Sunday, September 13, 2009

R.I.P. Norman Borlaug

I just saw the news that Norman Borlaug has died, 95 years old. Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on making better crops, allowing countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and India to become self-supplying in corn.

LA Times has an obit which describes his work, and the effect it had.

In the early 1960s, India and Pakistan were confronting famine and CIMMYT sent Borlaug to intervene. He planted demonstration plots of the new dwarf variety, but was unable to convince the state-owned seed companies to adopt them.

By 1965, however, famine in the region was so bad that the governments acquiesced. Borlaug organized a shipment of 35 truckloads of dwarf wheat seeds. Because of customs problems, the seeds couldn't be shipped from Mexico in time for planting, so he sent them to a port in Los Angeles.

U.S. customs officials held them up at the border before finally permitting them to cross. Then National Guard troops detoured them from Los Angeles because of the Watts riots. Finally, the $100,000 check drawn on the Pakistani ministry bounced because of three misspelled words on its face.

Ultimately, the cargo ship set sail for Karachi and Bombay and Borlaug went to bed relieved, only to wake the next morning to word that India and Pakistan had gone to war.

Because of the delays, the team had no time for germination studies and planting was started immediately, often in sight of artillery flashes. "We did a lot of praying," he later recalled.

Despite the problems, the new crop was 98% bigger than the previous year's and the Asian subcontinent was placed on a new path. India ordered 18,000 tons of seed from Mexico and the harvest was so big that there was a shortage of labor to harvest it, too few bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, and an insufficiency of jute bags, trucks, rail cars and storage facilities.

By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in 1974.

It is probably impossible to overstate his importance to the world - it's estimated that his work has saved over a billion people from starvation. He was a great man, whose work still has an impact on the lives of most of us today.

NY Times also has an obit of him which is well worth reading.

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Blogger Glendon Mellow said...

What a stunning story, thanks for sharing that Kristjan.

Why don't more people know about this in the mainstream press or history books?

September 14, 2009 12:16 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Glendon, there are a lot of great people which most of us don't know about. A YouTube user, MrUnscientific, has started making a series of videos called "Unknown scientists which has changed the world", which are really worth watching.

You can find the videos in that series here

September 14, 2009 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just watching Penn & Teller's show, I had never heard of him and didn't know he had passed on, he must rank near the top of the greatest humans that lived list. Thanks Kristjan for the youtube link great stuff.

December 08, 2009 11:03 PM  

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