Norman Borlaug, known as the "Father of the Green Revolution" for developing high-yielding wheat and rice varieties that reduced the threat of famine in the Third World, died Sept. 12. He was 95.
He was an Iowa farmboy, raised in the early days of the last century when most farms were still worked with horses. He worked his way through school, earning a doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota.
Borlaug began his work with the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico in 1944.
He led the development of a semi-dwarf, high-yielding wheat variety and the introduction of modern farming techniques that allowed Mexican farmers to produce two crops each season.
He later took those techniques and applied them to the production of cereal grains in India, Pakistan and Africa. A billion people who would have starved are alive today thanks to Borlaug. For his work he won the Nobel Prize in 1970, and a host of other scientific and civic honors.
He grappled with the challenge of feeding a hungry world right up to the end. He clearly stated the problem, and provided a pragmatic solution.
To feed an expanding global population, he said, farmers will have to double current production in the next 30 years. Because farmland is an ever diminishing commodity, to reach the goal without stripping the world's forests bare they must employ the best available technology, have the best possible seed, the most efficient fertilizers, and must be provided with all the necessary infrastructure to grow a crop and bring it to market.
"Given the right tools," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal on July 30, "farmers have shown an uncanny ability to feed themselves and others, and to ignite the economic engine that will reverse the cycle of chronic poverty."
Science, he said, can provide the tools to meet the challenge. He was a proponent of the development and the responsible use of genetically modified crops and synthetic fertilizers.
For that, his critics were legion. Many environmentalists say building roads and other infrastructure endanger Third World ecosystems. They say the techniques he exposed have reduced the crop diversity that had been the hallmark of subsistence farming.
His work has been held up to embody the antithesis of "sustainable" agriculture as it is narrowly defined in the orthodoxy of some celebrated circles.
"They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger," he said of his critics. "If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
His most enduring legacy will come from the hundreds of "Borlaug interns," the students who trained at his side over five decades. They will help develop and direct the technology that will drive agricultural production for the next five decades.
They will be hard-pressed to match his simple eloquence.
"Civilization as we know it could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply," he wrote in the Journal. "Likewise, the civilization that our children, grandchildren and future generations come to know will not evolve without accelerating the pace of investment and innovation in agricultural production."