If someone were to ask which scientist had saved most lives in history, perhaps familiar names like Alexander Fleming or Edward Jenner might come to mind, whose work in combatting disease has been indispensable in creating a new era of health and longevity. But arguably the work of these great men would be rendered nearly inconsequential if it were not for the work of another, a man whose name is regrettably absent from the common list of scientific saviours. That man is Norman Borlaug, and he has transformed the world.
What did Borlaug accomplish? He saved wheat. It doesn’t sound too exciting does it? Certainly it doesn’t seem as exhilarating as the race to vaccinate an ailing population, or discovering new antibiotics; which is doubtless why so few people are familiar with his work. However, this tale becomes far more stirring when you consider that wheat accounts for around 20% of the calories consumed by the entire world population, coupled with a rapidly accelerating rate of over-population, and it’s plain to see why the survival of wheat is paramount to the survival of humanity.
In the 1940’s Borlaug journeyed to Mexico to attempt to bolster wheat production, which had become dangerously low. Over the next 16 years he and his team worked tirelessly to ‘back-cross’ important traits into wheat, and eventually succeeded in creating a high-yield, disease resistant new variety, with the startling ability to be grown in double season, instead of once a year. However, there was a major set-back; this variety’s tall, thin stems caused the wheat to collapse under its own weight, making harvest ineffectual. Undeterred, Borlaug’s team pressed on and succeeded in crossing their line with a species of Japanese dwarf-wheat, producing a new ‘semi-dwarf’ species with shorter, sturdier stems. Once again Borlaug’s ingenuity and relentless work ethic prevailed.
From success in Mexico, Borlaug’s wheat was taken to Asia to feed an exploding population. In the 1960’s it was becoming horrifyingly apparent that there wasn’t enough wheat being produced to feed the extra 200 million people expected to appear in the next two decades. The subsequent famine and population crash would be among the worst in human history. Despite fiery Mexican politics and a burgeoning Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug succeeded in shipping seeds from Mexico to the continent to begin trials. The results were more than impressive. Initial yields were the best ever harvested in South Asia, leading to a mass import of his seed lines. Over the next decade yields doubled in Pakistan and India, even leading to the closure of schools in some areas to be used for grain storage, and ever since, the rate of yield increase has exceeded the rate of population growth in many regions, a phenomenon we now call ‘The Green Revolution’. Without Borlaug, the world would not have emerged from the 20th century ignorant of the horrors of famine, but thanks to his brilliant work we were spared this unconscionable reality.