What people in history are underrated? by Harold Kingsberg

Answer by Harold Kingsberg:

Norman Borlaug saved a billion people from starving to death. Not a million. A billion – 1,000,000,000. This is a man who should be the poster child for humanitarianism, and yet, I've only rarely heard his name spoken. Maybe it's different in other countries. I can only hope it is.

By the 1940's, it was beginning to appear that the world was beginning to hit the Malthusian limit. Malthus had been an economist right when the field was getting off the ground (18th century to early 19th century) and he had noticed that food production increases linearly while population grows geometrically. In other words, at some point, we'd eventually hit carrying capacity and everyone would be pretty well forced to live on a subsistence diet.

Borlaug started out in Mexico in 1944. Mexico at the time was a net importer of wheat, and had suffered an outbreak of stem rust from 1939-1941. To put it simply, the country was having difficulty feeding itself. Borlaug led the efforts to create hybrid species of wheat that would resist stem rust and yield more grain per stalk.

Now, if you stick a heavy weight on the end of a freestanding pole, you have to deal with a phenomenon called "column buckling." It's not enough to just increase the yield of a wheat stalk – increasing it too much means that the stalk won't support the weight and the crop will rot in the fields. Borlaug suggested that it would be a good idea to hybridize the high-yield wheat with "dwarf wheat." A shorter stalk can support a heavier load, and the result was successful. Within twenty years of his arrival in Mexico, Borlaug's wheat hybrids had sextupled the wheat output of the country. Mexico was now a net exporter of wheat.

Borlaug didn't stop there.

In the mid-1960's, the Indian subcontinent was in a terrible position. India and Pakistan (back then, that included Bangladesh) were at war and were also in the grips of a famine. The US was shipping 20% of its own wheat output to the subcontinent and the results were only barely holding off what would have been, quite possibly, the greatest humanitarian disaster yet seen. The 1968 book The Population Bomb was in no small part inspired by this state of affairs.

In 1965, Borlaug managed to ship 450 tons of his hybrid wheat seeds to the subcontinent and he set to work adapting it to the local climate and soil. The crop yields resulting from Borlaug's hybrids ended up setting records in South Asia. Within five years of Borlaug setting up his operation, the Indian subcontinent's wheat production had doubled – largely without needing to start up new farms. It had previously been estimated that an area the size of California would need to be turned to farmland for India to feed itself, and that area is, to this day, in virgin condition.

Borlaug would later work in Africa from the 1980's until his death. His organization, the Sasakawa Africa Association, would double production of sorghum and maize (the former a native staple, the latter obviously not) in Africa within a two year period from 1983 to 1985.

Overall, it’s been estimated that Borlaug’s grain at one point supplied 23% of the world’s calories, so it’s not actually all that hyperbolic to say that Norman Borlaug saved a billion people from starving. He did so without resorting to deforestation and creating a later environmental crisis. Next time you enjoy a bowl of breakfast cereal, you might want to think of him – and thank him.

What people in history are underrated?