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Father Earth Is Dead

DESCRIPTIONOscar Hidalgo/The New York Times Norman Borlaug

If you had to point to one person who helped the global population surge over the past several decades to nearly 7 billion rather than succumbing to mass famine, as was widely predicted (and, indeed, has been predicted throughout history), a person who well understood the paradox that population growth was both the reward of his life’s work as well as the problem that necessitated it, that person would likely be Norman Borlaug, the most important plant scientist behind the Green Revolution, who has died at the age of 95.
Read this extremely well-done obituary, by Justin Gillis. A few of many, many highlights:

  • “Urgent queries began to pour in from other poor countries, for they were caught in a bind. After World War II, the introduction of basic sanitation in many developing countries caused death rates to plunge, but birth rates were slow to follow. As a result, the global population had exploded, putting immense strain on food supplies.”
  • “In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat. … On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population. … This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.”
  • “By Mr. Toenniessen‘s calculation, about half the world’s population goes to bed every night after consuming grain descended from one of the high-yield varieties developed by Dr. Borlaug and his colleagues of the Green Revolution.”

We have a few things to say in SuperFreakonomics about this sort of triumph, in which a seemingly unyielding problem is addressed, almost simply in retrospect, to great worldwide benefit. That doesn’t mean there won’t be complaints, of course, about unintended consequences and the plight of the minority whose boats didn’t rise with the tide. To his credit, Gillis gives those folks a voice in the obituary as well.