The man who saved a billion lives

A fascinating detail from one of the many good, inspiring, and challenging obituaries of the Green Revolution’s pioneering crop scientist, Norman Borlaug. The Economist’s obit is also full of lovely details.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing. The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties. This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

from “Norman Borlaug, Father of a Crop Revolution, Dies at 95,” by Justin Gillis, The New York Times, 13 September 2009

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