The Epic Hero of History You’ve Never Heard of

The Epic Hero of History You’ve Never Heard of April 10, 2015

A reader sends along a encomium to him here.

My own praise for this great man is found in The Work of Mercy:

NORMAN BORLAUG IS NOT THE sort of name you think of when it
comes to world-historical heroism. A Norwegian Lutheran son of
Iowa, he grew up on the prairie, went to college during the
Depression, studied the thoroughly unglamorous subject of agriculture,
enjoyed wrestling, met his wife while waiting tables at a university
Dinkytown coffee shop where they both worked, and had three
kids. He never starred in a movie, never ran for office, never led men
into battle, and would not have been noticeable to you if you saw him
in the street.

Oh yeah, and he saved the lives of a billion people.

Norman Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution, an awesome
scientific undertaking of twentieth-century American agricultural
science that resulted in the breeding of fantastically fruitful
strains of food plants that kept the burgeoning population of the
world (especially the Third World) from starving to death. Almost
nobody has heard of him owing to the characteristic modesty of his
generation and cultural background, but without him we could well
be living in a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

That nightmare was sketched for us in 1968 by a self-anointed
prophet named Paul Ehrlich, who knew everything except what he
was talking about. In his book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich set the
pace still followed by our culture of death when he embraced the
Malthusian approach to the problem of feeding humanity by curling

up in a ball, proclaiming defeat, and saying with Scrooge, “If the poor
be like to die, they had better do it and help decrease the surplus population.”
As Ehrlich put it, “The battle to feed all of humanity is
over…. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will
starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
He added, “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who
thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971,” and “India
couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”
The prophet of doom didn’t reckon on Norman Borlaug, whose
new strains of plants produced enormous yields that doubled India’s
food production, made Mexico a grain exporter, and saved the lives
of a billion people throughout the world.

When Ehrlich dies, I sincerely hope that this apostle of defeat and
contraception will not hear the words spoken to the servant who hid
his one talent in the ground (see Matthew 25:14–30). But I am confident
that if anybody stands a good chance of hearing from Jesus “I
was hungry and you gave me food,” it will be Norman Borlaug, who
goes down in history, without any possible comparison, as the guy
who gave more food to the “least of these” than anybody who ever
lived. We can certainly pray with hope that when he died on
September 9, 2009, he heard (perhaps with the same surprise as the
sheep in the parable), “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the
kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”
(Matthew 25:34).

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  • Borlaug does get mentioned in both conservative and liberal media in the US. The conservative take on him is adulatory both in the story and comments with the liberal take being much more of a mixed bag and in the comments the knives come out.