Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The man who saved a billion lives

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 28, 2016

On this year’s liturgical calendar March 25, when we ordinarily celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, was Good Friday. This rare convergence gave the date such awesome significance in salvation history that I hesitate to mention a far less important secular commemoration. Still I think it’s worth mentioning that March 25 would have been the 102nd birthday of Norman Borlaug.

”Who was Norman Borlaug?” you might ask. If you do, you confirm my belief that it’s worth paying attention to someone who should be recognized as a towering figure in 20th-century history.

Born to an Iowa farming family, Norman Borlaug studied biology, concentrating his research on questions of agricultural production, developing strains of wheat that resisted disease and increased yields. His research led to a spectacular boom in agricultural production, particularly in nations like India, where famine was once commonplace. His work is credited with saving one billion people from starvation.

Thanks largely to Borlaug, the world now produces more than enough food to provide for all its people. (Hunger remains an enormous problem, sadly; but the problem is one of distribution, not production.) When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he was described as the “father of the Green Revolution.”

If you save a billion lives, surely you qualify as a hero. Yet Borlaug left a complicated legacy: another reason to take a careful look at his influence.

Despite his success in helping to feed so many billions of people, Borlaug remained, throughout his life, a supporter of population-control efforts. That is my greatest complaint against the great man. But others have different bones to pick with him.

The agricultural trends that Borlaug encouraged have produced several troublesome results today. The over-reliance on a few crops, and on high-yield varieties, has detracted from a healthy diversity in farming. The emphasis on mass production has forced out family farms and disrupted traditional communities. The profligate use of fertilizers and pesticides has endangered other flora and fauna. The enthusiasm for genetically modified crops has introduced new fears of man-made agricultural disasters.

These are not concerns to be taken lightly, and in his later years Borlaug acknowledged them as serious issues. Indeed he thought of himself as an environmentalist. But he distanced himself from those who were willing to cut back the world’s agricultural production in order to achieve their goal of a pristine ecology. “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger,” he charged.

That argument is compelling. In an ideal world we would have sustainable agriculture, abundant production, biological diversity, and thriving family farms. But our first priority should be to feed the hungry. Then, when everyone has enough to eat, we can fine-tune our methods. On a battlefield, if a medic can stabilize the condition of a wounded soldier, and pass him along to a hospital, he has done his job well. Borlaug spent years on the front lines in the War against Hunger; judge him by the results. One billion lives saved.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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