NewsCut Flashback: The greatest human who ever lived?

This University of Minnesota tweet today reminds us that it would be Norman Borlaug’s 105th birthday today.

Let’s revisit what I wrote on the day he died in September 2009.

Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist from the University of Minnesota, has died at 95, and Penn Jillette — yes, the entertainer — had it right this morning on Twitter:

The greatest human in history. He is credited with saving 1 BILLION lives and he’ll keep saving more and more.

That’s saying quite a bit but how do you argue with it?

It’s not hyperbole. He is, in fact, credited with saving over a billion lives as President George Bush pointed out when he presented Borlaug with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. “No person has done more to rid the world of hunger,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Borlaug is the father of the Green Revolution, which started with his work to create disease-resistant, high-yield wheat. The chances are pretty good that whatever you ate today had something to do with Norman Borlaug.

And these last words in a high-profile setting should be something everyone can agree on:

“We need better and more technology, for hunger and poverty and misery are very fertile soils into which to plant all kinds of ‘isms,’ including terrorism,” he said.

Leon Hesser worked with Borlaug and also wrote his biography. All Things Considered host Tom Crann talked with him in 2007.

As Mr. Hesser pointed out, not everyone agreed with Borlaug’s approach of genetically altering food. That brings us back to Jillette’s own biography of Borlaug in this TV episode clip, the very last portion of which describes the people who didn’t care for the approach. Caution: There’s an occasional obscenity in this clip.

Glenn Davis Stone, an environmental anthropologist, takes issue with the notion that Borlaug and his movement saved a billion lives. He wrote that he didn’t saved any.

The legend of “people who make miracles in the world” continues to be promoted by parties whose interests it serves. It suited the US government’s interests at the time: locked in a Cold War with the Soviets and a hot war in Viet Nam, the US jumped at the chance to point to a humanitarian triumph in Asia. (Even the name “Green Revolution” was an explicit rebuke to red revolution.) Today the biotechnology industry and its allies zealously promote the legend as a flattering framing for the spread of genetically modified crops. A Monsanto chief even recounted the aging Borlaug tearing up because while he lived through the Green Revolution, he would not live to see the “Gene Revolution” which might save Africa.

Here’s a milder telling of the Borlaug story from a documentary on his life and work:

  • Gary F

    And all this time I thought it was Willis Carrier.

    • Al

      A close second.

  • Karl Crabkiller

    Back when I was a kid I remember the US sending large amounts of food to India to fend off starvation there – 20 years later India was a net exporter of rice thanks to the Dr. Brolaug and the “green revolution”….

  • KTFoley

    Borlaug was profoundly affected by seeing people starving in the US in the 1930’s. After WWII, he was worried about the population explosion that was underway around the world, and about running out of arable land to feed everyone.

    He used what he knew to fix what he saw happening. That’s what heroism comes down to, mostly.

    Hindsight shows us how the US might use his work for its international agenda and how DuPont might do the same for its financial interests. It gives us the long-term effects of monoculture on the environment. That’s all valid.

    But when people were in dire need, Borlaug answered. They couldn’t wait for a savior who’s also omniscient. We can’t hold out for one, either.

    • Jerry

      Starvation is no longer caused by failures in production, but rather failures in distribution