Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Prediction that (thankfully) was completely wrong

Norman Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)
Does the name sound familiar? If you are reading this post you should be very thankful to Borlaug for he can be single handedly credited for survival and well being of billions of people. He was the father of the Green Revolution.
In the 1950’s and 60’s the view in the west was that the world population was growing too fast and food production wasn’t keeping pace so at some point of time the world will run out of food with dire consequences. This culminated in Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich said. He had special fondness for India "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971," and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.
Turns out that till then Ehrlich also had not heard of Borlaug.
Borlaug received his B.S. in forestry in 1937 and Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics from the University of Minnesota in 1942. He worked at DuPont from 1942-44 where, through his lab, he did a great job of supporting the US push back in WW2 after the attack on Pearl Harbour. In 1944 after rejecting DuPont offer of doubling his salary he went to Mexico to work for a programme funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to focus on soil development, maize and wheat production and plant pathology. He spent the next 16 years at the project producing a series of remarkably high yield, disease resistant semi dwarf wheat.
Life in Mexico was not easy. His team worked under difficult conditions but persisted. He encountered hostility from the local farmers but was also fortunate to receive the kindness of strangers (topic of a blog some day). His group made 6,000 individual crossings of wheat and kept track through notes. Mexico due to its geography had 2 sowing seasons and that helped them carry the experiments throughout the year. Their work resulted in development of varieties resistant to disease with a higher yield due to short and stout stem that could support a larger seed head that contained more grain.
In May 1962M. S. Swaminathan (the father of green revolution in India) requested for the visit of Borlaug to India. In March 1963, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government sent Borlaug and Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson to India to continue his work. Famines and shortages were common in the Indian subcontinent till then.
The Impact – All the countries where Borlaug worked transformed from net importers to exporters of grains.
By 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops used the semi-dwarf varieties developed by Borlaug. That year, the harvest was six times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived in Mexico.
In Pakistan, wheat yields nearly doubled, from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970; it was self-sufficient in wheat production by 1968.
In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970. By 1974, we were self-sufficient in the production of all cereals.
Borlaug was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1970.
Ehrlich continued to defend his theory till his last days.
Brings us to one of my favorite anecdotes. An astrologer told a visiting gentleman that he has only 2 months to live and that he will die of malaria. A year later when the two came face to face the astrologer took the credit of the good health of the gentleman as he would have taken special precautions of his heath due to the warning!!
On similar lines some decades ago the “peak oil” theory estimated that the world will run out of oil. Turns out we underestimate the progress of technology and innovation. Or there is someone working tirelessly to prove the naysayers wrong. However if we become too overconfident in our abilities issues like climate change can still hurt us in a big way.
I will end with gratitude to all the discovered and undiscovered heroes - all the Borlaug’s who give their lives to bring about changes that have a phenomenal impact on the world.

Source –

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Can Stress Be Good For Us

A book recommendation this time “The Upside Of Stress” by psychologist and award-winning teacher Kelly McGonigal, PhD.

We hear it all the time: stress causes heart disease; stress causes insomnia; stress is bad for us. But can changing how we think about and deal with stress make us happier, healthier, and better able to reach our goals? Combining exciting new research on resilience —the human capacity for stress-related growth and mindset - the power of beliefs to shape reality, Kelly McGonigal shows that undergoing stress is not bad for us; it is undergoing stress while believing that stress is bad for us that makes it harmful. In fact, stress has benefits, from giving us greater focus and energy, to strengthening our personal relationships.

We cannot avoid Stress. We can certainly get better at managing it. Can we use the anxiety of facing a stressful situation into energy that can propel us ahead? These are not placebo effect but structural changes – there are enough scientific studies mentioned in the book to back up the solutions on offer.

In one experiment the housekeeping staff at hotels were told that their daily work qualified as exercise and they will see the benefits of the same. After 4 weeks the staff reported much better health readings and satisfaction with their jobs without making any other meaningful changes in their lifestyle.

In another experiment, after overnight fasting people were given the same milkshake with different labels – one said the drink is high calorie indulgence and the other label said it is low calorie diet drink. On testing their blood for the hunger hormone (Ghrelin) the set of people showed very different results in spite of having the same drink – just based on the false label of the drink. 

In another experiment students from first generation college attendees were told that it is OK to feel out of place in college and if they keep at it they will do well. These students did much better than the larger batch of students which came from similar backgrounds.

These studies show that when our perception changes our body’s response to stress also changes – Intervention helps. We all have seen sportsmen who perform at their best in stressful situations. We also know of leaders who excel under stress. Can we learn from them?

Not to suggest that all stress is good and that we should actively seek out stressful situations. Loss of a loved one or facing a serious disease are stressful situations that have no simple solution – the book does give us insights on dealing with these as well.

This book transformed my relationship with stress and hope it does the same to you as well.
Happy reading and enjoy your weekend