The Greatest Anti-Poverty Warrior

by Michael Brickman

One hundred years ago today, the world’s greatest anti-poverty warrior was born in Iowa. He didn’t lead marches or devise an innovative new government program. Norman Borlaug bred plants and, in so doing, launched a Green Revolution that saved the lives of perhaps a billion people. Comedians Penn and Teller, not in jest and along with many others, have called him the greatest person to ever live — but few Americans have ever heard of him.

Along with Borlaug, only six people have ever won each the Nobel Peace Prize, Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, and Muhammad Yunus (just last year).

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Borlaug noted the importance of food security throughout human history. It’s striking then to note that, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, “it took nearly 1,000 years for wheat yields to increase from 0.5 to 2 metric tons per hectare, but only 40 years to climb from 2 to 6 metric tons per hectare.”

How did he do it? Borlaug began his work in Mexico following the Second World War by breeding crops to be better at fending off diseases that were causing harvests to languish and hunger to rise. He then helped spread the best farming practices and developed even better seeds that could grow in places like India, Pakistan, China, and many African nations with higher and higher yields.

It’s hard to imagine now, but as recently as the 1960s, with world population at just around three billion, many wondered how humanity could possibly feed itself and called for desperate attempts to control population growth. Paul R. Ehrlich famously claimed that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over” and that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” in the coming decades. Thankfully, Borlaug proved Ehrlich quite wrong — and with Borlaug’s leadership, we have slowly started to win that battle. In fact, his agricultural advances, along with subsequent progress in areas like vaccine distribution and sanitation, have made it so that a baby born today has less than a third the chance of dying before age five than a baby born in 1960.

But we are not yet out of the woods, and there continue to be hindrances, caused by man and nature, on our ability to feed the world. Some would like to believe that the practices developed by Borlaug are merely one path among many options and that we can subsist using many of the less efficient methods very much in vogue in the Western world today. And perhaps we will be just fine, but many others might not be. Poor nutrition is still to blame for roughly one in every two child deaths under the age of five on our planet. Organic farming, non-GMO produce, and other Western trends are luxuries that would not be attainable without the abundance Borlaug has afforded us, but they are luxuries that could hamper continued progress.

Borlaug warned in 2000: “The world has or will soon have the agricultural technology available to feed the 8.3 billion people anticipated in the next quarter of a century. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use that technology. Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks.”

Ironically, Borlaug, who lived to be 95 and worked deep into his later years, is also easily among the world’s most successful environmentalists. Global cropland increased roughly 27 percent between 1961 and 2005, according to a recent Stanford study, but global crop production increased 162 percent to feed 111 percent more people. Because of this increased efficiency, the “agricultural advances between 1961 and 2005 spared a portion of land larger than Russia from development and reduced emissions by the equivalent of 590 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide — roughly a third of the total emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution.” That’s to say nothing of reduced need for pesticides and other chemicals.

Today, the fight to feed the world — and the broader conversation about poverty — continues, because the work is not yet complete. In this nation, where widespread famine and starvation is today blessedly absent, we still must find ways to educate and provide basic resources for the poor. The problem abroad is even more acute. In all cases, it is vital we focus on devising the best, most efficient, and fairest policies to provide the resources necessary to help the poor attain self-sufficiency. But we cannot forget the impact of heroes like Borlaug and the countless others whose ingenuity and determination reduced the need for such services in the first place by helping to feed and dramatically improve our world.

— Michael Brickman is the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he comments on education-reform issues, and is also a regular contributor to the Flypaper blog and other publications. Follow him at @BrickM.