The man who fought the ‘neo-Luddites’

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Appeared in the Toronto Star

In the prolonged absence of food, the body consumes its own muscle and tissue. Every movement causes excruciating pain. The skin cracks for lack of nutrients, inviting all manner of germs to overwhelm internal organs. Death can be a blessing. From this miserable fate, Norman Borlaug rescued a billion people around the globe.

His own death last Saturday, at the age of 95, reminds us that the scientific mind can be a precious gift to humanity.

As an agricultural scientist, Borlaug bred high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of grain that helped to double world food production between 1960 and 1990 – a feat that averted mass starvation in Mexico, India and Pakistan. For launching this Green Revolution, he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, thereby becoming among the most deserving recipients ever so honored.

By some estimates, more than half of the world's population now relies on grains grown from the crossbred seeds developed by Borlaug and his colleagues. But despite saving more lives than anyone else in human history, Borlaug came under attack for advocating biotechnology, i.e., the utilization of organisms, to increase food production.

Critics complain that his emphasis on high-yield methods of agriculture – including the use of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation –stressed the environment. Opposition began to foment following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's (scientifically discredited) Silent Spring. And while Borlaug only used classic breeding methods to create new seed varieties, his steadfast advocacy of genetically modified crops infuriated those who disparage such products as Frankenfoods.

But Borlaug was undaunted by the derision of neo-Luddites; he was quick to note that improving productivity prevented the conversion of forestland to farmland. He told Reason magazine in a 2000 interview that the volume of the 17 most important U.S. crops grown in 1960 amounted to 252 million tons. By 1990, the volume had more than doubled, to 596 million tons – and was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated 30 years earlier. It is because we use farmland so effectively now that President Clinton was able to set aside 50 or 60 million acres of land as wilderness areas, he noted.

His response to those who romanticize subsistence farming is likewise instructive and revealing of the purity of his motives. As he told Atlantic magazine in 1997: Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the Earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger ... If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals, and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

The crop varieties created by Borlaug allowed Pakistan and India to quadruple their grain yields. Countries once plagued with malnutrition and starvation became agriculturally self-sufficient. Once fed, people were thus free to improve their lives and those of their children.

His efforts in later years to tackle hunger in sub-Saharan Africa were thwarted by the shameful protests of the environmental lobby. Having secured a ban on genetically modified foods in the European Union, opponents successfully targeted the hungriest continent. In the midst of a killer drought in 2003, for example, officials in Zambia and Zimbabwe turned back U.S. food aid, saying they preferred to go hungry rather than allow genetically modified grains to enter their countries.

Thankfully, government officials were far more focused on filling stomachs than promulgating regulations when Borlaug was creating his life-saving seeds. In recent years, however, overzealous regulators regarded almost every application of biotechnology as hazardous. If our varieties had been subjected to the kinds of regulatory strictures and requirements that are now being inflicted upon the new biotechnology, they would never have become available, Borlaug said.

He elaborated on this point on the 30th anniversary of his Nobel Prize, saying, while the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra-low-risk positions and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the 1 billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income, food-deficit nations cannot.

No one can ever doubt his love of the farm. He told biographer Lennard Bickel: When wheat is ripening properly, when the wind is blowing across the field, you can hear the beards of the wheat rubbing together. They sound like the pine needles in a forest. It is a sweet, whispering music that once you hear, you never forget.

His message is one we surely should remember. Science can be of incalculable value in the face of peril. Biotechnology saves far more lives than it threatens. Indeed, the life of Norman Borlaug is a testament to our capacity for good and the power of the scientific mind to serve humanity.

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