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.

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