There are no miracles in agricultural production," Norman Borlaug once said. In fact, he came as close to realising one as anyone. The "Green Revolution", the surge in crop yields and farming output after the Second World War he largely pioneered, was arguably modern science's equivalent of the Biblical feeding of the five thousand, probably saving hundreds of millions of lives. Between the 1930s and early 1960s, catastrophic famine seemed the likely destiny of many poor countries in Asia and Latin America. Today, outside Africa, famines are relatively unknown thanks to the super strains of wheat and rice that Borlaug developed.
Born of Norwegian immigrant farming stock in remote northern Iowa, he received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse. Most of his contemporaries did not even bother to complete high school, but Borlaug, endlessly curious and inquisitive, was different. He worked for 50 cents a day as a farm labourer to earn money to attend the University of Minnesota, where he studied forestry before taking a doctorate in plant pathology. The daily miseries and threat of starvation that faced the unemployed during the Great Depression in the heartland of supposedly rich America deeply influenced him, generating the interest in food production that would soon take over his life.
After working as a chemist at DuPont during the middle years of the War, in 1944 Borlaug joined the new programme set up by the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico – in part at the urging of the US government – aimed at securing food output in time of war. By 1949, Borlaug had achieved his first goal, of developing a strain of wheat resistant to the rust fungus that was devastating local crops, by collecting wheat varieties from around the world and crossbreeding them. The new wheat had higher yields, and as Mexico's peasant farmers started to adopt it, the country moved towards food self-sufficiency.
But the crucial breakthrough was yet to come. By now, scientists knew that chemical fertilisers could vastly increase wheat productivity; the problem was that the tall and slender stalks of conventional wheat could not support the weight of the improved grain, and fell to the ground, wrecking the crop.
So Borlaug began to experiment with a new strain, with a shorter and sturdier stem but which none the less still produced the larger seed heads. These new "dwarf" plants, he crossed with tropical wheats. When fertiliser was applied, their yield exploded. Thus was born the "green revolution" and its extraordinary paradox, whereby the smaller the plant, the greater the crop yield.
By 1960 wheat production in Mexico alone had multiplied sixfold since Borlaug started his work. Other countries facing the potentially deadly combination of soaring post-war populations and largely static farm output, clamoured for details. Nowhere was the formula more desperately needed, and more successful than the Indian subcontinent.
Where wheat led, rice quickly followed. First the Philippines, then China worked on semi-dwarf varieties of their most important staple food crop, and the results were equally impressive. Statistics alone measure the triumph of Borlaug's methods. In 1960, before his techniques were widely adopted, the world produced 692m tons of grain, for 2.7 billion people. By 1992, global output had tripled to 1.9bn tons, more than outpacing the growth in population over the period, to 1.9 billion tons for 5.6 billion people, and with the use of only one per cent more land. India and Pakistan are now basically self-sufficient in food. Only in Africa, where famines are still frequent, have his methods not made a similar impact – but for reasons linked less with technology than with a lack of infrastructure and political instability.
In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world," the committee's citation said. "We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace." Borlaug was working in a wheat field near Mexico City when his wife brought him word of the honour. "Someone's pulling your leg," was his first reaction.
But he would not remain everyone's hero for ever. A burgeoning environmentalist movement would bitterly complain that his methods used too much water and fertiliser and were creating ever graver ecological problems. Others argued that his techniques played into the hands of an evil, exploitative agro-industry. But Borlaug had scant time for such critics. Environmentalists, he maintained, were armchair elitists, who knew little or nothing of harsh hand-to-mouth life in the impoverished Third World.
Yes, organic farming sounded appealing; but the reality was that even maximalised it could feed a global population of only 4 billion, compared to today's 6.8 billion or so, and only then with the conversion of vast swathes of forest to farmland. "If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them," he once said. "Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertiliser. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive."
But the scientist who seemed to have disproved the bleak forecasts of Malthus was himself a Malthusian at heart. In the short term, Borlaug might have given the lie to predictions that the geometric growth of population would far outpace the arithmetical growth of food production, making famine a certainty.
But in the long run, he believed, human beings would exhaust the planet by their sheer numbers. "If the world population continues to increase at the same rate," he declared in the 1980s, "we will destroy the species." His achievements had bought time, but not a permanent solution.
Towards the end of his life, Borlaug was often described as one of the most important shapers of modern history that people had never heard of. In truth, his achievements were widely recognised, both in his own country and the world. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, he was one of a tiny group who had also won America's highest civilian honours, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The others in that super-select company are Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela. And in terms of catering to humanity's most basic, vital physical needs, Norman Borlaug did more than any of them.
Norman Ernest Borlaug, US plant scientist: born Saude, Iowa 25 March 1914; married 1938 Margaret Gibson (one son, one daughter); Nobel Peace Prize, 1970; US Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977; Congressional Gold Medal, 2007; died Dallas, Texas 12 September 2009.