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The man who fed the world

The man who fed the world

By Leon Hesser
Published by Durban House
Available from: http://www.durbanhouse.com
2006, 263pp, ISBN 1930754906 (Hb), US$ 24.95

"Norm-boy, it's better to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later," were the words of wisdom given to Norman Borlaug as a young boy by his grandfather. And apt they were, because throughout his career as a leading scientist, Borlaug studied hard to feed not only his own family, but to avert famine in much of the world and in the words of Jimmy Carter, "saving hundreds of millions of lives."

Peppered with personal anecdotes of his experiences, doubts and devotion to his family, Leon Hesser's biography pays tribute to Borlaug's incredible achievements from a one-classroom school, to becoming recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He introduces characters such as George Harrar of the Rockefeller Foundation, and the University of Minnesota's Professor E. C. Stakman, internationally recognised for his pioneering work in plant pathology, who encouraged and inspired Borlaug as a young scientist. With their support, Borlaug embarked on agricultural innovations that formed the foundation of a wheat revolution in Mexico, and fostered the 'Green Revolution' in Asia.

Borlaug's method emphasised intensive farming on existing fields to reduce the pressure on farmers to constantly slash and burn. The method produced more food from less land through the use of improved seed varieties with resistance to destructive diseases such as wheat stem rust. It also promoted better use of fertiliser, improved irrigation techniques and weed control. Such intensification of farming systems was, he believed, an urgent need: "Without aggressive agricultural research programmes" said Borlaug, "the world will soon be overwhelmed by the Population Monster."

As a result of the 'Green Revolution', Pakistan became self-sufficient in both wheat and rice production in 1968, and it has remained so to the present time. India has remained self-sufficient in all cereals since 1974, despite a doubling of its population. The achievements of Norman Borlaug, documented in this biography, have led the present American President George W. Bush to praise him as "an American hero and a world icon". His influence on agricultural production and technology has certainly been global, and he has been named the 'Father of the Green Revolution'.

Borlaug's methods however, have not always been popular, and the book also touches on fiercely debated issues often raised by environmental lobbyists. He defends his approach, and often voices his perspective on the work for which he is clearly passionate, throughout the book. Environmental lobbyists, he says, "have never produced a ton of food. If they lived for one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have done for the past 60 years, they'd be crying out for fertiliser, herbicide, irrigation canals and tractors and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things." Such views have shaped his painstaking efforts, and his drive towards better seeds for change.

Date published: March 2007

 

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