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A giant passes
Few recognize Norman Borlaug's name, but Iowa scientist saved millions of lives

Norman Borlaug was a scientist. He fiddled around with plants, genes, chemicals and such for decades, and did it well enough that, in 1970, he won the Nobel Prize.

But it wasn't one of those science prizes. It was the Nobel Peace Prize, which was appropriate because, as the widely acknowledged father of the Green Revolution, Borlaug's work on breeding new kinds of plants is credited with improving global food production so markedly that he probably averted the deaths of as many as 1 billion -- that's billion -- people during the latter half of the 20th century.

Averting that much starvation didn't just save lives. It probably saved large swathes of civilization. A planet that was home to millions upon millions of hungry mouths would have been headed toward levels of violence, disease, forced migration and social upheaval of a type that, in the movies, is only suffered by the survivors of a nuclear war.

When Borlaug, an Iowa farm boy who saw the world and tried to help it, died Sunday at the age of 95, his obituary might have been the first that many people had ever heard of him. Certainly, if he had been responsible for ending a billion lives instead of saving them, he would have been far less anonymous in his native land.

But, then, in a nation where most people take copious amounts of food for granted, those who are good at agriculture seldom win much attention.

And Borlaug was never a media hound, beavering away in out-of-the-spotlight places such as Mexico and Africa, figuring out how to get those stalks of wheat and rice to put more of their energy into producing the seeds that people eat and less of it into filling out the leaves and roots that we don't.

His work was a huge part of the developments in agricultural science that allowed the world to produce more than twice as much food in 1990 as it did in 1960, on a shrinking amount of arable land, just when other developments in medicine and hygiene were pushing the global population to levels that many responsible people thought could never be fed.

Borlaug's work was not without its critics, or its flaws. Its unquestioned success was built in large part on the use of chemical fertilizers and the diversion of huge amounts of water, both requiring heavy dependence on expensive and polluting petrochemicals.

Much of the nitrogen poured on the soil, in America and Asia, doesn't stick to the fields. It flows to the ocean, creating large and growing "dead zones" that are toxic to marine life and devastating to seafood-based economies.

And Borlaug's optimism about new methods of bioengineering -- gene splicing and such -- remains unfulfilled. So far, nearly all of the benefits of such research have accrued to the giant corporations that are patenting life forms, while precious little good has trickled down to the farmers who cannot afford license fees.

None of that lays aside the work Borlaug did and the changes he wrought. He saved lives by figuring out how to do things differently, not by copying how previous generations had done it.

The first round of the Green Revolution is not sustainable. But, if the next generation is as smart and as industrious as Norman Borlaug was, it won't have to be.

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