Remembering the “Father of the Green Revolution”

An e-mail from a friend in Africa a few days ago reminded me about Norman Borlaug, and was reinforced by a mention at Instapundit today.

Most people don’t know his name – but more than a billion of them are alive only because he lived, and spearheaded what’s become known as the ‘Green Revolution‘.  Michigan Capitol Confidential said of him a couple of years ago:

Called “arguably the greatest American in the 20th century,” during his 95 years, Norman Borlaug probably saved more lives than any other person.

He is one of just six people to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And yet Borlaug, who died three years ago today, is scarcely known in his own country.

Born in Iowa in 1914, Borlaug spent most of his life in impoverished nations inventing, improving and teaching the “Green Revolution.” His idea was simple: Make developing countries self sufficient in food by teaching them how to use modern agricultural techniques that are easy to implement. Borlaug spent most of his time in Mexico, Pakistan and India, and focused on five areas: crop cultivars (seeds), irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and mechanization. His successes were remarkable.

In 1950, Mexico imported over half of its food. Thanks to Borlaug’s efforts to convince farmers there to try his techniques, Mexican food production increased 10-fold by 1970, and the country had become a net exporter. In India and Pakistan, production doubled. In 1999, the Atlantic Monthly estimated that Borlaug’s efforts, combined with those he trained and equipped, saved the lives of 1 billion human beings.

. . .

No good deed goes unpunished, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Borlaug was attacked by proponents of the trendy new faith of radical environmentalism because Green Revolution farming requires some pesticide and lots of fertilizer. Gregg Easterbrook quotes Borlaug saying the following in the 1990s:

“(Most Western environmentalists) have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. 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 in wealthy nations were trying to deny them these things.”

Borlaug was correct: “Environmentalists” and their allies pressured the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the World Bank and Western governments to drop funding and support for the great humanitarian as he was trying to expand his efforts into Africa. As a result, it is no surprise that the continent is doing the poorest at feeding its people.

. . .

More than 40 years ago Borlaug wrote, “One of the greatest threats to mankind today is that the world may be choked by an explosively pervading but well camouflaged bureaucracy.”

Some things never change.

There’s more at the link.

I’m particularly aware of Mr. Borlaug’s contribution to the world thanks to my humanitarian work in Africa over many years.  I was outraged at environmentalists who deliberately, cynically and callously did everything in their power to stop Africa from applying his ‘Green Revolution’ to its own farming practices.  As a result, tens of millions of Africans died of starvation during the 1980’s and 1990’s who would probably still be alive if his techniques and hybrid seeds had been imported and applied.  The deaths of these people I lay squarely at the feet of environmentalists who actually preferred to see them die rather than allow the spread of ideas that they opposed for ideological reasons.  I’ve never forgiven many environmental movements and organizations for that.

I, for one, remember Mr. Borlaug with great appreciation and thankfulness.  I wish there had been, and still were, more like him.



  1. A lot of people remember where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.

    I remember where I was when I heard Norman Borlaug died.

    In the years since, I've worked with several college groups that planned to improve the developing world. They all completely ignored the Green Revolution in favor of "Sustainable Agriculture" that may be sustainable for the environment, but not for the farmers.

    We do need more like him, more people who don't just care, but are willing to go down to those farmlands and implement what works.

  2. Thank you for this, Peter. I am sorry to say I had never heard of him, but I just bought his biography in ebook, and sent a link of his paper and this blog to my parents, who have been interested in intensive, small-scale agriculture for as long as I can remember.

  3. "(Most Western environmentalists) have never experienced the physical sensation of hunger." The bitter truth is that saving human lives is the opposite of the environmentalist agenda. They want humanity to die off and some are more than willing to push to accomplish that. Ted Turner ends up being the moderate in only wanting to kill off 95% of the Human Race; for Earth First founder Dave Foreman, he wants no more than 100 million humans on the entire planet.

    Borlaug's work is ignored because it's a horror story to these folks. They want humans to die off, and the sooner the better. Again, many folks are on record seeking a total human population on the order of 2 to 5% of the present population.

    To justify this carnage on a scale Pol Pot or Hitler could never aspire to, they assign a holding capacity to the earth: the total amount of humans it can support. Anyone, like Norman Borlaug, who finds ways to increase that number, is a threat to them.

  4. While I've never heard of this man before I am most grateful that you have brought him to my attention, as he is well worth remembering.

    Usually I am interested in men of action, frontier explorers and hunters, but this is one of the few men I admire exceedingly as a practical gentleman trying to better the world in a genuine manner.

    Again, thank you sir for bringing him to my attention. 🙂
    I hope that we can learn more from him and one day help those who so dearly need it in Africa!

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