Who is the Saint?

Golden wheat, but not golden rice

On this day in 1970, Norman Borlaug accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. You probably never heard of him. A few days ago, I read an interesting piece in an old New York Times column, written by author/philosopher Steven Pinker. He had a few words to say about Mr Borlaug. I’ll tell you what Steven Pinker said, but you can read the story yourself – it is at this address.

Steven Pinker was writing about how we perceive morality. He noted that if we were asked to pick the most moral person from this group – Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, and Norman Borlaug – we would almost all choose the saintly little lady who went to India. We might reject the billionaire who was accused of monopolizing software. And, about Norman Borlaug, we would likely ask “Norman who?” Mother Teresa moved from Kosovo to Calcutta, tended the poor, sick, and weak, and developed the Missionaries of Charity. She is the obvious choice and directly helped thousands. But Bill Gates adopted the problems of the developing world – malaria, among others – and has (somewhat) quietly contributed billions to find solutions. His work has possibly saved millions of lives. Then there is Norman who. His Nobel Peace Prize recognized his almost invisible work that revolutionized agriculture and invented the Green Revolution. By some accounts, Borlaug is credited with saving a billion people from cruel slow desperate deaths by starvation. A billion lives – that’s more than anyone else in history.

Of course it is unfair to ask who among the three is the most moral without presenting a definition of morality. But on the strength of saving human lives and reducing suffering, Norman Borlaug’s contributions were astounding. During the 1960s, dire predictions of the eminent tragic starvation of the majority of Chinese, Indians, and Africans was prognosticated by the most knowledgeable minds. But it didn’t happen. Norman Borlaug, an American geneticist, applied the latest ideas in bio-engineering and found a way to feed the billions. India, once deemed to decay in misery and starvation, now has 1.1 billion souls and is a net exporter of food.

In the 1950s, Norman Borlaug worked mostly with wheat, genetically dwarfing the plant so it wasn’t spindly and prone to falling over and losing its seeds in the field. He dramatically increased seeds per stalk and developed resistance to disease. The result was wheat that revolutionized food production in Mexico (where he did most of his research), and Pakistan and India which were becoming desperate for the help his wheat brought.

Why write about better farming and morality on a bee blog? Occasionally it is good to commemorate unselfish contributors such as Borlaug. Early in his career, Borlaug was employed by DuPont. He was offered twice the salary to stay with them, but he left for an NGO in Mexico instead. His young family would have appreciated the money. But he took the job that he thought could make the most impact and help the most people. It is also important to occasionally remember that without genetic manipulation and the application of science to solve a desperate problem, a billion people would have died. Today we find a vocal group of wealthy and comfortable folks (wealthy and comfortable by world standards) who are trying to stop scientific progress that could – for one example – allow a genetically altered form of rice to provide nutrition that would save a million children from blindness. Some well-off people with no risk for themselves or their children of suffering vitamin deficiency in America or Europe nevertheless campaign to prevent golden rice from being used in India. It is a twisted sense of smug self-interest that causes this tragedy. A billion people are lucky such people were not able to stop Norman Borlaug’s work fifty years ago.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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