As newspaper readers around the nation brace of the usual avalanche of profiles about various persons of the year, let me toss out an intriguing question: “Is Norman E. Borlaug the greatest living American?”
Borlaug has never received anywhere near the public applause he deserves for his contributions to saving both people and wildlife with the Green Revolution. So it’s nice to note that the still-vigorous 91-year-old Iowa plant breeder has just been awarded the U.S. National Science Medal.
Borlaug had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1970, for launching the Green Revolution that saved 1 billion people from starvation in the 1960s. He led the development of the higher-yielding wheat and rice varieties that tripled food yields per acre across most of the world after 1960.
After Borlaug’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, however, pessimists warned that Borlaug’s high-yielding seeds would simply mean a massively overpopulated planet. Chief among them was Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich, who predicted in his international best-seller, The Population Bomb, that the race to feed humanity had already been lost. That, alas, became the reigning conventional wisdom.
Borlaug’s logic and optimism prevailed, however, and four developments, since then have made him an even more towering figure today than he was in 1970.
First, improved seeds and farming systems have continued to make food more abundant and less expensive in the decades since 1970. The proportion of humanity that goes to bed hungry has continued to decline. The Malthusiansâ€”those who believe the world could never produce the food needed to feed increasing populationsâ€”have continued to be wrong, as they have been for centuries.
Second, and far more surprising, the Green Revolution has helped to radically lower human birth ratesâ€”voluntarily. Poor farmers always had large families, often 10 or 12 children because kids were immediately useful in the fields. They were also the only retirement system in poor countries.
Since the Green Revolution, however, Third World births per woman have dropped three-fourths of the way to stabilityâ€”from about 6.2 births per woman to less than 2.8. Population stability is 2.1. Human numbers are expected to peak about 8 billion, in 2035, and then enter a long, slow decline.
Births per woman have dropped fastest in the countries which have raised their crop yields the most. The Green Revolution launched a virtuous circle, releasing more workers to take city jobs, where they have produced the cars and computers we wantedâ€”and smaller families. Affluent urban couples today average 1.7 children.
Third, Borlaug points out that 21st century farmers are feeding 6.3 billion people on the same farmland area which was inadequate to feed 1 billion in 1900. He says feeding more people from less land is high-yield conservation. He warns that getting today’s food supply with the seeds and farming systems of 1950 would already have forced the world to plow down its remaining 16 million square miles of wildlands.
Borlaug also warns that organic farmers could feed only half as many people on today’s farmlands. That’s primarily because organic farmers refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer, taken from the air, to replace the soil nitrogen used up by growing crops. Instead, organic farmers must use large tracts of land for cattle pasture, or for such nitrogen-fixing crops as clover, to replenish the vital soil nitrogen.
Fourth, Borlaug has spent the last three decades working vigorously to bring the Green Revolution to Africa. Recently, his International Maize and Wheat Center produced genetically researched corn seeds that naturally tolerate the herbicide imazopyr. These corn seeds can thus be soaked in the herbicide, which kills the endemic, parasitic witchweed when it tries to invade the corn plants through their roots. The new corn seeds quadruple African corn yields, and increase African farmers’ food security even more than that.
Norman Borlaug’s total achievements to date: 1 billion people saved from starvation; 16 million square miles of global wildlife habitat saved from plow-down; the population gorilla tamed; and a major increase in the food security of famine-threatened Africans.
The nominations are still open, but Norman Borlaug ranks head and shoulders above all others for the title of Greatest Living American.