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The man who helped feed the world

Accepted submission by AnonTechie at 2019-06-12 10:25:58

This is the story of Dr. Norman Borlaug [] who was trying to breed wheat, in 1945, which could resist stem rust, a disease that ruined many crops.

In, 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne (who is uncredited) published an explosive book. In The Population Bomb [], they noted that in poor countries such as India and Pakistan, populations were growing more quickly than food supplies. In the 1970s, they predicted: "Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death".

Thankfully, Ehrlich was wrong, because he didn't know what Norman Borlaug had been doing. Borlaug would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize [] for the years he had spent shuttling between Mexico City and the Yaqui Valley, growing thousands upon thousands of kinds of wheat, and carefully noting their traits: this kind resisted one type of stem rust, but not another; this kind produced good yields, but made bad bread; and so on.

[...] Borlaug produced new kinds of "dwarf" wheat that resisted rust, yielded well, and - crucially - had short stems, so they didn't topple over in the wind. By the 1960s, Borlaug was travelling the world to spread the news. It wasn't easy.

[...] Progress has slowed, and problems are mounting: climate change, water shortages, pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. These are problems the green revolution itself has made worse. Some say it even perpetuated the poverty that keeps the population growing: fertilisers and irrigation cost money which many peasant farmers can't get. Paul Ehrlich, now in his 80s, maintains that he wasn't so much wrong, as ahead of his time. Perhaps if Malthus were still alive, in his 250s, he'd say the same. But could more human ingenuity be the answer?

[...] Since genetic modification became possible, it's mostly been about resistance to diseases, insects and herbicides. While that does increase yields, it hasn't been the direct aim. That's starting to change. And agronomists are only just beginning to explore the gene editing tool CRISPR, which can do what Norman Borlaug did much more quickly. As for Borlaug, he saw that his work had caused problems that weren't handled well, but asked a simple question - would you rather have imperfect ways to grow more food, or let people starve? It's a question we may have to keep asking in the decades to come.

The man who helped feed the world []

[Related]: An Essay on the Principle of Population []

Original Submission