The Greatest Man You Have Never Heard Of
By Scott Gillette | Bio

Name a hero. One who shines more brightly through the passage of time. One who has accomplished something great. But more than that, a hero has to be free of relentless moral scrutiny, and must possess a vision that inspires others to do great things.

With this definition in mind, I select not only the greatest hero of the 20th century, but also the least recognized: Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug was born in 1914 in Cresco, Iowa. His youth was a quintessentially Midwestern one, as he grew up on a farm and excelled in academics and athletics. However, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the suffering it caused left an indelible mark on Borlaug’s life. He recalls,  “I saw these people out there on the streets in the cold, mostly grown men and whole families too, sleeping on newspapers, hands out, asking for a nickel, begging for food. This was before the soup lines.

Around this time, American farmers began to experiment with high-yield farming techniques to provide crop failures and dust bowls in the future. These techniques spawned different ideas in Borlaug’s mind that eventually became his life’s mission: to teach and spread these new farming innovations around the globe.

After studying forestry at the University of Minnesota, he received his doctorate in plant pathology in 1942. Then, through funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, he traveled to Campo Atizapan, Mexico, whereby he made two momentous breakthroughs. The first involved “shuttle breeding”, a technique that sped up the immunities of several crops from disease. Second, Borlaug produced shorter and equally sized stalks of wheat’s and plants, in order to ensure that all the plants received an equal amount of sunlight.

These new wheat breeds doubled to tripled the amount of wheat production in Mexico. Mexico increased its farm production six times over between 1944 and 1984, and while many factors are responsible for this enormous increase, Borlaug played a significant role in this increase.

Then Borlaug traveled to India and Pakistan in 1962 in an effort to duplicate his success in Mexico. When both nations plunged into war against each other, Borlaug’s efforts became profoundly urgent, and far more dangerous. Participating scientists worked in crop fields within the sight of artillery flashes.

Borlaug’s efforts paid off. With the techniques of breeding and utilizing new strains of wheat in order to vastly increase yields, tens of millions of lives were saved in both South Asian countries, and a famine in India was averted.

Gregg Easterbrook’s Atlantic article, “Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity” recounts the success and obstacles that beset Borlaug as he sought to spread high-yield farming around the globe.

As Robert Kates, a former director of the World Hunger Program, at Brown University, says, "If you plot growth in farm yields over the century, the 1960s period does not particularly stand out for overall global trends. What does stand out is the movement of yield increases from the West to the developing world, and Borlaug was one of the crucial innovators there." Touring the subcontinent in the late 1960s and encountering field after field of robust wheat, Forrest Frank Hill, a former vice-president of the Ford Foundation, told Borlaug, "Enjoy this now, because nothing like it will ever happen to you again. Eventually the naysayers and the bureaucrats will choke you to death, and you won't be able to get permission for more of these efforts.

During the 1980s, Borlaug then set his sights on Africa, which is one of last areas on earth where population growth was exceeding agricultural production. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations dropped their support in the 1980s because of claims by environmentalists that his high-yield agricultural methods were dangerous. So the man who arguably saved more lives than any other person who ever lived posed a danger to environmentalists. That says a lot about environmentalists.

Borlaug has been on the forefront of the quantum leap that mankind has made in becoming self-sufficient in food. The fact that many groups, like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund oppose his efforts demands deeper scrutiny.

Opponents to Borlaug’s work argue that farm products made with chemicals and pesticides are unhealthy for people to consume, and strain the natural environment. Such “unnatural” practices encompass an evil corporate agenda out of touch with natural harmony and rhythms. Organic farming is required in order for the poorer parts of the world to achieve “sustainable development.”

But there has never been a shred of evidence that genetically modified food has killed or hurt a single person in the world. Never. The only reason one would pose against Borlaug’s work is that the saving of tens of millions of lives has come at too high a price against other policy goals. And those policy goals are based more on romantic illusions than clear, tangible threats. Patrick Moore, a former leader at Greenpeace, observed in Wired magazine, "Their (the environmental movement’s) idea is that all human activity is negative, while trees are by nature good. That's a religious interpretation, not a scientific or logical interpretation."

Paul Driessen, a former environmentalist and creator of, now combats the environmental movement’s drive to stop genetically modified crop projects, despite their life-giving potential. “The fact that a quarter of the developing world’s children under age ten are malnourished is of little apparent concern to these groups.”   

Niger Innis of the Congress for Racial Equality also has observed, “For rich countries to tell poor nations they must adopt the most stringent environmental rules, to address esoteric First World concerns – and ignore real, immediate, life-or-death problems in Africa, India and Mexico – is worse than hypocritical.”

The case against Borlaug is frighteningly only one example of how the environmental movement is the enemy of progress in the developing world. Indeed, there is no better way of helping Third World nations than by preventing environmental groups from inflicting policy decisions there. Activists like Paul Driessen and Niger Innes work to discredit the environmental movement’s march, thereby giving the majority of people in the world a chance at autonomy and progress.

Borlaug, who still teaches at Texas A&M University, has triumphed in making chemically created and genetically modified foodstuffs a reality for much of the world, and the hope for a far better life for those who live in the developing world. His life is a testament to the best that America has to offer at this time in our history. Borlaug’s vision of a world without malnutrition and famine must prevail; if we view humanity as a part of nature and not an enemy of it, we will.  

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