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Norman Borlaug. Credit: United States Department of Agriculture.

Norman Borlaug, the world’s greatest farmer, and a distinguished agronomist, died at the weekend, aged 95. His was a long and productive life of heroic proportions. The honours humanity heaped on “Norm” included the Nobel Peace Prize, Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: a hat-trick shared only with Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel.

Yet only a day earlier, UPI reported a story that Norm, famously unassuming, would undoubtedly have been happy to see get more attention than his widely reported death–the fact that Ug99, a variant of the stem rust that is the principal blight of wheat, mankind’s major food-source (and the core of Borlaug’s lifework), continues its insidious march into South Asia. It now threatens the food supplies of at least 26 countries. For Borlaug, it was always all about the food–and food’s dark shadows, hunger and famine, which had haunted and driven him since his youth amid the dust-bowls of The Great Depression.

As George Santayana famously remarked in The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Borlaug lived long enough to both remember the Depression–and warn against its repetition. At a conference of world experts gathered to highlight the dangers of Ug99, Borlaug–then in his nineties–was the only person present to have personally experienced what a stem rust epidemic meant. For while there is an impressive nomenclature to capture the elements–basidiospores, dikaryotic urediniospores, stomata - the truth is grimly physical: despairing farmers in fields of rotting plants, a long way from happy breakfast cereal images. With Borlaug’s death, we have lost a link to a past that truly has the capacity to become a nightmarish future. And the reasons for that, while complex, lie in the bitterly contested politics of technological innovation.

For before he’d even been buried, the usual suspects were out and about, spouting an environmentalist critique of Borlaug’s extraordinary achievement: more or less feeding the world for the last half century. For example, Graham Harvey, who advises on the farming strand on the world’s longest-running radio soap, The Archers, felt fit to write in The Times of the “worrying consequences” and “widespread environmental damage” of Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which is widely reckoned to have fed billions of people, as well as saving many millions of hectares of wilderness from agricultural use. There are, of course, issues (when are there not?) and Norm never shied from them. But as he repeatedly noted, such hand-wringing does very little for the millions of children “who cry themselves to sleep with hunger each night.”

In a delightfully dry denunciation of those vaguely in favor of a global “organic” solution, on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! series, Norm noted that “Producing food for 6.2 billion people … is not simple.” He added, “[Organic approaches] can only feed four billion–I don’t see two billion volunteers to disappear.” Indeed, a useful distinction could be made between the green–those concerned with a more or less hypothetical future, but nonetheless adept at whipping up public and media concern (and seeming oceans of public funding courtesy of a cadre of mountebank politicians) and those working at the sharp end, like Norm, who we might call brown. In other words, those working in a world involving the suffering of mainly brown-skinned people who, to paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, live in far-away countries, and of whom we know little.

Norm exuded an old-school charm in person, but had little truck for those with no experience of the “back-breaking” hardship of actually growing food. Even in his tenth decade, his passion was for the poor. He politely, but witheringly, disdained the indulgences of the comfortable cadre of environmentalists in the West who knew not of what they speak. (He also had sharp and pithy words about the synthetic pesticide DDT, not least in terms of the near-genocidal impact of banning it on countless millions of African malaria sufferers). He was a big hitter in a debate all too often mired in emotionalism.

Ronnie Coffman of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) notes that “we have a lot of complaints about the green revolution, but those who complain have little awareness of the alternatives … because stem rust is a global disease, it’s not a national disease. We have to hang together on this thing or we will all hang separately, because you cannot defend yourself alone.” Three weeks ago Coffman met a frail Borlaug, and this humble American hero gave a last, stark warning: “Don’t relax. Rust never sleeps.”

We honour him best by helping create the political will, and sustainable funds, to prevent the kind of global famine that was the stuff of his nightmares. Norm deserves a quiet night.

John Pollock reviewedThe Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger” in the January/February 2008 issue of Technology Review. He is a consultant and author based in London.

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