases always were) pathological. The problem with people in the 3rd world not being healthy and propserous are due to systems which siphon capital (human and monetary) away from rational usages and growth, and into hoarding out of scarcity mentality. Strongmen steal everyone blind, and once they start, can't get off the tiger, so they continue long past all personal utility. Authoritarians (like yourself) feel morally justified in forcing people to change, all the more so when they don't comply willingly, with what YOU say is in everyone's best interest (except theirs).


    I am a student of 5th class in the DAV Public School Palampur India.Although i have studied very less about Dr Norman Borlaug yet listened some very interesting stories about this Great Man from my father Prof HK Chaudhary(Senior Wheat Breeder)regarding bringing a quantum jump in the production and productivity of wheat in the developing world.His stories are so interesting that I became fan of Norman Uncle.I pray to GOD to keep Norman uncle with HIM but send his clone as a replacement because lot of work is yet pending in the developing world on this mother earth.This time I also want to become companion of such a GREAT SCIENTIST and FRIEND of WHOLE MANKIND.

  18. epobirs:

    Silly Busher person, (I doubt you are a doctor in any field requiring rational thought and therefore deserving of doctorate degrees) it has long been demonstrated that the simple cure for population growth is wealth. Not fabulous dripping with money wealth but rather wealth as compared to how most of humanity has lived throughout known history. Many of the world's developed nations are experiencing a population crash. They cannot be bothered to have children because it is far too inconvenient for such affluent folk. The USA continues to grow only by virtue of immigration, while immigration is all that prevents parts of Europe from already being severely depopulated and desperate for labor. The population trends indicate that so long as more of humanity enjoys improving quality of life the global population will grow for only a few more decades, then begin to contract. Japan, a nation that does not welcome immigration, is already very worried about its future and incentives to have children are becoming more common from both the government and private sector. They face the specter of every Japanese below retirement age being fully occupied with caring for the retirees. This has also compelled a lot of research into robotics in geriatric care to prevent that future.

    The Chinese didn't need a one child per couple, forced abortion program. They just needed to join the modern world and let its citizens choose to limit their reproduction voluntarily.

    The predicted population level is well within the means of the developed world to feed quite well. The one thing that would lead to disaster would be to end further development in the third world. Subsistence farmers who produce as many children as they can to have more field hands are on a dismal path. Increasing the presence of modern agriculture with more of the population free topursue other forms of employment is how to save the future.

  19. Prof.KPSINGH:

    Prof K.P.Singh
    A tribute to Dr.Norman Borlaug on 4th death anniversary (12 September,2013) from Department of Biology & Environmental Science, CSK H.P.Agricultural University,Palampur.
    I pay homage to the sacred soul. Prof.M.S.Kang, former Vice Chancellor published a excellent article Food Bill : Promises and Challenges in The Tribune Jalandhar,September 12, 2013 page 9 dedicating it to Prof Norman Borlaug.