Writer remembers Borlaug

Sometimes you can step into controversy while trying to avoid it. This happened a couple weeks ago when the Bellevue School District opted not to carry President Barack Obama’s speech to school kids and instead made a video available to teachers on request. Rather than irritate the few, the district angered the many.

I supported letting kids hear the speech. Yes, the president is a politician pushing a political agenda (much of which I oppose), but he is also America’s only nationally elected leader. He wasn’t selling politics to children that day, he was telling them what every mom and dad tells their kids: study, do your homework, obey your teacher and parents. Don’t make excuses but do set goals and take steps to achieve them.

So what can the Bellevue School District do to make amends? Two things. First, unless Hugo Chavez somehow seizes power here, when the president wants to speak to school kids in the future, give him the benefit of the doubt and let the kids hear him. And second, since adults who accomplish important things are role models worthy of admiration and emulation, look beyond fame and teach students about the greatest American they’ve never heard of.

His name is Norman Borlaug.

If you don’t know Norman Borlaug, be assured that Bill and Melinda Gates do – not from the world of software, but from their foundation’s work overseas trying to save people from starvation, disease or both. Their job has been made considerably easier because of Borlaug’s work during the past 60 years.

Borlaug was an Iowa farm boy turned agronomist who was dismayed by the misery of the rural poor in Mexico back in the 1950s and decided to help them. He did this by using science to breed crops, particularly hybrids, so farmers could grow high yields of wheat and other crops on less land in more places and more climates around the world. He also made them more resistant to disease. The principles he developed are now known as “The Green Revolution.” In less than 20 years, wheat production in Mexico increased 600 percent.

From there, Borlaug went to India and Pakistan. Despite being at each other’s throats politically, they shared a common crisis: famine and the prospect of massive starvation. This was during the 1960s, when predictions of “population bombs” causing massive starvation were in vogue among political elites and bestselling authors.

But within three years of Borlaug’s arrival, Pakistan became self sufficient in wheat production. India was self sufficient within six. And yet, some of the repudiated doomsayers of that era, like Paul Ehrlich, are better known in universities and intellectual circles than Norman Borlaug, which illustrates what’s wrong with our universities today.

For his work in India and Pakistan, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. He spent the next three decades globe-hopping, revolutionizing agriculture and savings lives everywhere he stepped. Some experts estimate that half the world’s population eats better because of his work. Ten years ago the Atlantic Monthly estimated that his work had probably saved 1 billion lives around the world. Not a million. One billion.

On the environmental front, imagine all the deforestation that would have happened to produce the amount of food grown today. Thanks to Norman Borlaug, food output more than tripled on about the same amount of farmland.

Plus, as author Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out, when societies are better fed, they begin to control their population growth, which is another dividend of high-yield agriculture made possible by Borlaug’s work.

Letting school children hear from their president is important. But even more important is teaching them, and the rest of us, to appreciate the life and work of Norman Borlaug, the greatest American of the 20th century, who died earlier this month at 95.